History and Opinion
By Phil Roberts
New History of Wyoming
The 1930s: Great Depression and the New Deal in Wyoming
This essay focuses on several of the “organizing concepts”—state/federal relations (“Washington”), “boom-and-bust” (“Wall Street”), sectionalism (the “state of Absaroka” problem), and self-image (the “bucking horse” first appeared on the automobile license plate).
With the death of Gov. Frank Emerson soon after his election to a second term, Wyoming voters in the 1932 general election had the rare opportunity to vote for governor (to fill the remaining two years of Emerson’s term) and for U. S. President. On election day, the state economy was in shambles. One in four Wyomingites was unemployed. Towns and counties, saddled with the responsibility for furnishing relief (welfare) to impoverished citizens, were close to bankruptcy. Thousands of Wyomingites abandoned dry farm homesteads during the 1920s, moving into towns or simply leaving the state. The agricultural depression, dating from the early 1920s, became widespread by the end of the 1920s. Even oil, seemingly insulated from local economic woes, sank into depression after the stock market crash of October 1929. By 1931, a buyer (if one existed) could have bought a BARREL of Salt Creek crude oil for 19 cents. It was said that a farmer could trade a chicken to a gas station owner for a gallon of gasoline and both people lost money on the transaction.
The “noble experiment” (Prohibition), popularly passed in the 1918 general election, seemed to have lost substantial popular support. Many Wyomingites ignored the laws against drinking while others continued to chance the occasional raid by manufacturing illegal “bootleg” booze in basements or remote ranch buildings. Many residents despaired over the frequent cases of corruption engendered through trying to enforce the unpopular law. Former Gov. Nellie Tayloe Ross, once a strong supporter of Prohibition, turned against the effort to enforce private mores. She worked for repeal of Prohibition nationally and campaigned for New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic nominee for President. Of the “grand old men of Wyoming politics,” only Sen. John B. Kendrick was still living at the time of the 1932 general election (and, in poor health, he died less than a year later). Acting Gov. Alonzo Clark enjoyed little statewide support. Like Republican President Herbert Hoover, Clark told voters that government had no role in the economy and, left to its devices, the “business cycle” eventually would change. Even Wyoming Republicans were dubious of such claims, voting against Clark as their nominee, opting instead for banker Harry Weston. Democrats chose Cheyenne oil man Leslie Miller as their candidate.
Democrats scored electoral landslides in 1932. Wyoming voters overwhelmingly turned to Democrat Franklin Roosevelt (along with 45 of the other 47 states) and to Democrat Miller as governor.
Miller told the legislature soon after his inauguration that he would be seeking ways for the state to “economize” so that taxes would not have to be raised. With less money going to taxes, Miller reasoned, maybe Wyoming businesses would survive, if not prosper. He asked the legislature to authorize a study to determine possible areas for savings. The legislature passed an appropriation to allow a special commission, made up of legislators from both parties, to hire a consulting firm to investigate the possibilities. In the spring of 1933, the State commission hired the Griffenhagen company of Chicago to conduct the study and report back to them and to the legislature in the fall. Griffenhagen experts interviewed Wyomingites throughout the state and examined the financial records of state agencies as well as counties and municipalities. In the fall of 1933, the company reported to the commission that they were ready to make a series of valuable recommendations to stabilize state and local government spending. Gov. Miller called a special session of the legislature to assemble in Cheyenne in December to consider the Griffenhagen proposals. Few of the recommendations received more than incredulity.
One way to save money, the report stated, was to consolidate the 399 existing school districts in Wyoming into one statewide district, governed by one school board and headed by one superintendent. All hiring would be done centrally as well as the ordering of books and other supplies. The report pointed out that efficiencies of all kinds would result. For instance, what if, suddenly, Sheridan County had too many teachers and Sweetwater County had too few? With a statewide school board making all of the decisions, the ‘excess” teachers from Sheridan could be sent down to Sweetwater County. Efficiencies in ordering even such mundane items as floor wax would save substantial money. Rather than ordering the needed wax in small quantities by each of the 399 districts, the state board could order the right amount by distributing it among all of the school buildings in the state. School officials, almost uniformly, were horrified at the proposal. Not only would it subvert “local authority” over their schools, but it would allow for all meaningful decisions to be made by a handful of people in Cheyenne who, likely, would have no concept of local needs or conditions.
The Griffenhagen report found another way to “economize” by consolidation—combine all law enforcement in the state, including town marshals, game wardens, county sheriffs, into one “super-agency” state police force to be run by a chief in Cheyenne. In those times of fascist police forces in Europe mentioned in the daily press, it is not surprising that more than law enforcement officials in Wyoming were opposed to this proposal.
