The New Deal in Delaware County
By Amber Gray
In the early months of 1935, Delaware County was already six years into the Great Depression that began to rock the globe in 1929. Employment was hard to find with one in four Americans out of work, farms and businesses going under, and families in crisis. Despite numerous and oftentimes creative stopgap measures by public, private and municipal organizations, the Depression deepened, and suffering heightened through the end of President Herbert Hoover’s final term in office.
Yet, a glimmer of hope appeared in 1933 when newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration immediately went to work enacting its New Deal. The abrupt change in the elected administration’s political philosophy led to quick changes in the federal government’s approach to the economic crisis. As coordinated federal programs of the New Deal rolled out under its newly established agencies, unemployed, desperate Americans responded with patriotism and support for the programs that would help them get back on their feet once more and “address the singular – and vital – human need: the urgency of maintaining dignity.” 1
President Roosevelt’s New Deal was a multi-faceted approach to overcoming the economic depression, including not only direct emergency relief, but also the creation of such agencies as the Public Works Administration (PWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), Treasury Department, and Treasury Section of Fine Arts which had direct impacts on Delaware County. The New Deal’s importance went beyond the monetary value, spreading hope and mobilizing the population with modern infrastructure projects and culturally relevant arts programs that continue to have lasting effects today.
The New Deal’s programs reached Delaware County in 1934 and in five short years completed a staggering 16 projects across the county. 2 Local men on the county relief rolls were selected by the WPA to work on WPA projects within their communities, constituting a labor force of “primarily middle-aged to elderly men who were without a means of supporting their families.” 3 WPA projects, administered by the Temporary Emergency Relief Act (TERA) included the improvements at the State School of Agriculture (now SUNY Delhi), sidewalk and street improvements in Margaretville, creation of the Hancock golf course, and construction of a town highway garage in Walton.
Over eight decades later, county residents, visitors, and students continue to patronize these establishments, their utilitarian yet graceful architectural halls and greens providing employment and services for generations of rural Delaware County people.
The Public Works Administration’s (PWA) purpose, in part, was “to provide for the construction of certain useful public works,” 6 including schools. Funding provided through the program allowed for state and local governments to choose which projects to focus on and how to accomplish the building goals. In Delaware County, funds from the PWA were used to build nine centralized school district buildings which were sorely needed, as school districts continued to merge and become larger. The building projects helped to support the needs and demands of everyday people and their children, particularly those living in rural areas especially hard-hit by the Depression. New schools meant better equipped teachers and staff, which meant better prepared students, which meant a better educated future workforce, and so on. The PWA not only provided funds for functional, necessary infrastructure projects, its goal was to stimulate the economy by creating a demand for labor and construction goods, thereby improving the depressed economy. 3
Of the 13 school districts in Delaware County today, eight of them occupy buildings constructed with PWA funding including Andes (1937), Charlotte Valley (1939), Delaware Academy (1939), Downsville (1939), Margaretville (1939), Roxbury (1940), South Kortright (1939), and Walton (1936). Masonville’s (1941) school building still stands, but has been converted into the Delaware Regional Center after Masonville School District’s dissolution. 2 The surviving school buildings also offer a legacy of the WPA program: government-led free and reduced meals programs for students. 4
The architectural similarities of the New Deal schools of Delaware County include neat, square, brick exteriors that showcase Colonial Revival, or neoclassical, architecture. Popular across public works buildings of the New Deal era, this architecture is evident not only in the majority of the schools mentioned, but also the two New Deal Post Office buildings of Delhi and Walton. It has been proposed that “people may have craved traditional designs because they had been jolted away from a belief in progress and modernization by the Great Depression,” and “the appeal of the Colonial Revival was simply that it gave hope that America could survive.” 11 Today, nearly 100 years after the end of the PWA and WPA, Delaware County’s New Deal buildings continue to stand the tests of time, as they are updated and retrofitted to continue meeting the needs of county residents.
A Closer Look:
Delaware Academy (1939)
Set overlooking the village of Delhi, Delaware Academy rises grandly amongst its wooded mountainside where it was constructed with PWA funding in 1939 in response to the need for a larger school as faculty, staff, and student numbers increased. 8 The school’s final destination on the side of Mount Crawford was the latest chapter in a series of progressions around the village. The original 1821 Delaware Academy is presumed to have stood near where today’s New Deal Treasury Department-built Delhi Post Office stands on Courthouse Square, 9 which was succeeded around 1857 by the Delaware Academy and its associated boarding house on the side of Steele Brook. After the hillside construction of Delaware Academy in 1939, the previous buildings along Steele Brook were sold to their neighbor, the Delhi State School of Agriculture, who utilized the structures until their obsolescence and final demolition.
