TOURING FLORIDA THROUGH
THE FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT

by James A. Findlay and Margaret Bing

The United States has always been a society of travellers and explorers. An undercurrent of wanderlust has pervaded the country’s culture since well before the founding of the Republic, and due largely to the automobile, it persists in modern times with an exuberance little imagined or anticipated by our forefathers. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought the country’s booming economy to a sudden halt, and the Depression that followed ended—at least temporarily—the nation’s zeal for recreational travel. Instead, as a result of massive unemployment, poor families took to the road in search of work. The government recognized that it would be necessary to apply extraordinary measures to jump-start the economy. In 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did so by creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its subsection, “Federal One.”1 The establishment of the WPA was a revolutionary act; it was the first time in United States history that the federal government used public monies to put writers and artists to work.

Roosevelt summarized the WPA’s objectives as:

To bring together the records of the past and to house them in the buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men living in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its people to learn from the past so that they can gain in judgment for the creation of the future.2

photo

Federal One was the umbrella organization for the government’s artistic and professional work-relief programs. Several subagencies fell under the aegis of Federal One. The Federal Arts Project (FAP) employed artists, art education specialists, and art researchers; the Federal Music Project (FMP) employed retrained, and rehabilitated unemployed musicians; the Federal Theater Project (FTP) produced live theater pieces across the country, employing actors, stagehands, technicians, playwrights, and administrative workers; the Historical Records Survey (HRS) employed clerks, teachers, writers, librarians, and archivists to catalogue and analyze public records and to provide inventories of materials; and the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was created to put to work writers and publication-experienced, unemployed white-collar workers.

During the years 1932-1943 many aspects of American culture, government, and society were scrutinized and recorded by WPA researchers. The publishing output of the WPA and related agencies included guidebooks, entertainment handbooks, instructional manuals, style manuals and methodologies, statistics, and information. The United States’ ethnic diversity was recorded and celebrated in the travel literature of the American Guide Series, as well as in other publications (fig.1). Working together, agencies and individuals produced a huge amount of material, both published and unpublished.

The FWP’s primary goal was the compilation and publication of the American Guide Series, a collection of travel guides modeled on the well-known and popular Baedeker series of travel books. The decision to compile a guide series took into account many factors. Not only was the series a way of providing work for unemployed white-collar workers, but during a time of rising international tension the project helped promote patriotism by formally documenting the nation’s accomplishments and culture. In addition, in a country of vast distances, with a rapidly developing nationwide highway system, the series promoted travel and tourism. The American Guide Series was the crowning achievement of the FWP. As one study of the FWP pointed out:

In 1935 alone, 35 million vacationers took to the nation’s highways. The guides would serve the rapidly growing number of visitors to national parks, as well as the newly emerging youth hostel movement, the American Camping Association, and the Scouts. They would also help in the rediscovery of historic landmarks and scenic wonders.3

Henry Alsberg (1881-1970) was appointed National Director of the Federal Writers’ Project on 25 July 1935. A New Yorker trained in journalism and law, Alsberg decided early in his tenure that rather than produce large and cumbersome guides to regions of the country, as was originally planned, a more useful and practical approach would be to publish titles for all forty-eight states and two territories.

The state guidebooks were not the only titles to be published. The FWP also produced a wide range of other works, including local guides and folklore studies.4 Many city and local guidebooks were written and published because they provided the FWP with “community support for the project, which might increase the sales of larger guides when they finally appeared.”5 The subjects commissioned included transcontinental tour books, trail books, black studies, folklore, school bulletins, agriculture pamphlets, gazetteers of placenames, an encyclopedia of Idaho, local newspaper indexes, and map inventories.6 However, many of these works were never printed because the local sponsoring agencies lost confidence in the projects, often due to controversial passages. For example, a guide to Tampa was rejected because the text “mentioned a red-light district, the illegal ?Little Chicago’ gambling area, and the fact that Cuban Negroes did not speak English in their homes.”7

Approximately twenty thousand writers worked for the FWP during its lifespan, earning anywhere from $93.50 to $103.50 per month in New York and other urban states while their counterparts from rural states such as Georgia and Mississippi earned as little as thirty-nine dollars.8 In Florida, Stetson Kennedy (born 1916), who went on to become a professional writer after his involvement with the FWP, earned seventy-five dollars per month working as a junior interviewer.9 Being unemployed or on the “dole” was the main criterion for employment in the FWP, and with few exceptions, anonymity was deemed essential. Not permitting individual writers to sign their pieces helped to ensure stylistic uniformity and, in an age of socialist ferment, emphasized society’s accomplishments rather than those of the individual.

