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Saving the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan

by Harold L. Ickes

Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration

February 1934

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THE "inland empire" is one name for the twenty-seven states drained by the river system that stands like a great tree in the center of a map of this country, its roots in the Gulf of Mexico, its topmost twigs across the Canadian border. This region, one of the chief agricultural areas of the earth, shared less than other sections in the late "prosperity" and feels with peculiar force the burden of the depression. Its problems lie deeper than financial structure or over-developed factories. They spring from the soil itself and involve the irreplacable treasure of natural resources. Though these states differ so widely in landscape, in population, in the variety of their crops, their common problems bind them together into a natural regional unit.

To give impetus and direction to the effort to deal with these problems, President Roosevelt recently authorized the setting up, under the Public Works Administration, of a Mississippi Valley Committee. Its chairman is Morris Llewellyn Cooke, a consulting engineer and an authority on power and public works. Its membership includes Harlan H. Barrows, a geographer, head of the geography department at the University of Chicago; Herbert S. Crocker, a civil engineer of Denver, Colorado; Henry S. Graves, dean of the Forestry School at Yale; Charles H. Paul, a civil engineer of Dayton, Ohio; Sherman M. Woodward, civil engineer and a professor at the University of Iowa, and Major-general Edward M. Markham, chief of engineers, US Army, ex-officio.

This committee has a dual mandate: first, to review all projects for immediate execution in the Mississippi Valley under the PWA; second, and this is its great task, to draft a plan for the Mississippi Valley.

This article is not a report of accomplishment, nor an outline of procedure, but a glimpse of what such a committee might and it is hoped, will accomplish. Sometimes when a bridge is to be built the engineer begins by using, instead of drafting-board and precision instruments, colored chalks to make a free sketch-lines which can be shifted and modified so long as the scheme preserves a logical relationship to its location. By this means the main outlines of the structure are determined though the detail is changed a hundred times before the final drawings are made. It is not a blueprint but a chalk sketch that is submitted here.

To try to picture twenty-seven states at once is a confusing operation. Let us begin by considering one Mississippi Valley farm and, viewing what has happened there, attempt to define the most urgent problems of the area.

Wheat Fields, Canadian Border

Mississippi Valley Drainage Area

Cotton Plantation, Gulf

The Mississippi Valley Drainage Area (map) stretches from the great wheat fields on the Canadian border (top) to the cotton plantations along the Gulf (bottom). It includes thousands of submarginal farms, where families, meagerly housed lacking the conveniences and comforts of the Power Age, try to wrest a living from poor soil (below).


A farm, that used to be known as Point Pleasant, lies in the bend of a stream in a Dakota valley. The square mile of land with the little river on its west and north sides, was made up, thirty years ago, of 520 gently rolling cultivated acres and 120 acres of woodland. Its artesian well gave a constant flow for domestic purposes. The fertile soil yielded twenty-five to thirty-five bushels of wheat to the acre and other crops in proportion. The woodland supplied fuel, pasturage for a herd of dairy cattle and sheltered the farm from the worst effects of blizzards, hail and dust storms. A water-wheel in the river filled the barnyard drinking-trough. The river also was used for fishing, swimming and canoeing in the summer, and ice was put up each winter.

Point Pleasant and what has happened there since the turn of the century is typical of the depression hat began, long before the "boom" broke, to creep over the Mississippi Valley drainage area. The well has run dry. The river, once a swift stream four to twelve feet deep, thirty feet broad, may be crossed on stepping-stones except for a few weeks in early spring. The woods are dead timber, rapidly being cut off for fuel, leaving the farm exposed to the full force of the prairie winds. The fields, instead of their once abundant harvest, yield ten to fifteen bushels of wheat to the acre. The farm's most important crop‹the young generation‹is gone, unwilling to face the life of hard, ill-paid toil and the lack of all modern conveniences.

On this farm, once beautiful and prosperous (and it is a story that could be repeated all up and down the Valley) "hard times" have deepened in the general depression, but their primary causes were a failing water supply, decreased soil fertility and lack of electric power which would enable the farmer to share in a rising standard of living.

Clearly the essentials in any plan for the region are the conservation, use and control of water, and, inevitably linked with this, the conservation and wise use of the soil. And while is desirable to have all PWA projects for the area passed on by one agency, the primary responsibility of the MVC is not projects but such a plan. The committee has, first of all, a coordinating function. It will not engage in research. Rather, it will gather together, correlate and interpret existing data, and having thus obtained a picture of the Valley, its assets and liabilities, it will be ready to prepare the blueprint of a long-term scheme, drawn in units of five-year or ten-year orts.

Paralleling the growth of the plan must go schemes for its interpretation. The MVC has accepted as a major responsibility the development of a graphic method of statement and interpretation. This committee does not propose to submit a learned report which will quietly gather dust in the departmental archives. "The engineering of human consent," to borrow George Soule's excellent phrase, is essential planning in a democracy. The MVC seeks ways of sharing its vision with the Kansas wheat-grower, the Louisiana planter, and making its figures "come alive" to them through their "sweet reasonableness."

In drawing its plan, the MVC must, of course, determine how radical are the required if the goal is to be attained, and the cost of these steps in dollars and cents as well as their rewards in social terms; but it has also to show that the steps are suited to the technique of a democracy. For throughout the recovery effort, it must be borne in mind that it is one thing to plan and proceed under a dictatorship, but quite another where the rights of free people are respected. If the progress I hope for is made, it may be possible to have ready for the reopening of the Chicago Fair a bird's-eye view of plan and procedure.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003