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The history of Boise State and the New Deal

Photo courtesy of the Boise State Library Special Collections Department

Boise State University is approaching its 90th anniversary, having been founded just one before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933. But what exactly does the New Deal have to do with a university in Boise?

You’d be surprised.

History tells that the global network of capital came to a grinding halt in 1929, forcing millions of Americans into the worst economic depression in U.S. history. 

Though this was an era marked by starvation, racial segregation, uncertainty and poverty, it was also filled with radical labor politics and fascist sympathizers among the American elite — so much so that large motivating factors behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition was to avoid any possibility of a socialist revolution or fascist takeover of the federal government during this time of crisis. 

In extinguishing these possibilities, Roosevelt avoided a fascist coup known as “The Business Plot” and pacified the country’s radical left-wing through his administration’s New Deal programs.

The New Deal spanned from 1933-1941 and included widespread jobs programs, new government agencies, conservation efforts and nationwide infrastructure projects. 

In order to pay for these programs, laws such as the Revenue Act of 1935 introduced progressive Wealth Taxes that took up to 75% of the highest incomes, according to the IRS. 

Photo courtesy of the Boise State Library Special Collections Department

What is not commonly known about the New Deal is the integral part these jobs’ programs played toward the success of Boise State University and the City of Boise as a whole. 

These job programs came in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA).

One Boise resident that experienced this era personally was Erma Jean Woodyard. Woodyard is a 92-year-old Boisean who was born one year after the Depression hit. She invited The Arbiter into her home to talk about what it was like growing up during this time.

“We came out here when I was three. It was some old Ford 25’ and like most people in 1934, we camped alongside the road,” Woodyard said. “There were bundles (of luggage) on top of the car, around the spare tire and on the running boards and so forth. The canvas water bag was tied to the front bumper.”

Woodyard’s mother would tell her stories about seeing CCC camps on their drives to town.

The CCC was created to bring economic relief to young men aged 18 through 25. About 2 million young men took part in this program during the 1930s. The CCC planted more than three billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide during its nine years of existence, according to PBS.

According to the CCC Legacy website, nine camps existed in Boise alone between 1933 and 1941. By June of 1933, state managers of the Veterans Administration (VA) would hire 100 World War I veterans from Idaho to join the CCC according to the Cascade Newspaper. 

The CCC would keep expanding quotas and eventually, in Idaho alone, 86,000 sons of Idaho’s working families were enrolled, according to The University of Idaho archives. 

The Boise ski scene has the CCC to thank for Bogus Basin. In 1938, the CCC started constructing Bogus Basin Road. After 24 months, Bogus Basin became a recreational area. In 1941, this center turned into a ski area after the Bogus Basin Recreational Association (BBRA) was incorporated to raise funds and oversee the maintenance of the ski area, according to livingnewdeal.org.

The Works Progress Administration was among the most successful New Deal programs. This jobs program employed more than 8.5 million people. Employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports, according to PBS news.

Boise Junior College was established in 1932. The College was without a permanent home until the construction of its current campus in 1940-42. The land was previously owned by the Boise airfield, which moved to its current location at Gowen Field, according to livingnewdeal.org.

The Administration Building, Heating Plant, Assembly Hall, the original Student Union, campus infrastructure, landscaping and original structures were all funded through the WPA.

In Glenn Barrett’s “Boise State University: searching for excellence, 1932-1984,” the author mentions how the library was constructed with funds provided by the Public Works Administration, a New Deal infrastructure program.

All told, the City of Boise and Boise State University would look a lot different had it been vacant from America’s New Deal reforms. 

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