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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

WPA aided America's health

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
History records that between 1830 and 1860, epidemics of typhoid fever and cholera claimed thousands of lives across America.

Between the epidemics, the third leading cause of death was amoebic dysentery and as a result of these scourges the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. Later research proved that most of the epidemics could be blamed on improper waste disposal allowing contaminated sewage into domestic water supplies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture finally recognized the problem and made efforts to educate the public. In spite of years of work and leaflets, the census showed that as late as 1920, over 25 percent of all U.S. farms still relied on contaminated water supplies, most poisoned by improperly placed outdoor toilets. This contamination plus the house-fly population spread disease quickly as few realized the danger.

Little headway was made to correct the problem until the Great Depression of 1930 to 1935. By 1933, 15 million people were unemployed and living at poverty level. Thousands roamed the highways and railroads of America pleading for work and food. There seemed to be no answer until the administration changed and the plight was addressed.

Among the many depression recovery programs conceived by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, was the Works Progress Administration or WPA. The combined results of these programs eventually brought national recovery and triggered prosperity for many years.

The scope and worth of the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, are legendary. They worked at huge projects throughout the United States leaving a heritage we still use today. However, one small aspect of the programs that will always remain foremost the minds of rural folks was the building of sanitary WPA toilets on private land throughout the nation.

Records show that more than 35,000 men and women were trained in carpentry to construct toilets, septic tanks and lay clay drainage lines for the public.

Those in need merely went to the WPA office, signed a request, paid $5 for materials. If you were broke, you signed another form and the government would pay the money needed. It was not a loan to be repaid.

Between 1933 and 1945, federally trained carpenters built 2,309,239 sanitary privies in America. Not only did the public benefit from improved hygiene and comfort, the carpenters earned weekly paychecks for their labor.

The greatest benefit of all, sanitary, fly-proof outhouses placed on improved locations halted the killer epidemics.
Old outhouse in Texas
An outhouse nearly obscured by bloodweed in the ghost town of Perry near Marlin

Photo courtesy George Lester
Sadly, as late as 2002, a survey showed that more than 670,000 homes in the U.S. still had no indoor plumbing. This problem will probably extend into the future.

Today, we elders both brag about how tough it was in our childhood days and complain about the cold, dark path, the smell and having to use the Monkey Ward catalog in the old outhouses.

We tell outhouse jokes and complain about the high cost of today's government programs. But, I'm here to tell you the outhouse building program of the WPA was one government program that was worth every penny spent.

Delbert Trew

"It's All Trew" Column
- May 8, 2006
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

See also:
Outhouses by Bob Bowman ("All Things Historical")
The resurgence of outhouses as historical landmarks in East Texas.
Revisiting Outhouses by Bob Bowman ("All Things Historical")
The only existing East Texas outhouse ever built by the old Work Projects Administration
 
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