The Lost Colony: See an FTP Musical in 2017

The Lost Colony: An FTP musical, alive and well. (Creative Commons.)

Most of us never saw an original production from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP). But we’re not completely out of luck. Every spring and summer, at North Carolina’s Waterside Theatre at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, audiences can attend a staging of The Lost Colony, a 1937 musical by Paul Green dramatizing the true story of 115 ill-fated English colonists struggling to survive in the land that would eventually become North Carolina. What ultimately happened to the so-called Roanoke colony, which lasted from 1585 to around 1590, remains a mystery to this day.

I went to a performance in August 2016—my first time seeing The Lost Colony—and it was fantastic, with plenty of action (including pyrotechnics), comic relief, and outstanding choreography. (I’m not too much of a song-and-dance person, but I was highly impressed with the musical numbers. In fact, they could have thrown in two or three additional dance sequences!)

In her 1940 book Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre, FTP Director Hallie Flanagan discussed how she, her staff, and WPA workers helped produce the musical: “It came true. The buildings were restored with assistance from the W.P.A. and other agencies, the play was written, the music composed, the actors and musicians assembled, the stage set, and on a July night in 1937, a thousand people gathered to see events re-enacted in the arena in which 350 years ago those events had actually taken place. Everyone watching seemed to feel a relationship to the theme… For three years, from July 4 through September 16, an average of a thousand people a week made a pilgrimage to see the play” (p. 111). What Flanagan did not know at the time was that The Lost Colony would run, with occasional changes from year to year, for another 80 years, a fact discussed in Susan Quinn’s Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (p. 283).

So, what are you waiting for? The 2017 season begins on Thursday, May 25th. Information on tickets, show times, and more can be found here.

Dacre F. Boulton: The Rediscovery of a New Deal Artist

Dacre F. Boulton, “Industrial” (1934), created for the U.S. Department of Labor. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

When I work on my blog, “New Deal of the Day,” I sometimes use New Deal artwork images available on the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Recently, I came across two paintings by Dacre F. Boulton. The first, “Winter,” is a great image for the frigid weather we’re currently experiencing in my home base, West Virginia. The second, “Industrial,” seems to be a powerful representation of the New Deal’s emphasis on work and infrastructure. And, interestingly, it shows an African American worker alongside white workers, perhaps indicating that the artist was well aware of the New Deal’s desire to extend job and relief opportunities to minorities – an effort which facilitated many integrated work sites across the country.

I couldn’t find much about Dacre Boulton on the Internet. The Smithsonian offers some information; for example, that he worked in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). But it also notes: “Little is known about the artist Dacre F. Boulton.” With a little more research however, I was able to locate his son, Dr. D’Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Dr. Boulton was kind enough to share some information about his father and his family, and what follows comes from his responses to several questions that I sent him in December 2016.

Dacre Fiennes Boulton was born on February 23, 1906, in Russell, Manitoba (Canada) to D’Arcy Boulton IV and Georgina Boswell Barrett-Lennard. Young Dacre was born into a family of farmers, but also lawyers, politicians, and military officers. But he bucked the family tradition and pursued his interest in art. With his father’s support, not long after completing his general education at a boarding school in Winnipeg in 1924, Dacre began his studies of art at Washington University in St. Louis, and went on to complete them at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia around 1928. Unfortunately for Boulton, graduation coincided with the first years of one of the worst economic catastrophes in world history – the Great Depression.

Dacre F. Boulton, “Winter” (1934), painted for the U.S. Department of Labor. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

During his studies, Boulton had been financially aided by scholarships (which also allowed him to visit museums in Europe); but after graduation from the Academy he must have had some difficulty finding a job that would pay him enough money to be self-sufficient. This was a problem shared by thousands of artists across the country. So, responding to the crisis, federal policymakers created the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of several New Deal programs devoted solely to the arts. The PWAP “was set up under the Treasury Department for supervision, as one of the agencies to extend relief to the professional class, its object being to employ artists who were unemployed in the decoration of public buildings and parks” (Final Report of the PWAP, 1934, p. 1).

