A New Deal for Dalhart: Reviving a Rural Texas Town

Dust clouds over Dalhart, 1936

Dust clouds over Dalhart, 1936
During the Great Depression, winds swept away parched topsoil, dooming farms, businesses and the national bank in Dalhart. Photographer unknown. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

“The thirties began in economic depression and in drought. The first of these disasters usually gets all the attention, although for many Americans living on farms, drought was the more serious problem,” Donald Worster wrote in his 1979 Bancroft Prize-winning chronicle, Dust Bowl. This could not be truer than in Dalhart, Texas, the epicenter of the Dust Bowl.  

Born at the turn of the 20th century as an important railroad crossing in the northwest corner of the Texas Panhandle, Dalhart became a prosperous agricultural community, home to the XIT Ranch, then the largest cattle ranch in the world. But by the 1930s, extreme drought combined with the region’s notorious wind led to the soil erosion that ultimately devastated the town’s agricultural industry.

Abandoned farm near Dalhart, Texas

Abandoned farm near Dalhart, Texas
Photo by Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration, 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Things began to turn around in 1934 with the emergence of the New Deal, when the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service chose Dalhart, the county seat, for one of the nation’s first erosion-control demonstration projects—the first to focus solely on wind erosion.

Initially manned by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, these rehabilitation projects restored grasslands in areas not suitable for farming and introduced new methods of moisture retention, such as terracing, crop rotations and contour plowing. The success of the projects combined with new federal loan programs incentivized farmers to adopt the new practices, which boosted the local economy and popularized conservation practices. By 1936, more than 40,000 farmers throughout the region had adopted the new methods, accounting for more than 5.5 million acres of contour-listed conservation.

The drought committee from the Soil Conservation Service surveys sand dunes just a few miles north of Dalhart.
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration, 1936. Courtesy, The New York Public Library.

These restoration programs revived the agricultural economy of Dallam County, today one of the largest agricultural producing counties in Texas by value, with the city of Dalhart serving as an agribusiness hub for a region stretching across five states.

The impact of the New Deal didn’t stop at the agricultural revival of Dalhart’s farmlands. The destruction caused by the Dust Bowl also meant the city itself needed rehabilitation assistance. The WPA was responsible for damming the Rita Blanca Lake (now a city-owned recreation site), paving downtown streets, constructing underpasses to accommodate vehicle and rail traffic and building Dalhart’s downtown post office, today owned by Vingo Vineyards Winery.

Vintage Postcard, Dalhart, Texas Post Office

Vintage Postcard, Dalhart, Texas Post Office
The former Dalhart, Texas post office building was constructed with federal Treasury Department funds in 1934.

Dalhart owes much of its mid-century revival to the New Deal and the impact of the Soil Conservation Service. Today, the City is committed to historic preservation efforts, many of which highlight the New Deal-era. Restoring Dalhart’s historic downtown has become a priority.  

Paved with bricks laid by WPA workers, Denrock Avenue is lined with historic storefront buildings that, like the city itself, withstood the hardest of times. Restoring and preserving this history is part and parcel of the vision for the city’s future as a destination for visitors, a vibrant commercial center and a source of pride for Dalhart’s resilient residents. 

WATCH: Dalhart Dust Storm
Newsreel footage reveals the devastation of soil erosion and dust storms to the town and farms around the panhandle town of Dalhart,1930s. Courtesy, Texas Archive.org

Bryce Jones is the Community Development Manager for the City of Dalhart, Texas. In his role, he is focused on downtown development and historic preservation.

Favorite New Deal Site

Tell Us About Your Favorite New Deal Site

Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to [email protected]. Thanks!

An East Texas Treasure

CCC men at Caddo Lake State Park. Courtesy, NARA.

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived at Caddo Lake State Park, a maze of sloughs, bayous and backwaters in Uncertain, Texas, hard by the Louisiana border. Beset by mud, mosquitoes and local political bickering, the men dredged the lake, built roads and trails and constructed the entrances, pavilion, shelters, cabins and campsites using materials harvested from the surrounding parkland. My father took me there on my first fishing trip six or seven years later. We met our guide near the lake. He steered our rowboat through giant bald cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. The sun was visible only briefly at noon. I came equipped with a cane pole and a bobber. I don’t remember catching any fish that day, but seventy-five years later, Caddo Lake State Park is still my favorite New Deal site.
— Milton Jordan, Georgetown, Texas

Eola School (former) Addition – Eola TX

The original Eola School was built in 1928. In 1939, a five-room addition, a gym/auditorium, a rock wall, and two water towers were added with the help of Work Projects Administration (WPA) funds and labor. In 1983, the school closed. In 2005 the school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is currently the Eola School Restaurant and Brewery.

