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  • Dale C. Maley

Local man worked on WPA project

The Great Depression (1929–1939) was an economic shock that affected most countries worldwide.

It was a period of economic depression that became evident after a significant fall in stock prices in the United States. The financial contagion began around September 1929 and led to the Wall Street stock market crash of October 24 (Black Thursday). It was the most prolonged and widespread depression of the 20th century.

Unemployment levels during the Great Depression reached as high as 25 percent. President Franklin Roosevelt promised to create public jobs to offer income to out-of-work citizens.

One of President Roosevelt's job creation programs was the WPA (Works Progress Administration). This New Deal program was designed to create jobs for public works projects like parks, schools, and roads. Most of the jobs were in construction, and workers built more than 620,000 miles of streets and over 10,000 bridges, in addition to many airports and much housing.

In one of its most famous projects, Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. The five projects dedicated to these were the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), the Historical Records Survey (HRS), the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the Federal Music Project (FMP), and the Federal Art Project (FAP).

These WPA projects impacted Livingston County. For example, people were employed to discover all the government-related documents for Livingston County. The results of this study were published in the 1940 book Inventory of the County Archives of Illinois.

Unemployed writers were paid to drive around to various cities in Illinois and then write their observations. These writers went through Fairbury on Route 24 and noted the town was essentially an agricultural trading center with a local coal mine in operation. The city had a total of eight churches, with two of the eight being Apostolic. Of the total population of 2,310 people, approximately 500 citizens attended the Apostolic churches. Their survey of Illinois cities was published in a 1939 book titled Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide by the Federal Works Agency Work Projects Administration.

John Paul Yost of Pontiac received WPA funds to create a program in Pontiac for Livingston County children involving the arts and theater.

In 1929, Before the Great Depression, a book was published titled Roll of Honor: Record of Burial Places of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Army Nurses of All Wars of the United States. This study and resultant book was created by an act passed by the Illinois State Legislature. This book includes burial information for veterans buried in Fairbury area cemeteries, including Avoca, the Catholic Cemetery, and Graceland.

The decision was made to do another study of veteran burial information in Livingston County as a WPA project. This WPA project, Federal Graves Registration Project #4043, was initiated around 1937 and finished in 1939.

Joseph P. Reis (1887-1980) was a World War I veteran and ran a dry cleaning business in Fairbury for many years. He took a part-time job as a researcher for this WPA project. Mr. Reis tried to identify the name and service record of every veteran buried in Fairbury and other parts of Livingston County. Mr. Reis sent letters to relatives of the deceased veterans to verify their military service. He then entered the information into the modern equivalent of a spreadsheet so it could be included in a new book.

In 1879, Congress passed a law stating that the U.S. government would provide a free gravestone to any veteran. Mr. Reis helped descendants complete the proper request for a free tombstone for their veteran relative.

Mr. Reis's investigative work papers dating between 1937 and 1939 were recently donated to the Fairbury Echoes Museum.

The GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) was a social club for Civil War veterans. Aaron Weider Post 75 was very active in Fairbury and donated the two cannons that are in Veterans Memorial Park. The group disbanded when the last Fairbury Civil War veteran, August Henry Mundt, died in 1936. Unfortunately, no paper records of this group were preserved.

Mr. Reis found an old document that identified the Aaron Weider Post 75 in Fairbury had 58 members in 1899. This sheet of paper is the only known document with the GAR members' names.

One of the most exciting cases that Mr. Reis investigated was the case of Solia Darling. A Mr. Jack Beagley of Forrest told Mr. Reis that Solia Darling served as a man during the Civil War for nine months until it was discovered she was a woman. Mr. Reis determined that Solia Darling's maiden name was Solia Hoffman, and she was born in Germany. Her parents were George Hoffman and Magdalena Quinn, and both parents were born in Germany. Solia Darling died on January 23, 1918, in Cardiff, Illinois.

Mr. Reis sent a letter to a woman who lived with Solia Darling in the Chatsworth area after the Civil War. He also sent out letters to other people who might have known her. These people responded to his letters but did not know any more details about her, except she might have lived in Baltimore for a while.

The case of Jennie Hodgers (1843-1915), who served as a man during the whole Civil War as Private Albert Cashier, is well known. After the Civil War ended, she lived in Saunemin. Her tiny house has been preserved and is on display in Saunemin. She is buried in Saunemin.

Very few known cases exist of a woman serving as a male soldier in the Civil War. Further research is needed to determine whether or not Solia Darling served in the Civil War. If it is true that Solia Darling served in the Civil War, it would make a fascinating story.

Joseph P. Reis's research results were likely incorporated into a book published between 1940 and 1941. Unfortunately, a copy of this book can not be found now. It is also possible his information was sent to Illinois or Washington, D.C. officials.

(Dale Maley's local history article is sponsored each week by Dr. Charlene Aaron)

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