For Boulton, the PWAP must have been a godsend, and perhaps an unforeseen one, since it was “the first federal government program to support the arts nationally.” Indeed, shortly after the PWAP ended (and shortly before an even larger federal initiative would begin) Jacob Baker—a high-ranking official in the various New Deal work-relief agencies—wrote in the New York Times, “For the first time in our history, our government has become a patron of the arts, officially and quite unashamed” (“Work Relief: The Program Broadens,” November 11, 1934). Dacre Boulton’s son reflects, “I know that he depended entirely on the money he received from [the PWAP] after his graduation.” And he also recalls that his father “was very grateful to Roosevelt and his administration for establishing the [PWAP], and always spoke highly of the whole project” (email correspondence with Dr. D’Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton, December 2016).

Of course, the PWAP was not a one-way street. For a small investment of public funds (about $23 million in today’s dollars), the artists on the project created a great body of work: 3,749 artists produced 15,663 works of art, brightening up public places all across the country. Boulton created at least two of the artworks, the aforementioned “Winter” and “Industrial.” The former “was included in the 1934 exhibit of works created by PWAP artists held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.”

After the PWAP ended in May 1934, it would be nearly a year and a half before similar programs were created for artists who needed a helping hand: The Treasury Relief Art Project and the WPA’s much larger Federal Art Project, both created in late 1935. But it would be too long of a wait for Boulton, so he returned to Canada to put his talents into high gear. He subsequently enjoyed a very successful career as a commercial artist (at one point, his artwork could be seen in supermarkets all across Canada), and even worked as an artist in the Canadian Army during World War II.

As we know, New Deal policymakers and Congressional lawmakers sometimes showed hesitancy in creating and funding work-relief programs. This is part of the reason we see gaps in time between some New Deal programs, and rapid increases and decreases in employment in programs like the WPA. This hesitancy may have cost America a fine artist in Dacre F. Boulton.

Boulton died in Toronto, on May 26, 1984. He is remembered by his son as a generous and supportive father – two traits he inherited from his own father, D’Arcy Boulton IV. And perhaps, though we may never know for sure, his brief experience in the New Deal served to reinforce his already-existing tendencies towards service and generosity.

New Deal Smiles

Jesus Campos, National Youth Administration worker from Puerto RicoIf you read the news with any regularity, you know that many working Americans are fed up. They’re fed up with stagnant wages, oppressive student loan debt, and trade deals that whittle away at their economic well-being. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right.”

Currently, I’m performing research for The Living New Deal at the National Archives in Washington, DC. We have a number of goals in this research, such as finding more infrastructure projects for states and territories that are underrepresented on the LND map. But one thing that has caught my attention, and which has nothing to do with our research goals (or perhaps, everything to do with them), are the smiles I’m finding in the New Deal photograph collections – a Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker receiving his paycheck, a young Puerto Rican man happy to have a job in the National Youth Administration (NYA), a woman training to be an airplane mechanic, an “army” of young girls running and smiling in an NYA summer camp, a boisterous and happy group of men in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and so on.

Young woman training to be an airplane mechanic, National Youth Administration program, West VirginiaI believe these smiles are representative of something that was present during the New Deal but is largely absent today: A feeling among the downtrodden that the government was truly on their side. During the Great Depression, millions of Americans cried out for jobs and New Deal policymakers answered the call by creating millions of job opportunities in programs like the CCC, NYA, and WPA. That’s responsive public policy: a government for the people. Now, compare that to modern times, when recent research indicates “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” This apparent dismissal of the needs of average citizens might help explain why the 21st Century WPA Act died so quickly in 2011 and why a CCC-like program for unemployed veterans was swatted down in 2012, despite the high unemployment during the years of the Great Recession, 2009-12.

Yes, I think I know why I’m seeing more smiles in the New Deal photograph collections at the National Archives than what I’m seeing in America today.

 -Brent McKee


The Making of a WPA Inventory

The New Deal cared a lot about books--producing, consuming, maintaining them.