Designed by New York City-based architect Archibald F. Gilbert, 2, 10 Delaware Academy’s neoclassical style portrays stability and solid academics in its clean lines and classical facade centered by four white pillars and slate front steps, a stark opposite of the elaborate Sheldon Mansion demolished for the school’s footprint. 11 Delaware Academy is one of nine schools constructed under the New Deal’s PWA in Delaware County, and shares a striking resemblance with Andes, Charlotte Valley, and South Kortright Central Schools, and the now-closed Masonville 2 school. A commemoration ceremony was held for the laying of Delaware Academy’s cornerstone and time capsule on June 24, 1939. Guests of note included architect Gilbert; Andrew Weston, president of Andrew Weston Construction Corporation who built the school; and Paul A. Kelly of the Public Works Administration. 12
Improvement and construction of schools and support of education were critical programs of the expansive New Deal, as the progressive Roosevelt administration’s policies focused on building opportunity and justice for all. Through providing employment for citizens, New Deal programs provided opportunities for working-age individuals to build critical infrastructure and public works, as well as build the collective cultural stock of art and creativity that was meant to lift not only the economy, but the spirits of the men and women of America. Through prioritizing education projects, the PWA literally built the future, providing safe, functional and inspiring buildings that encouraged the advancement of education and betterment of American society through its youth. The schools were built to stand the tests of time, many of them still operational today.
A Closer Look:
State School of Agriculture
(present-day SUNY Delhi) (1939)
Across the river valley from Delaware Academy, the school’s former grounds were quickly absorbed by its one-time neighbor, the State School of Agriculture, which also saw New Deal improvements under the Works Progress Association (WPA). Such improvements included the construction of a farm mechanics and shop building, poultry house, cattle barn, and cottage. The milk house was repaired and enlarged, and the shop, homemaking buildings, and interior of the administration building were painted. 2 In comparison to the PWA, the WPA was focused on providing employment to those who were otherwise unemployed.
The extensive improvements to the school supported the farming economy of Delaware County and New York state, an industry that boasted nearly 3,400 dairy farms alone in 1930. 13 At a time when small, independent farms were the lifeblood of rural communities, the Roosevelt administration saw the importance of providing for the education and improvement of farmers and the farming industry. Furthermore, these improvements to Delhi’s State School directly supported the school’s initial mission, which was to retain young people within the area by promoting agricultural jobs. 14 Farmers were far from immune to the effects of the Great Depression, and the New Deal created numerous programs to support their education and the industry at large. 15
The construction and expansion of the State School of Agriculture’s facilities was just one piece of the national, progressive, interconnected view that the Roosevelt administration, including the Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, took into account. Along with projects such as that at Delhi, the New Deal also supported agriculture through projects such as the Soil Conservation Service and Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, and simultaneously through projects such as the Rural Electrification Act, today’s Delaware County Electric Cooperative. 2
The New Deal’s focus on post office buildings provided critical investments in the public buildings’ infrastructure nationwide. In Delaware County, two post offices were constructed by the United States Treasury Department, Delhi (1938) and Walton (1937), including a mural commissioned under the New Deal for Delhi’s building (1938). Post offices were not immune to the economic downturn of the Great Depression, seeing a large, negative impact on revenues early on in the period however, with New Deal investments, both direct and indirect, the post office quickly turned around to record revenues at “an all-time high” in 1940. 16
A Closer Look: Delhi Post Office (1938)
The Delhi Post Office is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having been built in 1938 by the New Deal’s Treasury Department. Designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, Louis A. Simon, the symmetrical building is tucked on a side street overlooking Courthouse Square in the village center. One of two post offices constructed in Delaware County by the treasury department, the Delhi Post Office is a Colonial Revival styled brick building topped with a copper clad gable roof and flat-topped cupola.2
A quietly striking structure, once inside the post office, reveals a powerful mural by artist Mary Earley. The piece, titled “Down-Rent War, Around 1845,” was created as part of the treasury department under the Treasury Section of Fine Arts New Deal Agency.2 Earley, originally from Missouri, attended school in New York City before traveling to Italy, Mexico, and Cuba where she studied frescoes, mosaics, and historic art and ruins. Settling into the artist community of Woodstock Earley painted two Catskills murals for the Treasury Section of Fine Arts during the New Deal programs. 17
Together, the post office and its mural are representative of the melding of fine arts and austere government architecture that signified many New Deal projects, “intended to lift the spirits of the people and give them a shared sense of community during the troubled times of the Great Depression.”2 In Delhi, this meant a simple, classical building for postal transactions opening to reveal a skilled mural representing Delaware County’s central part in the Anti-Rent War.
