WPA Records, 1935-1942  PDF

Overview of the Collection

United States. Works Progress Administration (Mont.)
WPA Records
57 linear feet
Collection Number
Collection 2336, MtBC, us (collection)
The WPA Records consist of collected materials based on the projects that were set in place by the WPA itself. Most were under the administration of the WPA's Federal Writers Project (FWP), though some were administered by the Historic Records Survey. Materials are for Montana, unless otherwise noted.
Montana State University Library, Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections
Montana State University-Bozeman Library
Merrill G Burlingame Special Collections
P.O. Box 173320
Bozeman, MT
Telephone: 406-994-4242
Fax: 406-994-2851
Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research.

Additional Reference Guides

An alternative form of this finding aid can be found at http://www.lib.montana.edu/collect/spcoll/findaid/2336.html

Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Historical NoteReturn to Top

In 1935, almost a fourth of the population of Montana, or about 137,000 persons, were dependent upon some form of federal, state, or county relief assistance. Up to that point, relief came in New Deal programs such as old age assistance, Aid to dependent children, or the construction programs of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and Army Corps of Engineers. Certainly one of the largest federal projects was the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. Already by 1935 it was well under way, bringing employment to thousands.

It was also in 1935 that Congress appropriated funding for the Federal Writers Project. The Writers Project was conceived as a unique combination of relief and an opportunity for the advancement of American culture. Under the WPA, the Writers Project received less than one percent of the total WPA budget, just slightly over $2 million. However, now for the first time workers who were unable to do manual labor could receive employment. According to the initial job posting, these included: writers, editors, librarians, historians, archaeologists, research workers, art critics, architects, map draftsmen, and geologists.

The task for the employees of the Federal Writers Project was to prepare material for the American Guide books. They were to accumulate new research material on local history, historical figures, art, folklore, racial groups, scenery, agricultural developments, landmarks, monuments, etc. In sum, whatever made up the life of the community would be researched. Each state had its own team of workers.

When the American Guide for Montana was finished, other projects followed, including those as diverse as a collection of regional recipes (America Eats) to the writing of the history of livestock industry in the West.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

25 series were discovered, based on the projects that were set in place by the WPA itself. Most were under the administration of the WPA's Federal Writers Project (FWP), though some were administered by the Historic Records Survey. Materials are for Montana, unless otherwise noted.

Numerous projects documented by the Montana WPA are not found in this manuscript collection. They include: Almanac for 1940 and 1941, Copper Camp: the Story of Butte, Pioneers, Ski Manual, Small Metals Mining Study, and Stories of Montana. Most (if not all) of these projects form part of additional 40 linear feet of WPA records held at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, assigned collection number MC 77.

One project of the WPA was to draw plats for each county. Since all that MSU owns is the plat book for Gallatin County, it has been cataloged separately as Collection 2101 ("Book of Township Plats showing land ownerships, operating units, land use, in Gallatin County, c1934-36"). Also, a published version of this finding aid by Elaine Peterson, Guide to the WPA records, : at Montana State University-Bozeman (Bozeman, Mont. : Montana State Univ. Libraries, 1996), is available in the Special Collections stacks at Z6621.B874 no. 1.

For further information about the WPA itself, its "Annual Reports on Progress of the Works Program" is available for the years 1936-42 in the Government Documents collection FW4.1.66.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

