Clabe Wilson and the WPA

Leora and Clabe Wilson, Dexter, Iowa, July 22, 1934.

Leora and Clabe Wilson
Dexter, Iowa, July 22, 1934.
Photo courtesy: Joy Neal Kidney

My grandfather, Clabe Wilson, was an Iowa farmer. During the slump in farm prices after WWI, he lost his farm. Clabe, my grandmother Leora, and their seven kids ended up in the small town of Dexter. He hired out to work on farms, but as the Great Depression deepened, farmers couldn’t afford to pay for help.

In the summer of 1930, his daughter, Doris, was nearly 12. She spent her free time in the upstairs bedroom she shared with a younger sister, where she read and read in a wooden rocking chair, leaning against the open window to get a breeze that sultry summer. That was the year Dexter’s first public library–with 100 donated books–opened in Allen Percy’s law office.

By the next summer, Clabe got a job in Redfield at the brick and tile plant. But he had lost blood during an operation and was weak for months so couldn’t work much.

Main Street, Dexter, Iowa

Main Street, Dexter, Iowa
The top of the two-story building was removed and the materials reused to create a town library on the first floor
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

In 1933, because so many Americans were out of work, President Roosevelt’s New Deal was set up. Funds were granted to the states to operate relief programs to create new unskilled jobs. Such jobs were make-work programs to hire jobless men during the Great Depression. Yes, it was more expensive than to hand over welfare payments (called the “dole”), but men were embarrassed and ashamed by taking unearned money. They would rather earn it by working.

Clabe hated having to apply for a government relief job. At first he was turned down because he had two sons in the Navy. The two older boys had joined up because there was nothing for them to do in Iowa. They sent home $5 or $10 a month from their meager wages. Their mother said the money was a real godsend, that the coal they bought with it one winter kept them from freezing.

Dallas County News, Adel, Iowa, May 10, 1939

Dallas County News
Adel, Iowa, May 10, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesty Joy Neal Kidney

Clabe was finally hired by the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), doing roadwork. Later he worked sixteen hours a week for the WPA keeping the Dexter town pump oiled.

After 1934 the library was moved from Mr. Percy’s office to a room at the town hall. That fall Clabe and his daughter Doris spent late hours working on corn at the Dexter Canning Factory.

Doris graduated Dexter High School in 1936–the same year the library became tax supported and reorganized under Iowa library laws.

Dexter Town Library, Constructed by the WPA

Dexter Town Library
Constructed by the WPA
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

In 1939 a WPA project was approved to remove the second story of the building that had once housed the Chapler-Osborn Clinic. The men–including Clabe Wilson–were hired to reuse materials from the second story for a Library Hall, which included a library, and also a community room with a kitchen and dining area.  

Seven years later, Doris married my father, a Dallas County farmer who had volunteered for the Army Air Corps in WWII. In the early 1950s, they bought a farm south of Dexter. Their daughters regularly used the Dexter library. When I was in high school and needed more about the Bronte family for a term paper, a Dexter librarian introduced me to the wonder of ordering free books through the Iowa State Traveling Library.

Today, a bench commemorating the WW II service of Clabe Wilsons’ five sons sits right outside the same brick building their father worked on decades ago.

Commemorative WPA Plaque, Dexter Library

Commemorative WPA Plaque
Dexter Library
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

Bench outside the town library. In memory of the five Wilson brothers, who served in WWII.

Bench outside the town library
In memory of the five Wilson brothers, who served in WWII.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

Joy Neal Kidney is the keeper of family letters, pictures, combat records, telegrams, research, and casualty reports. Born to an Iowa farmer who became a pilot and flight instructor during WWII, and an Iowa waitress who lost three of her five brothers during that war, she spent her childhood in a farmhouse with a front porch on Old Creamery Road south of Dexter, Iowa. A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, she has published two genealogies as well as dozens of essays. She lives with her husband, a Vietnam veteran, in a house with a front porch in the suburbs of Des Moines. Her stories can be found at joynealkidney.com

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New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

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