The Dust Bowl on Gallup’s main street

The decade-long drought in America’s heartland that brought the Dust Bowl arrived on Gallup’s main street, the famous Route 66, and the Mother Road of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The road carried displaced families traveling from Dust Bowl states to California. Many families camped at the base of the hogback east of Gallup, whose merchants often provided the gift of a tank of gasoline—just enough to get the families on their way again and down the road as far as Holbrook, Arizona.

Times were hard for many people, but the people of Gallup eluded the depression’s grasp, at least for a time. The Santa Fe Railroad’s need for a maintenance barn and access to coal, water, lodging, and restaurants fed Gallup’s economy, and tourists and others stopped in Gallup on the road to the west coast.

Eventually, however, Gallup’s mines shut down, and logging ceased—and in turn, families were evicted from the company houses of their mining and logging firms. Gallup began to experience its own growing social welfare problems.

New Deal public works programs in Gallup

The Work Progress Administration and other New Deal public works programs reached Gallup and the surrounding region.

Under these programs, workers built bridges, water supply systems, and dams. WPA construction workers gave Gallup a new brick post office, an armory, and a courthouse, projects that kept the local brick factory in business and many Gallup residents employed.

The Indian Civil Conservation Corps (ICCC) brought employment to Native Americans on these construction projects, and under programs such as the Navajo Nation Council Chambers, the federal government sponsored an expansion of Native American arts and crafts, as at Fort Wingate—east of Gallup—where New Deal planners helped Native Americans breed churro and Rambouillet sheep for wool, taught weavers to dye wool, and set up carpentry shops to produce furniture.

New support for art

Under the Federal Arts Program, New Deal planners designated Gallup home to one of New Mexico’s four Federal Art Centers. The Gallup center offered art classes, organized and displayed exhibitions, and contributed to the Index of American Design.

New Deal paintings that once hung in Gallup’s post office were given to the General Services Administration, and a mural in the armory may have been painted over. But some 60 to 70 works of art and craft remain in three Gallup collections:

  • The city’s Octavia Fellin Public Library accomodates 21 pieces of New Deal art and several Spanish colonial furniture pieces from the era.
  • The McKinley County Courthouse, itself a New Deal arts project, houses 19 pieces of New Deal art, and murals, tilework, lamps, and furniture by New Deal artists and crafts workers grace the courthouse’s interior.
  • The Gallup-McKinley School District has three paintings (and might have had several prints that are no longer inventoried).

The work in these collections reflect the spirit and sense of place that still define New Mexico for the rest of the world seven decades later.