The New Deal cared a lot about books–producing, consuming, maintaining them.  SourceWordPress, 2010

I recently completed a new project for the Living New Deal: a list of about 1,500 writings, created between 1935 and 1943, by the Federal Writers’ Project and the WPA Writers’ Program. The writings include both published and unpublished items, and the titles came primarily from two sources: a list compiled by a Florida book seller in the 1970s and a list created by a private firm working in collaboration with the Library of Congress in 1987. Our list, which also includes contemporary scholarship, is organized alphabetically—by state and then by title—and uses a similar (but even more basic) style as the sources listed above. The goal was to make it reader friendly.


I learned two things while I was working on this project. First, creating an inventory of 1,500 writings is somewhere between less-than-fun and merciless torture. The second thing I learned is that the writers of the WPA wrote on a stunning variety of topics – even more topics than I had thought. We’re all familiar with the popular American Guide Series, detailing attractions and history in all states and select cities. But consider some of these other titles, which speak to local interests and idiosyncrasies: National Guard of Wyoming, Wisconsin Circus Lore, Churches of Roanoke, Baseball in Old Chicago, Recreational Activities: Christmas Tree Ornaments, Winter Hikes, Air Raid Warden’s Manual, Seminole Indian Canoes, and Gumbo Ya Ya.


And, really, this list has plenty of room to grow. For example, we could add research reports by WPA workers (traffic studies, disease studies, hydrographic surveys, etc.); books transcribed into Braille by WPA workers; or inventories of church records created by the WPA’s Historical Records Survey to name a few. Or our list could evolve into a larger “New Deal Inventory” that would include reports and writings by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and more. How large could such a list grow? 3,000 items? 4,000? 10,000? Perhaps one day we’ll have a list of every report, publication, manuscript, bulletin, and inventory made by FDR’s alphabet soup of agencies. Check out what we already have in our Bibliography.

The CCC and the Battle of Droop Mountain

Reenacting the Battle of Droop Mountain, courtesy of the CCC.

Reenacting the Battle of Droop Mountain, courtesy of the CCC. Brent McKee, 2015

The afternoon started out fairly quietly, other than a young boy occasionally shouting, “Newspapers for sale! Read all about it!” Then, a little after 1:00pm, a canon shot thundered out, startling the onlookers and marking the beginning of the battle. For the next half-hour, Union and Confederate bullets tore through the air as the Yankees tried to dislodge the Rebels from their mountaintop position. And when the last clouds of smoke lifted off the field, and the Rebel Yell could be heard no more, the wounded on both sides began to move; while many more lay still.


And I witnessed it all at the reenactment of the Battle of Droop Mountain, held at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, in southeastern West Virginia, this past Sunday, October 11, 2015. A good-sized crowd of spectators and actors enjoyed a gorgeous fall day with clear blue skies and a temperature of around 70 degrees. But many of them probably did not know that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a large role in preserving this historical site.


The Battle of Droop Mountain occurred on November 6, 1863. It “represented Civil War in its truest… form. The heaviest fight occurred on the left flank where former neighbors in the 10th West Virginia and 19th Virginia met in the closest combat. While one brother fought against the Confederates on the left flank, another with the 22nd Virginia defended the right.” Casualties were about 119 Union and 275 Confederate. 72 years later, young men in the CCC came to the battlefield to preserve the history and to create a park. According to the West Virginia Department of Commerce, “Camp Price was established in 1935 on Droop Mountain at the site of the 1863 Civil War battle. During two short years Camp Price enrollees reclaimed the battlefield [presumably by removing trees and undergrowth], planted trees, constructed cabins and the lookout tower and developed the picnic areas; most of the existing current park buildings are CCC constructed buildings… One rental cabin built by the enrollees is a Civil War Museum and also houses some CCC artifacts.”


Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park is just one of many examples of New Deal efforts to preserve Civil War history. Others projects included repair & restoration work at Antietam National Battlefield, Gettysburg National Military Park, the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, and Fort Frederick, which also has history dating back to the French & Indian War. And these New Deal investments greatly benefit us today, highlighted by Civil War reenactments, history tourism, and preserved artifacts.


