What I wasn’t looking for but found: WPA Federal Writers’ Project manuscripts

While searching for something completely unrelated, I found myself digging through the vertical files at the library.  I can’t speak for all vertical files everywhere, but I have found three general truths about vertical files:

  1. They’re rarely indexed.
  2. They are almost never cross referenced.
  3. You have to understand the mindset of the person responsible for compiling them more than you do your own concept of logic.

That said, the wonderful bit about vertical files is that they are a glorious treasure trove for absolutely everything you aren’t actually looking for.

So. Here I am, looking for something completely unrelated, when I stumble upon a folder with a carbon of a an old manuscript dated 1936. It turned out to be a copy of a submission to the W.P.A. Federal Writers’ Project.

Normally, when I think about the W.P.A. – the Work Progress Administration that kept many Americans employed through projects that benefited communities – I mainly think about construction. Schools, community centers, picnic areas, park entrances and other construction projects for public spaces employed thousands while creating structures that continue to be used decades later.

What I forget is that the WPA also found ways to put people with writing skills to use. Beginning with the American Guide series, writers worked to capture the essence of the history of their local communities. The project later expanded to gather folklore, slave narratives, and other social and historical information.

Which brings me back to my discovery in the library vertical files.

Based on the time sheet that was filed in with the pile of fragile papers, there were numerous Lyon County citizens who sought out the history of Lyon County businesses, old settlers, Civil War veterans, and architecture. The notes and handwritten manuscripts were compiled and typed by Lillian Perry.

The pieces were written with history in mind. Even so, 75 years later, they are an intimate glimpse into the feelings and impressions of Lyon County citizens of 1936.

Some of the compiled information is statistical in an almanac sort of way. For example, under the header “Bakers,” the manuscript reads,

At least twenty-four families are supported by the employees of the four bakeries. Around 876,000 loaves of bread, at an average of eight cents a loaf and about 26,000 dozen cookies at fifteen cents a dozen besides many cakes, rolls, buns and pies are made and sold each year. To do this, 700,000 pounds of flour, 1,075 sacks of sugar and quantities of many other ingredients are used yearly.

Then there are the snippets of history of everyday people whose houses might not otherwise merit description in the history books. Under the header, “The Old Corbett Home,” the manuscript reads,

The Corbetts landed in Emporia by stage coach in May and Mr. Corbett, a stonecutter by trade, immediately began to think of ideas of a modern American house. He wanted a brick house, because there were nothing but old-fashioned stone houses in Wales and he wanted to be an up and coming American.

Most important, these manuscripts vividly captured the people and places that have since disappeared. Under the heading, “The Old Fawcett Place,” the manuscript describes “Grandmother” Fawcett as a spiritualist, and explains,

The bodies of two daughters were buried in the yard of the Fawcett home and that with the popular belief that “Grandmother” Fawcett “talked with the spirits” probably gave rise to the stories that the old house was haunted.

After describing the grand stone house out in the country, the writer continues,

The walls are cracked and spreading and the door and window frames and sashes which were made of black walnut have warped and pulled apart. The cornice has fallen away in places, the floors are worn and shaky and the stairs creaky and unstable. Only the rats scurry about…No doubt the stone in the old house will finally be crushed and used on driveways.

The Library of Congress has made many of the original manuscripts available through the WPA Life Histories web site. Unfortunately, they do not (yet) include examples of work from Kansas. However, the University of Kansas press does have a collection called the WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas, which is still in print and available at many Kansas libraries.

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