The Great Depression came early to Montana, beginning in 1918 while the rest of the country thrived. Drought and reduced demand for agricultural products following World War I forced many farmers to default on wartime loans, causing widespread bank failure. Debilitating droughts continued to ravage Montana intermittently throughout the 1920s.
Hard times spread across the country in the 1930s. To alleviate the suffering experienced nationwide, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs established multiple agencies to jumpstart the economy and help the poor and unemployed. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed millions of people in improving and building a huge network of public roads, bridges, schools, civic buildings, and large-scale infrastructure projects.
WPA projects were wide-ranging. Workers built nearly ten thousand outhouses across rural Montana to improve sanitation and prevent the spread of infectious disease. In 1940, in Miles City, the WPA built Denton Field, a minor league baseball stadium still in use. While other New Deal agencies constructed the Fort Peck Dam, the WPA built the Swiss Chalet-style Fort Peck Theatre to entertain the community of dam workers and their families. Unchanged today, the theatre now houses Eastern Montana’s largest theater company.
The WPA also constructed sorely needed civic buildings, which communities otherwise would have been unable to afford. These architect-designed buildings balanced limited budgets, local needs and visual appeal with the WPA mission to employ unskilled workers. The Great Falls Civic Center’s clean lines and columned entryway typifies the resulting restrained WPA Moderne style.
World War II swept away the last vestiges of the Great Depression. Many Montanans entered military service while others worked to produce the resources, like crops, cattle, and copper, that supplied the Allied forces. Though the New Deal agencies were dissolved, Montana’s WPA projects successfully transformed Montana’s cities and small towns and live on as symbols of resilience in the face of hardship.