Administrators of the FWP decided that each state warranted its own director. Carita Doggett Corse (1892-1978), one of the few women in the project, was named head of the Florida Writers’ Project in October 1935.10 Her interest in recording Florida history was reflected in her master’s thesis, Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna Colony of Florida and later manifested itself in publications including The Key to the Golden Islands and Story of Jacksonville.11

Corse was responsible for the organization of units throughout the state and for developing ideas for Florida researchers and writers. It was through her efforts that the Florida Negro and folklore units were formed. Early in her career she developed a profound appreciation for the colorful folklife of Florida’s diverse cultures, and she worked diligently to record them before they were lost to the forces of modernization. She dispatched teams of researchers to interview and document Greek sponge fishermen in Tarpon Springs, Bahamian Conchs in Riviera Beach, Portuguese fishermen in Fernandina, Native Americans in the Everglades and Dania, and African-Americans throughout Florida.12

Traversing the state, Corse personally interviewed and selected every writer and researcher hired. She was also responsible for finding sponsors to cover the publication costs of each title, including the state guide. One of the more productive sponsors with whom she collaborated was Nathan Mayo (1876-1960) of the Florida Department of Agriculture. Together they published a wide variety of small books and pamphlets for the FWP.13

The Florida Writers’ Project hired unemployed residents to write chapter-by-chapter analyses of the social, economic, and artistic history of the state. The results were self-guided tours of well-known small towns and back roads of Florida’s hinterland. In its heyday the Florida Writers’ Project employed up to two hundred writers, although today almost all of them remain anonymous. Addressing the question of who worked on the project, Evenell Powell-Bract, a WPA book dealer and collector, stated, “There never was a master list. No local lists survive—indeed if there ever were any. Only by grapevine reports and recollections do we know who did work.”14

There were notable exceptions, however. Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960) was already a published author when she joined the Florida Writers’ Project as a field researcher and writer (fig. 2). She travelled the state collecting stories for The Florida Negro, which was eventually published in 1993 using the original manuscripts.15 Hurston was also responsible for writing the section on her hometown of Eatonville (one of the first towns in the United States incorporated by African-Americans, in 1886), and the guide quoted two long excerpts from her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.16 In her day, Hurston’s writing enjoyed little commercial or literary success. As Claudia Roth Pierpont pointed out in a recent reexamination of the writer’s life: “Against the tide of racial anger, she wrote about sex and talk and work and music and life’s unpoisoned pleasures, suggesting that these things existed even for people of color, even in America; and she was judged superficial. By implication, merely feminine.”17 It has only been in the last two decades that Hurston’s writing was been reappraised and reevaluated. The new recognition of Hurston “has to do with her use of her native place and her cultural traditions as the main stuff of her work.”18

Stetson Kennedy, a native Floridian, was twenty years old when he was hired to work as a junior interviewer in the Florida Keys. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to the Jacksonville state office where he headed the unit on folklore, oral history, and social-ethnic studies. He was one of the project’s half-dozen state editors who worked at converting raw copy submitted by some one hundred field workers into finishing chapters for the Florida guide. Kennedy later became a founding member of the Florida folklore Society and wrote Palmetto Country, a book on Florida folklore.19 He is best known for his crusading civil rights’ work in his book The Klan Unmasked.

Another writer on the Florida project was Albert C. Manucy (1910-1997) of St. Augustine, who was director of the Key West Unit and went on to write many books on St. Augustine’s archeology and architecture. His secretary in Key West was Mario Sánchez, internationally known for his bas-relief carved and painted murals of Florida Hispanic folklife in Key West and Ybor City.

The pièce de resistance of the Florida Writers’ Project was its travel guide, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, published in November 1939. Print reviews from the era were somewhat mixed. The Saturday Review of Literature praised the work: “Only such a set-up as a WPA Writers’ Project could compile so thoroughgoing a treatise on an entire state as is this latest addition to the American Guide Series. The added achievement of being not only exhaustive, but largely interesting, fresh, authoritative, and at moments even entertaining, is unique for a guidebook.”20 A less enthusiastic reviewer considered the guidebook to be “useful for its contemporary and historical information, and its generalized comments are reasonably restrained in the main. There is some excess of color here and there, and some statements should have been checked more carefully.”21

Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State was the first of thirteen state guides published by Oxford University Press. It was a quirky, unusual, and informative examination of the state as it existed up to 1939. Combining a “blend of history, legend, myth, gossip, and nature lore,” its purpose was to equip the traveller with a portrait of Florida that was simultaneously educational, insightful, revealing, and entertaining.22 The authors involved in the project strived to write a guide that wasn’t “touristy” and yet conveyed “as accurately as possible the quality of life in Florida without glossing over its more sordid aspects.”23 According to Stetson Kennedy, “they won some and we son some, so it is fairly well balanced.”24 The finished project conveyed the essence of small-town rural Southern culture, yet at the same time promoted the trendy, sophisticated, and expensive elite coastal resort communities of Palm Beach and Miami.

photo

The six-hundred-page guide contained illustrations (fig. 3), maps, and 101 black-and-white photographs taken by several photographers, including Gleason Waite Romer, a local Miami photographer, and photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) (figs. 4, 5, and 6). The book was bound in green cloth; a small image of an alligator appeared inside the dark blue lettering. On the front of the dustjacket were a photograph of a palm tree, an unidentified body of water, and a sailboat printed in green. The dustjacket’s back had a small ink drawing of a Florida shack shaded by a tree dripping with moss and an Oxford University Press announcement for other guidebooks in preparation.

