WPA: Fritchburg to the Ol’ Buzzard

The Backstory

About six weeks ago we went with friends to relax and unwind in a rented cabin up in DeKalb County. That’s near Fort Payne and Collinsville, where we’d never been (although we do know a former mayor of Fort Payne). We stayed on Lookout Mountain in one of the Bear Creek Cabins (highly recommend – affordable, lovely, plus hot tub!). While up there, we checked out the amazingly vast Collinsville Trade Day, where folks sell everything from snow cones to horses. On the way home from our vacation, we checked out some of the local junk antique shops. We’d been told not to miss a place called “Ol’ Buzzard.” When we found the place (it’s not on the Internet, so you’ll just have to go drive around Fort Payne ’till you find it), we discovered that the shop was in fact named after its proprietor. Who was in the process of moving a giant and very valuable antique piano into his shop, along with lots of local muscle.

The Sign

The Ol’ Buzzard’s collection was large and interesting, but one thing really leapt out at us: a WPA job site sign with the job number stenciled on the front. It stood out to us as an important part of American history, a symbol of a “can do” national attitude. This was clearly original, a little beaten up but intact. For some reason, it had been mounted on cardboard. It was a steal for just $10, we figured, so we paid the Ol’ Buzzard and took it home.

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The Works Progress Administration was one of the most ambitious and successful initiatives of the New Deal, employing millions of people to conduct public works projects ranging from construction to collecting oral history. There were a number of projects in Alabama, including the Birmingham Zoo and the Athens post office. We’re big fans of the WPA – it nurtured amazing artists and produced innumerable cultural and social treasures.

The Search

Of course, before we hung our sign up in our house, we wanted to know the origins of our sign. We assumed it would be easy to just type the job number into Google and get information. No such luck – there’s no master list of WPA job site numbers on the Internet. We read through hundreds of pages on online materials including project records and maps, hoping to find the place where our sign had once hung, but no such luck. Finally, we decided to call in the professionals. We wrote to the National Archives seeking assistance. Someone from the St. Louis branch responded within a day or two, referring us to the folks at the Maryland branch. Evidently the job site list was there. So we wrote and waited another week or so.

The Find

Finally, an archivist got back to us with this email:

O.P. Number 65-14-2334 was a project to renovate the police station/district court building in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. The project repaired the plumbing, replaced the floors, plastered and painted the interior walls, as well as painting the exterior walls.  The project took place in November of 1936 and cost a total of $6,199.61, of which the WPA kicked in $4,988.66. The file did not mention the exact street address. The current District Court building is located at 100 Elm Street and the current police station is located at 20 Elm Street. The file we found is on microfilm and would cost $125 to duplicate. The file itself is only a dozen or so images (pages), mostly forms and financial paperwork. There are no photos or drawings of the project. Our reproduction contractor will only do entire rolls, so we can’t copy just the images for project 65-14-2334.

Fitchburg? We’d never heard of it. Wikipedia informed us that the courthouse our sign may have adorned was later the site of a Lana Turner movie. But it seems like a nice town. Too bad there aren’t any pictures of the WPA job our sign represents. Overall, we were thrilled to hear from the Archives and felt lucky to live in a country where our tax dollars support such effective and responsive record-keeping.

The Frame

The next step was to preserve our sign. We took it to the nice folks at Stonehenge over on Cloverdale Road. One look at the sign and they were as besotten as we were. We were worried about it being mounted on cardboard, but they’ve got some good preservation experience and were able to get that off with no problem. We’re lucky to live near such skilled folks.

We knew we wanted it framed, but weren’t sure how it might be best displayed – fortunately, they had an amazing suggestion. The sign was mounted on burlap for a rustic feel and put into a deep frame with protective glass. Now it’s not just an emblem of a time when America pulled together to fix up courthouses, build bridges and map rural life – it’s also a beautiful work of art we can hang in our home.

The framed sign

The framed sign

SAMSUNG CSC

Detail of the burlap underneath

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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