Now three years old, the WPA had embarked on and completed a wide array of projects. False starts such as the Florida ship canal and the occasional dry lake notwithstanding, there was much to be proud of. The agency had to its credit masterpieces small and large, from Art Project murals and structures built by hand of native stone and wood to the imposing array of art, craft, and architecture that was the Timberline Lodge.
But the largest component of the work program was, as Hopkins had pointed out, road building. WPA crews built and repaired roads and streets in cities, often joining works already under way. In San Francisco, for example, the majestic Golden Gate Bridge had been started with bond financing in 1933, prior to Roosevelt’s inauguration, but before it was completed and opened in May 1937, the WPA had contributed by building one of its approaches. The agency built new roads through remote areas, its workers living in field camps far from home. Its major aim from the beginning had been to improve the more than 2 million miles of dirt and gravel roads that were the main links between farms and market towns. The work, which included clearing right-of-way, digging and clearing drainage ditches, building culverts and small bridges, widening and scraping roads, and often resurfacing them with gravel or crushed stone made on the spot with rocks dug from the roadside, gave paying jobs to many farmers who for a variety of reasons could not force a cash income from their farms. One of these was Johnny Mills.
Mills lived in a one-industry county in the hardscrabble mountains of western North Carolina. That industry was paper, its one plant the Mead Paper Company factory in the Jackson County seat of Sylva. It spewed from its smokestacks a vile mixture that hung over the hills like thick white wool and smelled like rotten eggs. He had gone through the sixth grade in school and done odd jobs since. He met Shirley Shuler at her sister’s wedding party in 1936. He was a ropey five-nine with a head of jet-black hair, she was a brunette with a beautiful smile, and it was not long after the party that they started to talk of getting married. Mills was twenty-one but Shirley was only sixteen, which was why, when the day came—April 17, 1937—they had to drive the forty miles from Sylva across the state line to Clayton, Georgia, to get married. It was no spur-of-the-moment elopement, though. Shirley wore a blue silk dress and Mills a blue serge suit he’d bought for $16 at the Sylva Supply Company; Judge Frank A. Smith, the Clayton County ordinary, read the vows; and Shirley’s mother put on a wedding supper in their honor when they got back home.
They moved in with Shirley’s grandfather, a widower who needed help keeping up his ninety acres in the Willets community north of Sylva, on the way up Balsam Mountain. They ate what the cornfield and the garden and the chickens and hogs and a single milk cow produced; Shirley churned butter, canned vegetables, and preserved fruit, and Johnny continued to pick up the day work that bought the flour and shortening and coffee and sugar and lamp oil that the land could not provide. He hoed corn, he picked apples across the ridge at Barber’s orchard, he went into the woods and felled and hauled the blight-killed chestnut trees that the Mead Paper Company prized for making paper.
“I worked many a day for a dollar,” he said.
But the day work and the land together were not enough to give them a doctor’s care when Shirley got pregnant. As her delivery date in April 1938 approached, Mills needed a regular job, and there was only one prospect: the WPA. From their spot on the mountain, he could walk down to the road to pick up a bus or flag down a southbound train. The bus ride cost 20 cents and so did the train, so his preferred ride to town was one he could hitch for free aboard one of the log trucks hauling wood to “the Mead,” as locals called the paper factory. Sylva was a single long main street of stores crowned by the Jackson County courthouse atop a hill at the west end, with a parallel lower-level street behind the stores that ran alongside the railroad tracks and Scott’s Creek, a tributary of the Tuckaseigee River. The WPA office was on the main street.
Mills made the trip to town with some trepidation. He was a Republican. There were a number of them in the mountains of this southern state, descendants of the pro-Union strain that had survived since the Civil War in the areas of the South where there were no plantations and no slaves. As a Republican, he worried that the WPA would not be open to him. This was the way it worked with state jobs controlled by Democrats. He had seen the evidence the year before, when Roosevelt had passed through Sylva on his way from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Asheville, and the Democrats had shut the schools and county and town offices to line the streets with a show of election-year support. The president had gone straight through without stopping on a warm September day, waving from the open window of the car.
Hopkins himself had confronted this very fear in his first news conference back on the job in Washington after his convalescence. Reporters had greeted him with questions about the relief situation and politics in Pennsylvania, where charges were flying that WPA workers had been told their jobs depended on a certain way of voting.
“These things crop up every year at election time,” Hopkins said wearily. “I have said often before, and I repeat again that I do not care how these people on WPA vote. They can vote for anybody they please, and nobody will lose his job or be penalized in any way because he votes for this man or the other man. Furthermore, if any official of the WPA is found doing any funny business on political fronts…'he will be fired at once, and I do not have to ask anybody about whether I shall fire him or not. I do not intend to tolerate any political interference in the WPA.”