Another way to economize, the Griffenhagen report noted, would be to reduce the number of counties from 23 down to perhaps 11or even 9. The report pointed out that “duplication” in the form of excess courthouses and county officials would be eliminated. Why would any lightly populated county wish to remain in existence, the report implied. With two counties having been created only a dozen years earlier (Teton and Sublette), Wyomingites were not of a mind to radically reduce he number of counties and consolidate county functions into fewer than a dozen places in the state.
The Griffenhagen planners went even further than consolidation when they suggested that the legislature itself be reduced to a single-house chamber with no more than nine legislators, elected at large, serving in the body. Look at the huge cost savings, the report noted. The entire legislature could ride around in a large touring car!
While Gov. Miller might have been amused by this recommendation, the final recommendation certainly did not meet with his approval. The Griffenhagen report recommended elimination of the governor’s office as an elected position (except perhaps to have the governor be present at ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonial functions. Instead, the planners proposed a “state public administrator”—a professional that would not “allow politics” to get into the way of “proper administration” of state business.
Even the select legislative committee could not go along with the Griffenhagen company’s recommendations. Public opinion was uniformly critical of all of the major proposals. In essence, the Griffenhagen planners miscalculated the politics of Wyoming. Yes, the existing structure might be unwieldy and inefficient, but Wyomingites prefer public oversight over government business. The Griffenhagen proposals indeed would have made government “more efficient” and “more centralized,” but that is not what Wyomingites wanted in their state and local government.
The Griffenhagen company report was shelved, but Gov. Miller still faced huge economic problems that, at least during the campaign, he believed could be solved without calling on federal government help. After the Griffenhagen report and after the special session of the Wyoming legislature refused to authorize new tax revenues, Miller reluctantly accepted federal help for the state’s economy.
Already, New Deal programs were having an effect on the state economy. With creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), public confidence in the banking system returned. For elderly people, the largest proportion of those in poverty in 1933, the creation of Social Security promised a modicum of dignity along with a monthly check to keep from having to beg, live on public charity or the good will of family or friends. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA), through local cooperatives, eventually would provide electricity to far-flung ranches in Wyoming—too far for feasible or affordable connection to privately-owned power lines.
Three New Deal-established agencies put unemployed Wyomingites to work while, at the same time, improving the quality of the state’s infrastructure. The Public Works Administration (PWA) hired skilled building tradesmen and put them to work on a wide variety of public structures, ranging from county courthouses in many counties to schools and university structures. (The Arts and Sciences Building on the UW campus was a PWA-financed project).
For those with skills outside the building trades, many found work in one of the various divisions of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Writers and historians were hired to compile information to be edited into a travel guidebook. (The book was published in 1940, but the several hundred archival boxes of accumulated research going into the project remains an important resource for historians. The collection is held in the State Archives in Cheyenne). Federal funds supported artists and art galleries in Wyoming. Rock Springs gained a sizeable collection of “public art” as a result of the Federal Arts Project. The WPA also employed some workers to do work involving less permanence. Some shoveled snow and raked leaves. Others worked in community projects, rebuilding or renovating city parks, roadways, and sidewalks. Another part of the WPA assisted cities in establishing community airports. Most Wyoming airports, beyond those along the Union Pacific route in southern Wyoming, came about with New Deal-Federal Government funding during this period.
Wyomingites, like Americans generally, were split on support for the New Deal programs. The voters evidently approved of many of these programs, believing their economic conditions were improved by the New Deal. This is demonstrated by the general election victories of the Wyoming senator most closely identified with the New Deal—Joseph C. O’Mahoney, the Democratic successor to John B. Kendrick following Kendrick’s death in 1933. Voters handed control of the state legislature to the Democrats, as well. In 1934, Democrats exercised unprecedented power in the executive branch (with Miller’s reelection) as well as the legislative. It was a remarkable turn-around from the 1921 legislative session when only one Democrat, Thurman Arnold of Laramie, served in the State House of Representatives!
Taxation remained an issue in the early 1930s. During the 1933 session, a coalition of 22 legislators who were ranchers and farmers (both Republicans and Democrats) proposed that the state adopt an income tax. The measure gained little support from other legislators and the session ended without any new revenue source identified.
By 1935, funding needs, particularly for cities and counties, had reached a crisis point. The legislature considered a wide variety of revenue-enhancing measures, including wide-open gambling (the bill passed both houses of the legislature, but Gov. Miller vetoed it), a state lottery, an income tax, and a sales tax. Only the sales tax gained sufficient support for passage.
The “Temporary Emergency Sales Tax Act of 1935” set a tax of two percent on all sales, although there were several dozen exemptions. Half of the revenue was ear-marked for cities and counties in order to aid them in providing assistance to the unemployed and to improve their infrastructures. The measure proved to be very popular with local governments and the sales tax payers apparently grudgingly accepted the need for the tax, hardly noticeable on most purchases. Consequently, the sales tax was renewed in the 1937 legislature, but this time as the “Emergency Sales Tax Act of 1937.” Two years later, the word “Emergency” was removed when the act became a permanent part of Wyoming’s tax system.