Container(s) Description
1-2 Series 1: America Eats
"America Eats" was to be a book published by the WPA Federal Writers Project featuring recipes of the five regions of the United States. One of those regions, the "Far West," was comprised of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana. The project supervisor was located in Butte, Montana. The collection contains background editorial material and correspondence, along with materials sent in from each state outside of Montana. The Montana field research is more extensive and is divided by contributing counties. The files are great source of recipes such as "Pastie," or "Wild Duck rolled in fresh clay and baked underground." The only trick is that standardized measurements are not included with most recipes.
3-4 Series 2: Directory of Churches and Religious Organizations
The Directory was a research project under the WPA's Historical Records Survey branch, not the Federal Writers. The headquarters for Montana was in Bozeman at the college. Background materials, instructions, and correspondence are quite substantial. Published materials include not only the Montana directory, but a few other states as well. The directory is arranged by county and then name of the church. The publication is located in Special Collections, BR555.M9M66 1941, as well as in the document stacks.
5-14 Series 3: Encyclopedia
The Montana Encyclopedia, also known as the State Factbook was meant to be an A-Z encyclopedia for the state. It was to encompass topical headings, people, and cities. It was to be several hundred pages and illustrated. The book was never published. Much of the material was duplicative of the State Guidebook and School Pamphlet material. It also appears that the WPA planned a smaller volume, called the Montana State Almanac. Since the forms and information gathered for this book are indistinguishable from the Encyclopedia, all information is gathered into this series. The biographical information in boxes 6 and 7 are merely retyped single sheets of basic information from Montanans listed in Who's Who in America.
15 Series 4: Folklore studies
Folklore Studies was a project planned in correlation with the Social-Ethnic Studies (Series 18). In both the approach was to be functional, with the studies organized around nationality groups, regions, and communities. The emphasis was on ways of living and cultural diversity. Both called for the gathering of field data, including interviews, personal histories and documentary materials. Although never completed, the Folklore series was to consist of three kinds of publications: 1) collections of special types (e.g., tall tales, rhymes), 2) collections for regions, occupations, localities, and ethnic groups (e.g., The Folklore of the Berkshires), and 3) national volumes (American Folk Stuff, representing all states and types, and A Folklore Atlas of America, showing the distribution of folk groups and folklore types). The following material only represents material gathered for Montana. Sketches for the project are found in Series 17.
15 Series 5: Health Almanac
The one file folder of material for this project is file folder 18 in Box 15. Although planned as a separate work, only a few pieces from Ravalli and Yellowstone counties remain. It appears that interviews were to be conducted relating to public health and health facilities. An interesting snapshot in time of health problems and resources in the Hamilton and Billings area.
16-19 Series 6: Indian Legends and Studies
The WPA planned both small mimeographed books of Indian Studies and Collected Indian Legends for each tribe. Interviews were conducted by resident tribal workers, similar to the format used for the WPA Livestock History. Topics covered include legends, history, and social life and customs. Some of the information gathered was published, most notably the "Blackfeet Tipi Legends," by John Ewers. Duplicate copies of most of these manuscripts were made and bound. They can be found in E77.2.W62, no. 1-5 in Special Collections. For some tribes the copy is more complete than the original manuscript collection. Sketches accompanying this series can be found in Series 17.
20-31 Series 7: Inventory of County Archives of Montana
The Inventory was one of a number of bibliographies of historical materials prepared throughout the United States by workers of the Historical Records Survey of the WPA. Begun in 1935, the project was organized to compile inventories of historical materials, particularly the unpublished government documents and records which are basic in the administration of county government. The published inventories do more than give a list of records, they also attempt to sketch in the historical background of the county. A good source of information about local governments at the turn of the century, how much it cost to run schools and services, and who was employed. Five volumes were eventually published, copies of which are available in Special Collections or the general stack collection under CD3340.H5. These volumes cover: Beaverhead, Carbon, Flathead, Gallatin, Lake, Lincoln, Madison, Mineral, Missoula, Park, Ravalli, Sanders, Silverbow, Stillwater, Sweetgrass, and Toole counties.
32-35 Series 8: Inventory of Vital Statistics records of Churches and Religious Organizations in Montana
The publication by that title was completed and is available in Special Collections in BR555.M9H52. The files in this collection are the background material used to compile the book. Included are the information record sheets compiled by workers, correspondence, maps showing denominational distribution around the state, and some booklets. In general, the names given the denominations are based on the outline provided by the WPA. Records are sorted alphabetically by county, and correspondence is arranged chronologically.
36-88 Series 9: Livestock and Grazing History
The WPA planned a history of the livestock industry in the West. Multiple jobs were assigned, including the labor intensive task of hand copying the first brand books. The largest and most complex set of files of the WPA records, there are six distinct parts:A. Livestock History (interviews with pioneers)B. Assessment recordsC. Copies of Brand BooksD. Correspondence about the projectsE. Background working files (census, association reports)F. Manuscripts ("Beaver to Beef," "Barbed Wire," etc.)There were also some copies of newspaper articles related to Livestock History, but they were not indexed and the order has been lost. All newspaper articles have been incorporated into Series 11, Montana Newspapers.
89 Series 10: Men at Work
Short stories by WPA writers Montgomery M. Atwater, William A. Burke, Ralph Powell, and Edward B. Reynolds for a collection that was to be published under the title "Men at work." Most of the stories deal with employment in and around Butte or Anaconda.
90-104 Series 11: Montana newspapers
At least two projects appear to have been underway dealing with Montana newspapers. One was to retype articles that had relevance to the Livestock and Grazing History. The other was to copy everything from old newspapers. This latter project was part of the Historic Records Survey. Since no background information is now part of these files, the newspapers have been sorted by title, using the standard newspaper name given by the Montana Historical Society newspaper project (1986). Files followed by dates are complete transcriptions of the newspaper.
Series 12: Montana state capitol