Apparently the Jackson County WPA supervisor, Cary Henson, had taken Hopkins’s words—and frequent memoranda to the same effect—to heart. “He was a good fellow,” said Mills. “He was a Democrat, but he wanted to be fair. He’d lived up in the mountains and he knew how it was. The politics didn’t matter to him.”
Mills was certified and put on a road crew. Like state highway departments across the nation, North Carolina’s had seized on the WPA to improve its road system, specifically those linking farms to market towns. In western North Carolina, as elsewhere, these roads were rarely paved and seldom even graveled; paving was reserved for federal highways and the state roads linking county seats. The rest—again reflecting the country as a whole—were descendants of horse tracks and wagon trails, widened over the years to meet the needs of motor vehicles but still likely to swim with mud during rainy seasons and harden into washboards of red clay when it was dry. Indeed, of the 351 miles of rural and secondary roads in Jackson County, less than half a mile was paved. Road work was not the WPA’s only focus in the county, where it had spent $175,000 through January 1937; the WPA sewing room in Sylva employed about twenty women; and a rich supply of native mica-flecked granite had gone into a school building in the Webster community and a gymnasium on the campus of Western Carolina Teachers College in Cullowhee, where two other WPA buildings were also on the drawing board. Still, here roads were the WPA’s primary work.
Mills began a routine that started at around four in the morning, in the darkness before dawn. He groped his way into his overalls, stumbled into the kitchen, where he lit a kerosene lamp and pulled on his boots, then plunged out the door into the chilly air, his lantern illuminating his path to the barn. Once he had milked the cow, he returned to the house, where Shirley was now up, frying eggs and making biscuits for their breakfast. Then he pulled on a coat, tugged his hat down, and took the lunch she had made—usually a sandwich of fried pork or chicken, more biscuits, and maybe a piece of pie or cake since she would rather bake than cook, all wrapped in wax paper or folded in a piece of flour sacking—and walked the mile down to the highway, where he waited for a state truck that would carry him and the other men on the road crew to the job site.
The day’s work varied with the roads and their condition. Specifications called for widening all roadbeds to twenty feet in anticipation of greater future traffic flow; in the mountains, where the roads often were cut out of steep hillsides, this meant digging away the embankments on the high side to gain width and dumping the dirt onto the low side to stabilize the roadway. “Shovels and wheelbarrows is what we used,” Mills said, “and we cleaned ditches out, and worked like that.”
Where graveling was called for, the men broke rocks and loaded them into trucks, and then unloaded the rocks into portable crushers that would reduce them to gravel. “A road hog crusher, it was called,” he remembered. “We dumped the rock there in that crusher and it come out with a man on either side, spreading that gravel on the road.” They would cover a section of the road and then move to another section and repeat the routine.
Certain levels of disability did not bar a man from working on a road crew, at least in western North Carolina. Shirley’s father, who had lost his left arm to blood poisoning from an infected cut, had learned to hoe a corn row with his right by rigging a metal loop to a leather belt that he wore outside his overalls and fixing the hoe handle in the loop. When Mills was assigned to a crew working on Yellow Mountain near Cashiers, a resort town about twenty miles from Sylva, he found his one-armed father-in-law distributing water from a milk can he carried on his hip to the men who were hauling rocks and spreading gravel.
Unlike the big-city road crews and the crews that worked out of camps assembled from a statewide labor force, Mills knew most of his fellow laborers. “There wasn’t hardly anybody in Jackson County you didn’t know,” he said.
The money he earned from the WPA—he recalled making about $44 a month, the rural rate for unskilled labor—paid for the doctor who attended Shirley when she gave birth. Patricia, their first child, was born without complications at home on April 8, 1938, with Sylva’s Dr. D. D. Hooper in attendance. Mills continued on the WPA for two more years, through the birth of their second child, joining road crews when new projects got the green light and stacking his shovel when they were waiting for approval.
Mills found it strange that some people were ashamed of working for the WPA, and that others criticized men like him as idlers: “When people talked about, you know, leaning on the shovel, well, we did a whole lot of work. And a whole lot of hard work. I guess there was some that thought you was on relief, but I know I was working for money when I was doing that. It wasn’t no different than no other job. You earned the money. You know, it was for the needy people. Good people, they can’t always help hard times, tough luck. I always figured I tried to make a living for my family. And it was a help to us.”