The deprivations of the Great Depression continue to influence those born decades and decades after that very desperate time. I trace my penny pinching habits back to my grandparents, who passed along recipes, traditions, and an ingrained sense of frugality to their offspring. The programs implemented by President Roosevelt, most notably the Works Progress Administration (WPA), imprinted onto the Kentucky landscape just as my parent’s established customs imprinted on me. All across the Commonwealth, vestiges of the WPA still stand.
During a few months of work in Eastern Kentucky in 2015 and 2016, I kept encountering these gorgeous former school buildings, constructed of native stone by WPA workers. One that particularly caught my interest (and was close enough to the road for me to photograph), is the Swampton School, located in Magoffin County.
Churches and schools appear with great frequency on historic topographic maps, but usually I must be content with my photograph, and what I might be able to find in the Goodman-Paxton Collection at the University of Kentucky. But luck favored me in the form of a 2014 article written about the WPA and the New Deal by Randall Risner for the Salyersville Independent newspaper. So naturally I tracked down Mr. Risner and called him.
Not only did Risner provide a thorough overview of the impact of New Deal programs in Magoffin County, which “put an average of $250 in the hands of every Magoffin Countian, a nice tidy sum during the Great Depression,” he has a personal connection to several of these stone schools.
There were three one-room WPA schools constructed along Puncheon Creek and its branches in Magoffin County: Swampton, Ivyton, and Gypsy schools. Both of Risner’s grandfathers, Leslie Risner and Linville Marshall, worked on the construction of these stone schools.
They weren’t stone masons – a stone mason was paid $1 per stone, while laborers were paid $1 per day – but their work was invaluable in ensuring the success of the projects. His grandfathers helped quarry the stone and mix the mortar for the school buildings, and also worked on the construction of some railroad tunnels in the area.
Risner attended the WPA-built Gypsy School until he was in the third grade. Gypsy School sits about 100 feet from a stone quarry, meaning the stones that formed the building were very local. Grades one through eight were all together in these one room schools, and students learned at their own pace. According to Risner, who went from a one-room school to the new and improved modern, consolidated school, the main difference between the two was the the lack of personalized attention in the consolidated schools.
In the small space of the one-room school, where the teacher got to know the students well (numbers vary, but two-room schools often had 20-30 students at the most, so perhaps a dozen students attended one-room schools), the teacher could easily adjust to each student’s skill level.
There were more differences of course- although the WPA schools were well-built, solid, and full of natural light, they lacked some of the conveniences students today take for granted. Mr. Whitaker, the last teacher at Gypsy School before it closed, would pay a student 10 cents a day to build a fire one hour before school started for the day.
I don’t imagine that fire heated up the rooms the same way as a central heating system!
These WPA schools were “the first steps into the modern world for Appalachia,” said Risner, who learned from his family the countless ways that the WPA programs impacted Magoffin County during the Great Depression and afterwards. “Each one (the New Deal and its associated programs) affected us in positive ways .”
Not only did these handsome stone buildings provide up-to-date facilities for students, but they provided work, income, and a welcome sense of purpose during some lean years. Both Swampton School and Gypsy School have been adapted into single-family homes, while Ivyton School stands in near ruins near the Dawkins Line Rail Trail. Risner hopes that Ivyton School will be rescued as as well, and used as a facility along the trail.
We’re not likely to see programs like the WPA again in this country – our work force has changed, and government has certainly changed. But too few people, I fear, stop to consider the story and significance of these stone school buildings, and hundreds of other WPA projects across Kentucky. Leslie Risner and Linville Marshall recognized the benefits of the New Deal, and passed that along to their grandson, just as my parents passed along the habits learned from their Depression-era parents to my siblings and me. The landscape around us is full of stories that can educate the viewers in so many ways, if only we stop to look.