Keeping the Dexter Town Pump Oiled: a WPA Job During the 1930s

During the 1930s, the federal government enacted New Deal legislation to create jobs for the thousands who had lost theirs and couldn’t find work at all.

One WPA job in Dexter kept the town pump oiled a few hours each week.

In June of 1934, Clabe Wilson began the part-time government job which lasted nearly a year. A brick hut housed the machinery on the southwest corner of town, out toward the cemetery. Clabe was allowed to work sixteen hours a week. 

The old Dexter pumphouse, photo probably taken in the early 1990s

He still worked there in during that winter. It was desolate and cold inside the little brick pumphouse, with nothing to do but keep the pump oiled. Clabe wore long johns all winter, and bundled up for the half-day shift with everything warm he could find. 

I’ve never been able to learn whether this was an essential job, or a make-work one.

The town pump made its way into family letters to the Wilsons’ sons who’d joined the navy as a result of not having jobs. And it’s part of the history of Dexter, Iowa, during the scarcity years of the Great Depression.

Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression is due out later this spring. There aren’t photos of the pumphouse in the book, since they’re hard to see very well.

The old pumphouse was in the green triangle area in the upper left of this map.

If you take the street north from the triangle, it will take you across the Rock Island tracks and to Drew’s Chocolates on the highway. Keep going north and you’ll see the marker for the 1948 National Plowing Match, where an estimated 100,000 sweltering souls came to hear President Truman speak.

Farther north are markers for Dexfield Park and for the Bonnie and Clyde shootout. Both of these have chapters in Leora’s Dexter Stories. Drew’s Chocolates also makes a cameo appearance.


  1. That does beg the question about the necessity of the job. What kept the pump lubricated before Clabe came along -and after? A real sign of the times, for sure.

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