The beginning section of the guide, “General Information,” provided practical advice for travellers regarding railroads, bus lines, highways, passenger steamships, airlines, accommodations, recreational areas, fishing and hunting regulations, climate, equipment, information for the motorist, and a calendar of annual events. That advice included cautions to tourists, such as: “Do not enter bushes at sides of highway in rural districts; snakes and redbugs usually infest such places. Do not eat tung nuts; they are poisonous. Do not eat green pecans; in the immature stages the skins have a white film containing arsenic.”25

“Florida’s Background,” the 173-page history in part one of the guide, distinguished this publication from others of the time. An examination of its various sections illustrates how the traveller was outfitted with vital information on topics such as the “Contemporary Scene”:

The pioneer settler . . . knew little of life beyond his own small clearing and saw only a few infrequent visitors, until a network of highways left him exposed to many persons in motorcars. This traffic affected his economy and aroused his instinct to profit. He sat up a roadside vegetable display, then installed gasoline pumps and a barbecue stand, and finally with the addition of overnight abins he was in the tourist business.26

photo

Other section topics included nature; archeology; history; transportation; agriculture; education; and sports. Folklore was also represented, as in the following example describing the lifestyle of a “cracker,” a typical rural Florida pioneer resident: “The cracker’s wants are simple—his garden plot, pigpen, chicken coop, and the surrounding woods and near-by streams supply him and his family with nearly all the living necessities. Fish is an important item of diet, and when the cracker is satiated with it he has been heard to say: ?I done et so free o’fish, my stommick rises and falls with the tide.”27

Sections on the arts discussed literature, music, theater, art, and architecture, offering an evaluation of Florida’s cultural achievements by that time. The guidebook even included the very recent work of the FAP:

Under the Federal Art Project . . . much permanent art has been produced in Florida buildings. Project work includes bas-relief designs of Florida fauna, carved in native stone on the Coral Gables Library; murals in the Orlando Chamber of Commerce; over-mantel decorations in the student union building at the University of Florida; seven murals in the Tony Jannus Administration Building at the Tampa airport; and many murals in school buildings. An outstanding piece is the memorial monument on Matecumbe Key to those who lost their lives in the 1935 hurricane, a rectangular shaft of Key limestone bears a carved panel, showing in simple lines palm trees streaming in a high wind.28Florida

The second part of the guide, “Principal Cities,” provided factual information about Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Key West, Greater Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach, Pensacola, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Tallahassee, and Tampa.

In addition to practical information, the guide reported on oddities, introducing readers to such idiosyncratic places as the “Hen Hotel” in Miami: “The ?Hen Hotel,’ NW 27th Ave. and NW 34th St., a high unfinished building begun as a hotel in 1925, was named the ?million-dollar hen hotel’ when a hatchery was established here during the early 1930s. The floor space accommodated more that 60,000 laying hens, 20,000 fryers, and 50,000 incubator chicks.”29 Sarasota’s unique “Tourist Park” also fit the category: “In past years this park has been the site of the Tin Can Tourists of the World, an organization of trailer and house-car owners with membership of 30,000. A giant parade of ?tincanners’ and the showing of new model trailers, house cars, and equipment were integral parts of the convention.”30

photo

At the time of the Depression, much of Florida remained comparatively undiscovered. Land was inexpensive, especially in the rural areas inland from the coasts. These isolated spots were ideal setting for some of society’s marginal or disenfranchised groups to establish settlements in which to put into practice their theoretical ideas and philosophies. Several examples of how these groups established themselves in Florida were described in part three of the guide, “The Florida Loop,” a section of twenty-two automobile tour routes that traversed the state. Tour Four, for example, took the adventurer on U.S. Route 41 from the Georgia border to Naples, a distance of 381.9 miles. Masaryktown was located 71.5 miles into the tour. The driver was told that the town of fifty inhabitants was: “named for Thomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), the first President of Czechoslovakia, [and] was founded as an agricultural colony in 1924 by Joseph Joscak, editor of a Czech newspaper in New York City . . . Characteristic of the colony are the half-dozen windmills that stand against the horizon.”31