The five-room addition was added to the west side of the original building. It is constructed of rough faced limestone with brick trim. The gym/auditorium extends off the rear or north side. It is spanned by a barrel vault with brick buttresses along the east and west sides. The low limestone wall surrounds the entire property. There are two concrete water tanks.

The Work Projects Administration (WPA) project, as part of a larger uncompleted project: “The 1940 addition was financed with federal and local funds–$60,000 Work Projects Administration (WPA) funds and $15,000 Eola School District funds. The project started October 24, 1939 and was completed October 5, 1940. WPA records specify the construction of a secondary school, gymnasium and 22,119 gallon concrete water storage tank. The secondary school was to be attached to the west end of the existing building. The playground would be enclosed with a rock fence. The August 25, 1940 San Angelo Standard-Times announced the opening of school on September 5 and stated the new gym, 3 classrooms, a library-study hall and rest rooms were finished.”

Located in a west Texas rural farm community, the Eola School was built in two phases. The first section, a stucco building housing classrooms and an auditorium, was constructed in 1928. A 1939 WPA addition substantially enlarged the school by adding three rooms and a limestone and brick barrel vault gymnasium. WPA work also included a 3.5-foot tall limestone wall around the property and two concrete water tanks. The Eola School closed in 1983. As of 2016 the building houses the Eola School Restaurant.

Eola is 18 miles east of San Angelo, Texas. The Eola School is located southeast of the intersection of FM 381 and FM 765, bounded by FM 381 on the west and a rock wall on the north, east, and south.

“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms in Fort Worth, Texas

Women at work in a WPA sewing room.

WPA Sewing Room
Women at work in a WPA sewing room.

For most people, the name WPA brings to mind images of men laboring on highway projects and building parks and schools, but during the Depression, women, too, were heads of households and in need of employment.  Work programs for women were first established in 1933 through the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later came under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some women were placed in clerical jobs or worked as librarians, others went to work canning, gardening, and sewing. Nationally, some 7 percent of WPA workers were women engaged in sewing projects. Sewing rooms could be found in rural areas and large cities alike.

In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, the first sewing room opened in 1935. Later, separate sewing rooms were created for white and African American women. Job training was provided. Illiterate women received basic educational instruction. Starting pay was $35 a month for 140 hours work. The federal government paid for salaries, with the city and county paying a percentage of expenses. All the items produced stayed in Tarrant County.

Fort Worth, Texas A WPA Sewing Room operated here from 1939-1941.

The Parker-Browne Company Building
Fort Worth, Texas
A WPA Sewing Room operated here from 1939-1941.

The Fort Worth seamstresses took great pride in their work, proclaiming that the initials “WPA” stood for “We Patch Anything.” They repaired used clothing and created new garments, for which each woman was responsible from beginning to end. Each item included a WPA label with the inscription “Not to be sold.” The finished items were sent to the surplus commodities depot to be distributed to needy individuals—sometimes the women themselves—on the order of city and county welfare workers.

The worker’s average output was two and a half garments a day (not including trim), and included men’s trousers, boys’ coveralls, baby clothes, and diapers. So as not to stigmatize those who were issued WPA clothing, great care was taken to create unique designs. A special department altered stock patterns. The local newspaper noted that one pattern could be used for fifty dresses, yet no two would look alike.

By 1940, Fort Worth’s sewing rooms employed 650 women ranging in age from 35 to 64. The work month had been shortened to 130 hours but pay had increased to $46.80. The sewing rooms in Fort Worth reportedly produced 2,341,369 garments and 130,408 household articles.

As the United States geared up for World War II, many women found better paying jobs in the defense industries. The WPA sewing rooms were disbanded in 1941, ending a successful and popular program that gave women not only the means to provide for themselves and their families, but also skills, camaraderie, and a sense of self worth.

Susan Allen Kline is an independent historian who specializes in the preparation of nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. She is a Living New Deal research associate based in Fort Worth, Texas.