So get out there and enjoy your Civil War History, courtesy of the New Deal.



Austerity or a New Deal for Puerto Rico?

New Deal money at work, providing medical services.

New Deal money at work, providing medical services.

The unemployment rate for Puerto Rico is currently 12.6%. The island is also $72 billion in debt. And Republicans in Congress are opposed to providing the territory with the same type of bankruptcy protections that are available to the states. To address Puerto Rico’s economic problems, some officials and analysts have been promoting austerity measures—for example, reduced college funding, weaker labor laws, lower health care expenditures, teacher layoffs, and higher sales tax. The adoption of these austerity recommendations will disproportionately burden the middle-class and poor. And so we might ask: Is there an alternative approach to the island’s economic problems?


Precedent exists. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Puerto Rico was rocked by the Great Depression and two devastating hurricanes that destroyed many of the island’s buildings and homes. Its economy was left in tatters. New Deal policymakers addressed these problems by increasing food assistance, enhancing medical services, employing the jobless, and building up infrastructure.

New Deal workers dig a water line in San Juan.

New Deal workers dig a water line in San Juan.

Indeed, the contrast between the New Deal approach and the austerity approach could not be more astounding. Starting in 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided funding for new schools, new hospitals, new infrastructure, and public works jobs for the unemployed. Later, the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (RA) did the same, and for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) hired thousands of Puerto Rican men to plant trees, reduce erosion, and build fish hatcheries. The National Youth Administration (NYA) helped hundreds of young men and women complete their high school and college education. The Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put many thousands to work building roads, improving airports, and bolstering national defense. In 1936, the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation provided Puerto Ricans with 970 tons of flour, 440 tons of rolled oats, 25 tons of dried beans, 105 tons of onions, 90 tons of dried peas, and 150 tons of dried prunes. During fiscal year 1940 it provided about 428 tons of food to school lunch programs, feeding tens of thousands of children.


New Deal assistance & investment improved the quality of life for Puerto Ricans for many decades after the New Deal. It’s an important historical lesson, and it’s worth considering today.


Facts & figures from: (1) Second Report of the Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Administration, from September 1, 1934, to September 30, 1935 and Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for Puerto Rico, from October 1, 1935, to June 30, 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939. (2) “Facts about the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration,” New Deal Network,, accessed July 22, 2015. (3) Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981. (4) Federal Security Agency – War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944. (5) Public Works Administration, America Builds: The Record of PWA, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939. (6) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946. (7) Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, Report of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation for the Calendar Year 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937. (8) Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, Report of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation for the Calendar Year 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940.



America’s Infrastructure Gets a D+

Cumberland, Maryland

WPA workers constructing a sidewalk, 1937
Cumberland, Maryland

If there ever was a time to invest in a New New Deal, this is it. Our airports, roads, bridges, dams, parks, schools, and water lines are falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers annually issues a report card on the condition of our nation’s infrastructure. This year the nation’s engineers gave America a D+.

They estimate it will take $3.6 trillion for America to rebuild. Meanwhile, 26 million Americans who would like a full-time job can’t find one. During the Great Depression, Americans invested in work and construction programs that built much of the infrastructure we depend on today. Now America’s infrastructure investment barely makes the grade:

Aviation: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that the national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012.” Grade: D

Skagit River, Washington

Recent bridge collapse on I-5
Skagit River, Washington

Bridges: “…one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient…” Grade: C+

Dams: “The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams.” Grade: D

Drinking Water: “There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.” Grade: D

Levees: “Many levees were originally used to protect farmland from flooding and now are increasingly protecting developed communities. The reliability of these levees is unknown in many cases, and public safety remains at risk from these aging structures.” Grade: D-

Parks and Recreation: Park and recreation “activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs. Yet states and localities struggle to provide these benefits amid flat and declining budgets.” Grade: C-

Roads: “Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.” Grade: D

Schools: “Public school enrollment is projected to gradually increase through 2019, yet state and local school construction funding continues to decline.” Grade: D

Susan Ives contributed to this article.