The Seed and the Story: WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas

Created in 1935, the Federal Writers’ Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, provided employment for out-of-work historians, teachers, librarians, and a host of other writers and researchers suffering from the economic devastation of the Great Depression. Just as the Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for the creation of infrastructure, the Federal Writers’ Project employed both men and women to record regional histories, folklore, information about transpiration, agriculture, economy, education, and labor. The project completed over 1,200 books and pamphlets of state information, including a series of guidebooks for each of the forty-eight states. (Hawaii and Alaska had not yet acquired statehood).

Originally entitled Arkansas: A Guide to the State, the 1941 publication was reprinted in 1986 under the title The WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas.  This four hundred-plus page publication is loaded with information about Arkansas in transition. Created by a group of largely unnamed writers under the direction of Bernie Babcock, the assistant supervisor of the project and Charles J. Finger, state editor, the book features a series of seventeen different driving tours across the state. Tour numbers 3, 6, and 8 all cut through the readership area, offering modern readers a glimpse of 1930s central Arkansas.

Tour 3 follows US 64 from Marion to Fort Smith, mentioning stops along the way including McCrory whose mainstays were “cotton gins, trade with rice growers, and some shipping of peaches,” and the region of Galla Creek, once home to the Native American community of Galla Rock, an early establishment of the Western band of Cherokee. The tour leads through the city of Russellville, boasting a population of 5,927 and the Arkansas Polytechic College (now Arkansas Tech Univeristy), with its enrollment of 600 students.

Tour 6 travels along state highway 22 from Dardanelle to Charleston and provides a wealth of information about the area prior to the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and the creation of the river dam. “Present day Dardanelle’s Front Street,” the text reads, “stretches for more than a mile along the tree-bordered Arkansas,” an interesting visual contradiction to the sand banks we have along the river today. The tour leads down through Paris, a community of coalmines and unions. “Years of activity by the United Mine Workers have made Paris one of the few strong union towns in Arkansas,” reads the text.  According to the researchers, over 1,000 miners were enrolled in seven locals, and “the presence of this organized support,” led to the launching of a new union in 1939, the Industrial Workers of America, with “a membership of farm day laborers.”

Tour 8 follows state highways 7, 128, and 9 from Harrison through El Dorado mentioning the “graveled roadbed between Harrison and Dover and Dardanelle and Hot Springs.”  Dover is described as a town of 493 residents with “deep honeysuckle banks of the north edge of town.” The Dardanelle and Russellville Railway is also mentioned, referencing the appearance of one of the railway’s locomotive in the 1939 film, Jesse James.  And, of course, no historic document would be complete without a mention of the famous bridge between Russellville and Dardanelle, the 2,000 foot pontoon structure, which was often “taken in” during high waters. The bridge was replaced in 1929, yet the new bridge receives only a passing mention in the text.

In coming weeks this column will touch on more information from the book as well as other projects undertaken by the Arkansas Federal Writers Project.  Did you or someone in your family work for the Federal Writer’s Project? Do you recall the unions in Paris, Russellville as a city under 6,000 people or the “honeysuckle banks” of Dover? We’d love to hear your story.



  1. […] Last week’s column discussed the Federal Writers Project, an offshoot of the Works Progress Admini… which provided jobs for out of work Americans during the Depression. The Arkansas Writers Project, like other state-based writers programs, hired historians, journalists, and educators to create a series of publications about Arkansas history and culture, including the well-known WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas. As discussed last week, the second half of the book is a selection of driving tours across Arkansas—a fascinating, if a bit surfacy, look at life along the highways before the creation of the rivers dams, the interstate system, and the rise of big box stores. […]

  2. […] Deal, which provided jobs for out of work writers, historians, and other researchers. (You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here). In addition to the popular state guidebooks published by all of the then […]