Wyoming’s self-image was enhanced permanently in 1935 when Secretary of State Lester C. Hunt, a Democrat from Lander, commissioned the drawing of the “bucking horse” for the Wyoming automobile license plate. When artist Allan True’s design appeared on the plates the following year, Wyoming made national news because it was the first logo ever to appear on a state license plate. Hunt was often asked who the cowboy was on the bucking horse. He answered that it was a “composite” of all of the old “open-range” cowboys he had known—that were rapidly passing from the scene in 1935. Nonetheless, the controversy rages as to who is on the plate. Is it Stub Farlow? Clayton Danks? Other names also have arisen over the years. The horse is generally conceded to have been inspired by the famed bucking horse, Steamboat, although several people over the years have said it was other horses. The controversy likely never will be settled.
The county numbers to the left of the bucking horse on Wyoming license plates indicate the assessed valuations of the counties as of 1928. Natrona County, rich in oil properties, was granted #1; Laramie County, #2. The order was never changed after the initial designation. If it had, the current holder of #1 likely would be Sublette County, rich in natural gas, or Campbell County, the leading coal producing county in the state. (Sublette is #23 of the 23 counties, based on 1928 assessments; Campbell, #17).
Problems of sectionalism continued to plague the state in the 1930s. During those hard economic years, towns having state institutions (such as the state penitentiary, state university, mental hospital) seemed to weather the depression a bit more easily. Consequently, several northern Wyoming towns in the middle 1930s, represented by their respective chambers of commerce, believed they were being “short-changed” by state government. “All of the state money and attention goes to the southern part of the state,” they noted. In 1935, several of these chamber of commerce officials met with similarly disgruntled eastern Montanans and western South Dakotans. They jointly proposed a new state to be called “Absaroka.” Given the extreme difficult of creating a new state, the proposal was only half-serious. Nonetheless, the publicity made a point and state governments in all three states apparently tried to spread state revenues more broadly into the “disgruntled” areas of the respective states.
In 1937, U. S. Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney, a dependable supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, had a major confrontation with the FDR administration over the issue of “court-packing.” Roosevelt, unhappy with Supreme Court decisions (often by a 5-4 vote) overturning several cherished New Deal programs, proposed a complicated formula to add new members to the court, thus diluting the anti-New Deal justices on the court. O’Mahoney publicly opposed his fellow Democrats’ proposal, gaining additional respect at home, but losing his close associations (at least for a time) with New Deal officials. Along with his continuing efforts to bring federal programs to Wyoming and promote the state’s major industries of agriculture and minerals, O’Mahoney’s opposition to “court-packing” led to re-election in 1940. (Re-elected in 1946, he lost in 1952, but returned two years later for a final six-year Senate term).
Ironically, a Wyomingite was one of the Supreme Court justices who opposed New Deal programs, voting with the majority to find several unconstitutional. He was Willis Van Devanter, the only Wyomingite ever to serve on the nation’s highest court. Soon after the “court-packing” plan was made moot by a “switch” of votes in a critical case, Van Devanter announced his retirement from the court.
Throughout the 1930s, Wyoming Democrats were led by what the press called “MOM”—Miller, O’Mahoney, and McCraken. The latter was Tracy McCraken, the long-time owner of both Cheyenne daily newspapers who served as Democratic State chairman during the latter New Deal years.
Passage of the sales tax did have its political fall-out on one of the “MOM” trio. Gov. Leslie Miller sought an unprecedented third term in 1938. No other Wyoming governor except Ed Herschler in the 1970s and 1980s ever won election three times. Miller lost to Crook County rancher Nels Smith, a popular Republican who had veteran newsman and Republican Party state chairman J. B. Griffith as his campaign manager. The Democrats, the majority party for most of the 1930s, lost its majority status when the legislature returned to Republican hands.
Smith’s one term as governor was marked by constant problems, most of them self-induced. Smith continued a long feud with University of Wyoming President Arthur G. Crane. Crane, who served as UW president for nearly 20 years, considered himself “the builder.” During his tenure at UW, the university overcame the terrible effects of the Great Depression and still managed to build new academic buildings and improve the infrastructure of the campus. Soon after he became governor, Smith tied to fire Crane. His efforts were countered by the UW Board of Trustees, but in the middle of Smith’s term, Crane resigned rather than to accept a humiliating pay cut. The former UW president ran for Secretary of State and was elected in the same election that Democrat Lester Hunt defeated Smith for governor. When Hunt later resigned the governorship to accept a seat in the U. S. Senate, Crane became acting governor. It was remarkable irony in his feud with Gov. Smith.