Roosevelt’s New Deal, after all, was not just about building functional public works buildings. It symbolized inspiring Americans to live to the fullest extent - exercising their freedoms to innovate, buck the status quo, and find their American Dream which he believed would lift the entire population out of the Great Depression. Earley’s mural memorializes the Delaware County farmers of 1845 as heroes fighting against the oppression of feudalism held over from colonial times, the fight a continuation of the American War for Independence and the fight for democracy which ultimately was a success. 18
Legacy of the New Deal
The legacy of the New Deal in Delaware County lives on as residents continue to utilize the public schools, post offices, and golf course and other public works projects that were made possible by Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies and funding. This small selection of tangible architectural projects is just a glimpse at how the New Deal impacted and continues to impact us today. Programs that we have come to rely upon include the Social Security Administration, the Rural Electrification Administration which brought electricity to our most rural of farms and homes, Fish & Wildlife Conservation Acts, repeal of Prohibition, and the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice among many others. These programs, while oftentimes under different names today, continue to grow with our society, changing to fit our dynamic nation. The New Deal modernized our nation, while carefully looking back and pulling in our heritage, pride, and ever-present American spirit into the policies and programs that were meant to bring much-needed and desired change for a better present and future.
For additional, detailed coverage and information about The New Deal and how it impacted Delaware County, visit Walton Reporter archives at The-Reporter.net/stories/the-new-deal,83771
1. Taylor, Nick. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. 2008.
2. The Living New Deal; livingnewdeal.org. Accessed 2022.
3. Speulda, Lou Ann. Rhoda Owen Lewis, contributor. “History of the CCC and WPA and other Depression-Era Programs in Region 6 of the USFWS.” Region 6: Historical and Architectural Assessment of the Depression Era Work Projects. 2003.
4. Georgia Historical Society. “Collection Highlights: WPA Nutritional Lunch Program.” georgiahistory.com/collection-highlights-wpa-nutritional-lunch-program. Accessed 2022.
5. SKCS Almedian. 1945. skcsyearbook.com/index.cgi?p=1945-008. Accessed 2022.
6. “Transcript of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933).” ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=66&page=transcript. Accessed 2022.
7. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. “Architecture During the Great Depression: A Study of Building Trends in Charlotte, N.C.” landmarkscommission.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Architecture-During-the-Great-Depression.pdf. Accessed 2022.
8. Jack, John W. Delaware County Historical Association: Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site. 2009. dcnyhistory.org/DAOld.html. Accessed 2022.
9. Eames, Sarah. “Delaware Academy to Celebrate Anniversary.” The Daily Star. 2019. thedailystar.com/news/local_news/delaware-academy-to-celebrate-anniversary/article_f6fc9c39-ae2e-53d5-87b9-5526d4c191d6.html. Accessed 2022.
10. Laverty, Bruce. “A. F. Gilbert: Architect.” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/1183092. Accessed 2022.
11. Ackerson, Sylvia. Delaware County Historical Association. “E. B. Sheldon Residence and Private Grounds, Delhi, NY.” 2004. dcnyhistory.org/delhi_sheldon_residence.html. Accessed 2022.
12. Delhi Historical Society. 2021. facebook.com/delhihistoricalsociety/photos/pcb.3933732606708344/3933729206708684. Accessed 2022.
13. Korba, Alyshia. “The State of Dairy in Delaware County.” The Reporter. 2021.
14. “History.” SUNY Delhi. delhi.edu/about/history/index.php. Accessed 2022.
15. Breimyer, Harold F. “Agricultural Philosophies and Policies in the New Deal.” Minnesota Law Review. 1984. scholarship.law.umn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2429&context=mlr. Accessed 2022.
16. Annual Report of the Postmaster General, fiscal year 1940.
17. askART. “Artist Biography & Facts: Mary Earley.” askart.com/artist/Mary_Earley/10015713/Mary_Earley.aspx. Accessed 2022.
18. Levine, David. “History of America’s Other Revolution: The Anti-Rent Wars.” 2015. Hudson Valley Magazine. hvmag.com/life-style/history/hudson-valley-anti-rent-wars. Accessed 2022.
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