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The Indy Issue from Friday March 12, 2021

 

 

Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

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When we hear familiar words such as: settlers, frontiersman, wagons, and natives, images of the American West come to mind. Beautiful landscapes with red rock or rolling plains will seem appropriate to associate with those words. What may not come to mind is the country of Canada. But much like our American West, Canada was also explored and inhabited by native tribes and, eventually, European explorers. The wife of an emigrant British officer, Catharine Parr Traill was one of these first European explorers. She chronicled her harrowing travel from the port of Greenock, Scotland to the large Canadian island of Newfoundland and from there to the established town of Peterborough. The entire trip and settlement lasted from July 18, 1832 to May 1, 1833. Her letters go into great detail about the various meetings with natives and methods of survival required to successfully settle the wild Canadian backwoods. Several events that exemplify Catharine Traill’s hardships include the loss of a yoke of cattle, learning to duck hunt, surviving a woods hurricane, dealing with the unbelievable number of insects, and, of course, the process of designing and building of a log home to house her family. She describes her journey with great detail and enthusiasm; she’s constantly enamored by the new methods of collecting food or interesting species of animal that lives in the forest. In this letter she encounters a furry creature that many of us are all too familiar with,

 

“THIS has been a busy spring with us. First, sugar-making on a larger scale than our first attempt was, and since that we had workmen making considerable addition to our house; we have built a large and convenient kitchen, taking the former one for a bedroom; the root-house and dairy are nearly completed. We have a well of excellent water close beside the door, and a fine frame-barn was finished this week, which includes a good granary and stable, with a place for my poultry, in which I take great delight.

 

Besides a fine brood of fowls, the produce of two hens and a cock, or rooster, as the Yankees term that bird, I have some ducks, and am to have turkeys and geese this summer. I lost several of my best fowls, not by the hawk but a horrid beast of the same nature as our polecat, called here a scunck; it is far more destructive in its nature than either fox or the hawk, for he comes like a thief in the night and invades the perch, leaving headless mementos of his barbarity and blood-thirsty propensities…”

 

This, being her final letter in the series, provides us with a glimpse of her completely settled and enjoyable farm life. She ends the letter to one of her friends with a description of the fantastic light show that is the Aurora Borealis,

 

“Coming home one night last Christmas from the house of a friend, I was struck by a splendid pillar of pale greenish light in the west: it rose to some height above the dark line of pines that crowned the opposite shores of the Otanabee, and illumined the heavens on either side with a chaste pure light, such as the moon gives in her rise and setting; it was not quite pyramidical, though much broader at the base than at its highest point; it gradually faded, till a faint white glimmering light alone marked where its place had been, and even that disappeared after some half-hour's time. It was so fair and lovely a vision I was grieved when it vanished into thin air, and could have cheated fancy into the belief that it was the robe of some bright visitor from another and a better world;—imagination apart, could it be a phosphoric exhalation from some of our many swamps or inland lakes, or was it at all connected with the aurora that is so frequently seen in our skies?

 

I must now close this epistle; I have many letters to prepare for friends, to whom I can only write when I have the opportunity of free conveyance, the inland postage being very high; and you must not only pay for all you receive but all you send to and from New York.

 

Adieu, my kindest and best of friends.

 

Douro, May 1st, 1833.”

 

(Transcribed by Project Gutenberg)