One file folder containing the draft manuscript for the Montana chapter of a book, "State capitols," which was to cover all states. The book was never finished, but the Montana manuscript was reworked and separately published in Helena. A copy is available in Special Collections at NA4412.M9S72 1938. Manuscript is located in Box 104, folder 6.
Series 13: Noted American architects
Another national project, this book was to have contributions from every state. All that is contained in this one file folder is a sketch of Montana architect Cass Gilbert and a few notes about Montana architecture. Located in Box 104, folder 7.
105-107 Series 14: Photographs
Over 600 black and white photographs which were used in the various projects are found in this series. Most appear to have been taken for the State Guidebook and Livestock History. Most subject folders have more than one print. Also included are some postcards and early photographs collected by the field workers, as well as some photographs of the WPA workers. The photographs have been sequentially numbered, with the photograph numbers immediately following each folder title.
108 Series 15: School Pamphlets
75 mimeographed pamphlets were planned for distribution to Montana schools. This series contains the many drafts written by the state writers. It also has background research material, some of which is quite detailed. Only the "Naming of the Blackfeet" folder contains an actual published pamphlet. Although many were written by experts in their discipline, the pamphlets were to be only 3-5 pages and aimed at children in the Intermediate Grades (4-6). The correspondence and critiques of the pieces from the Washington, D.C. office are particularly interesting.
108 Series 16: Serviceman's Almanac
In July of 1942, field workers for the Montana Writers' Project were notified that they were to postpone work on other projects and begin gathering material for a publication to be sent to all servicemen from the state. The instructional memo stated, "This material should have a patriotic theme if possible, but should also include light and humorous stories and accounts that would be interesting to boys away from home. Such material as the time when Montana and Wyoming cowboys from the Powder River country were gathered together from several outfits in the last World War and staged a rodeo in France when they broke some newly arrived horses. Also, interesting human interest stories even though they are not related to the patriotic or war them would be appreciated. It should be remembered that the purpose of the pamphlet is to entertain the soldiers and revive the home ties rather than to throw slogans and sermons at them." Most of the files contain correspondence, only Ravalli has some stories.
109 Series 17: Sketches
Artwork for the various projects has been placed in this single series.
110 Series 18: Social and Ethnic Studies
WPA administrative correspondence shows that this was to be a separate WPA project. However, much of the material is reminiscent of what was gathered for Folklore Studies and the State Guidebook. It is interesting that the German Colony in Lewistown was included since the opinion at the administrative level was to exclude coverage because of the Nazis in Europe.
111-126 Series 19: State Guidebook
The American guides were the original project of the Federal Writers Project. In the opinion of the federal government, they were a "terribly safe thing to do," especially since many Congressional opponents of the New Deal thought the Writers Project a "boondoggle". Nonetheless, the Project was funded (less than 1 per cent of the total WPA budget) and begun in July 1935. The guidebooks are an interesting study in federal versus state control. Though federally funded, the staff working on the guidebooks were located in each state. Some staff wished to be forthright and were no doubt surprised to find censorship from the Washington office. When the Montana guide was reviewed in Washington, D.C. criticism was aimed at the writers for mentioning the labor unions in Butte in a positive light, as well describing the pigsties and flophouses in Billings! The federal image of the guidebooks was more in keeping with a "Chamber of Commerce" conveyance of information. Censorship was imposed on several guidebooks, Montana's being one of them. The background material used for the 1939 published work, "Montana: a state guidebook," is contained in boxes 116-126. Only Broadwater and Toole counties are missing.
127-130 Series 20: Story of the Buffalo
The volume was never published, but a fairly complete draft from 1942 is available, along with 363 abstracts of research reports on buffalo which were background material gathered for the book. Every aspect of buffalo is covered, including origin, description, habits, extermination, economic value, conservation, Indian and pioneer stories, and piskuns. An extensive bibliography is included.
131-132 Series 21: Transcripts of original documents
The WPA index to the 70 documents which were once part of the collection is included in the first box. A similar scheme to the Livestock History was employed, using 600 as the base number for the series, followed by consecutive numbering. Originally labeled by the writers as "Diaries, journals, etc.--transcripts of original documents--talks, speeches, radio addresses, also material from manuscript case of Historical Library, Helena, Montana." Only 39 titles remain. Some files contain information about where the original document was located. Titles used were assigned by the WPA workers.
133 Series 22: Up Unto the Sun
Manuscript of a play adapted from "Montana, a dramatic chronicle" by Eleanor Plummer, Edward Reynolds, Wilma Parsons, Guy Rader, and Ralph Henry; dramatic adaption by Larrae Haydon and Kenneth Mulholland. A pageant in honor of Montana's 50th anniversary as a state and 75th as a territory. Originally prepared for the Lewistown Jubilee celebration, July 2-4, 1939, but published and utilized by other communities after that. This manuscript dates from January 23, 1941.
133 Series 23: USA Pictorial Guide
A book published as an item within the American Guide series, entitled "The United States of America: a pictorial guide for its newest citizens." It was also referred to as the "National Picture Book." Folder one contains the outline for the entire U.S. manuscript, while folder two has the completed manuscript for the Rocky Mountain section which includes Montana and surrounding states. The few remaining photographs which were part of the book have been separated and are now contained in Series 14 or have been inadvertently placed in the general Special Collections picture collection.
133 Series 24: WPA Radio Talks
Talks made as part of five "electrically transcribed" radio programs of the Federal Music Project (FMP), which were sent to radio stations. The distribution was part of the general plan to make available the best productions of the unemployed musicians of the FMProject to citizens who do not live in or near the cities in the FMP units were organized.
133 Series 25: Your Vacation in Montana
A single file folder containing some of the notes that were to be included with photographs of Montana. Part of the overall "American Recreation Series," the volume was never completed.

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Subject Terms :
  • Frontier and pioneer life-Montana
  • Corporate Names :
  • United States-Works Progress Administration-Montana
  • Geographical Names :
  • Montana-History-Sources