The highly successful aeronautical course established at Camp Roosevelt in 1936 by the University of Florida jointly with the federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the wake of the unfinished Florida Ship Canal was the first residential aviation school in the state, the prototype for a program that soon spread statewide.
The aviation training program, which went far beyond mechanics, also included the establishment of more than 135 emergency landing fields in Florida as a part of an overall airway system designed to set a pattern for other states.
Several of the emergency fields were located in Marion County, and they would assume additional importance when an Army pilot training program was established in Ocala during World War II.
In the years after the war, the aviation program begun by UF-WPA at Camp Roosevelt would continue to turn out skilled aviation industry workers.
Camp Roosevelt, of course, was the large operations center located south of Ocala off U.S. 441, built by the Army Corps of Engineers which was in charge of canal construction during 1935-36.
After canal work ceased, the big question was what would happen to the 100 or so buildings that made up the camp.
Dr. John Tigert, president of the University of Florida, came up with a plan for an extensive adult education school under the supervision of the university.
He laid out his program to the Roosevelt administration in Washington, and received a $150,000 grant to get the school started.
A visit from the First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, became interested in Tigert’s proposal, and came to Florida to support it. There are no press reports to suggest she visited the Camp Roosevelt facilities, although it is reasonable to believe she did, particularly in light of her later vocational plan to train young women for office work — a proposal that utilized the camp.
With the participation of the WPA, the adult education school opened for students in early October 1936 to much fanfare.
The university’s general extension division offered a wide variety of short courses in the business and professional field.
By far the most successful of the training programs offered was that in general aviation, including aviation mechanics.
C.R. Coachman, state supervisor of the WPA’s aeronautical division, was here for the beginning of that program.
There was an indication in press stories that about 50 students would be involved in the aviation classes.
It was announced that the aviation department of the state road department would be involved, perhaps inflating the number of participants.
More participants — in time
As word of the vocational school and its many programs spread around the area, the number of participants would increase.
But that would take time.
After a year, Tigert would withdraw the university’s participation.
With a staff of 30 people, the school could not be sustained without a heavy infusion of federal money, which wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
Not only were students being lodged, they also received free meals, utilities and even maid services in the buildings used for housing.
The cost to some students was $1 a day, if they were able to pay.
The capacity of the school was 300, which — even if completely filled and paid for by students — hardly added up to a viable operation without massive subsidies.
It was no wonder Tigert pulled the plug on university participation after one year.
Some time later there would be some indication that a majority of students had been sponsored and perhaps recruited by WPA social workers.
There was never any claim that students were not helped immeasurably by the training that aided them in securing and keeping paying jobs.
Art gallery opens
One of the added benefits of the Camp Roosevelt program to residents of Ocala was the opening in late October 1936 of an art gallery in one of the six-room houses.
Robert C. Camp, a nationally recognized artist who was a resident of Ocala, was deeply involved in this WPA project as gallery director.
The gallery was under the supervision of Eve A. Fuller, state director of the WPA’s federal art project. At the time, there were only two other galleries established under the federal art program, located in North Carolina and Tennessee.
The initial exhibit included both watercolors and oils painted as part of the federal program.
It is likely that Bob Camp included examples of his prolific work.
Art critics already had found the exhibit to be highly controversial when displayed earlier in Washington. The administration’s political opponents couldn’t stop yammering about the art program designed to assist unemployed artists.
It also is notable that a drama program for actors, playwrights and designers was underway at Camp Roosevelt at the same time.
Oddly enough, a recreation training program had been coupled with the drama program.
As a kid growing up in Ocala in the 1930s and ’40s, I knew nothing of these programs.
They were not a part of the general day-to-day conversation.
News accounts of the day suggest the public was invited to the art gallery to view exhibits developed in the aviation program, but I have been unable to find any public comment to reveal what the residents of Ocala thought about all of this.
An avid Marion County historian, David Cook is a retired editor of the Star-Banner. He may be contacted at 237-2535.