When the WPA was established, its director Harry L. Hopkins and his staff argued that writers, artists, musicians and theatre people were out of work as well as laborers and farmers. They got Congress to agree to allocate seven percent of WPA funding to employ those groups.
- The Federal Arts Project hired unemployed artists to decorate hundreds of post offices, schools and other public buildings with murals, canvases and sculptures.
- The Federal Music Project hired musicians to perform with symphony orchestras and community singing concerts.
- The Federal Theatre Project experimented with new forms of theatre in New York City. Touring companies traveled the back roads with a variety of old and new plays.
- And the Federal Writers Project (FWP) published state and local guidebooks, organized archives, indexed newspapers and collected folklore and oral history interviews.
The Writers Project had perhaps the greatest impact of the three WPA Arts projects. Fortune Magazine said that the project produced “a sort of cultural revolution in America” by documenting America for Americans. The main result of this effort was a series of guide books that were written for each state and several localities.
The guide books were much more than a map. For a country starved for reassurance in the grips of the Depression the FWP director Henry Alsberg said, “The purpose of the American Guide is to assemble all the data that some 125,000,000 inhabitants possess about their country, boil it down to convenient size … and put it into the hands of people who don’t realize wonders exist at their own door.”
The Nebraska Federal Writers Project produced a series of books, including the main guide book. The guide included chapters on the natural setting, Native American culture, history, government, agriculture and the farmer, ethnic elements, folklore, art and other topics. It included profiles of eight cities, and then 13 tours around the state. Each tour included notes on sites of historical and general interest. These notes went well beyond traditional guides.
For instance, on the tour up Highway 81 (which runs through York) the FWP noted that the Osceola newspaper had commented on an earlier grasshopper plague in 1874.
“Our foreign readers must forgive us for giving so much grasshopper news. We really cannot help it. The air is filled with them, the ground is covered with them, and people think and talk of nothing else. It rains grasshoppers, and snows grasshoppers. We cannot walk the streets without being struck in the face and eyes by grasshoppers, and we cannot sleep for dreaming grasshoppers, and if the little devils do not leave for some other clime soon, we shall go grasshopper crazy.”
The Nebraska project also produced a book entitled The Negroes of Nebraska, an Almanac for Nebraskans, 1939, a history Printing Comes to Lincoln, and several books of Nebraska Folklore.
The folklore and oral history project may be one of the great lasting legacies of the FWP. All across the nation, workers were sent out to record the life histories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups. All of those interviews are now available online from the Library of Congresses American Memory Collection. This collection includes over 300 interviews with Nebraskans talking about everything from the history of the state, to religion, politics, immigration, ethnicity, social activities and tall tales.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.