In Tour Four-A, the visitor was directed to the village of Ruskin (population six hundred) at mile marker 23.2, where he would find:

a co-operative tomato-growing settlement at the mouth of the Little Manatee River, founded in 1910 as a socialist colony by George M. Miller, Chicago lawyer and educator, and named for John Ruskin, English author and critic. Of 6,000 acres purchased, 600 were set aside for a proposed Ruskin College, its curriculum to be modeled somewhat on that of Oxford University. Students were to have four hours of schooling and, quite unlike Oxford, four hours of farm work a day.32

In Tour Two from Jacksonville to Punta Gorda along U.S. Route 17, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was quoted extensively: “Joe Clarke, the founder and first mayor of Eatonville...sold groceries and general merchandise, while Lee Glenn sells drinks of all kinds and whatever goes with transient rooms.”33

“Appendices,” the final part of the guide, contained a ten-page chronology beginning with the entry of 1513: “April 3, Juan Ponce de Leon lands on coast in vicinity of St. Augustine site and names land Florida, claiming it for Spain.” The last entry, for 1939, reported: “WPA relief rolls are cut from 1938 peak of 55,000 persons to 37,000 on September 1.”34 The volume concluded with an extensive bibliography, a list of consultants, and an index.

Among the other titles produced by the Florida Federal Writers’ Project was A Guide to Key West (fig. 8). It was a simpler version of the Key West section of Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. The Florida Art Project in Key West, a forerunner of the Federal Art Project, grew out of the dire economic conditions the town endured in the early 1930s. As a result, in 1934 Key West was declared bankrupt by the State of Florida and Julius Stone (1901-1970), head of the Florida Emergency Relief Administration, was dispatched to attempt to revive the economy.

Stone’s efforts were aimed at reshaping the city’s image in order to attract tourists, and he is frequently credited with the seemingly superficial suggestions that residents use bicycles and wear Bermuda shorts. He encouraged citizens to clean and beautify the town. At the same time, he selected ten artists from more than three thousand applicants to the Public Works of Art Project to create art works of Key West scenes for booklets and postcards that were used to advertise the area as a tropical resort. F. Townsend Morgan, the director of the Key West WPA Community Art Center, was one of the ten artists brought to Key West to produce art work. A Guide to Key West included eleven photographs by renowned FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein and ten of Morgan’s etchings (fig. 9).

photo

Florida: facts, events, places, tours, one of a series of booklets from the American Recreation Series, followed an established format consisting of a brief introduction, short chapters on facts, tourist information, annual events, seasonal sports and recreation, and a description of recreation areas arranged in a series of tours (fig. 10).

The Ocean Highway: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Jacksonville, Florida, published in 1938, was written in a format similar to the tour sections in the other American Guide Series books (fig. 11). This mile-by-mile description of the Ocean Highway also covered some of the short routes that were accessible from it. The one-thousand-mile Ocean Highway, which branched off from U.S. Route 1 in the industrial area of New Jersey, was the shortest route between New York City and Florida. The introduction claimed that the route was ice-free in the winter, due to its proximity to the Gulf Stream.

Planning Your Vacation in Florida: Miami and Dade County, Including Miami Beach and Coral Gables contained chapters on a variety of subjects including fishing, the Gulf Stream, the Seminoles, and points of interest in Miami, Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, and other parts of Dade County (figs. 12 and 13). History, general information, and a calendar of events rounded out the coverage of the region. This book was also issued in a special edition as a “Souvenir of the United States Brewer’s Association” at the United Brewers’ Industrial Convention held in Miami in 1942.

The city of Fernandina was described in Seeing Fernandina: A Guide to the City and its Industries (fig. 14). Part of the American Guide Series and co-sponsored by the City Commission, this booklet described the city’s history from 1564 to 1940 and discussed thirty-two points of interest.

Seminole Indians in Florida was written to provide the general public with an introduction to the history, lifestyle, and customs of the Seminole Indians. The eighty-seven-page work contained photographs by the Florida Art Project and a list of “Indian Place Names in Florida.” The publication used as its guide a 1932 report produced by the Indian Affairs Commission entitled Survey of the Seminole Indians in Florida.

Similar in concept to The Ocean Highway, the volume U.S. One: Maine to Florida provided a mile-by-mile description of U.S. Route 1 from the Canadian border to Key West, using the same tour-guide format as the state guides. A glossary-cookbook section on regional delicacies, called “Special Foods from Main to Florida,” included recipes and trivia, such as the history of hush puppies.

In addition to the Florida Writers’ Project titles discussed above, the Bienes Center for the Literary Arts of Broward County Library, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, houses one of the most complete collections of Federal Writers’ Project literature in the United States. Furthermore, the Bienes Center’s Works Progress Administration collection, which grew out of an initial gift of more than six hundred Federal Writers’ Project titles donated by Jean Fitzgerald in 1986, includes numerous printed books, archives, and ephemera from most of the other New Deal agencies.35

photo

The titles compiled by the Florida Writers’ Project provide a comprehensive portrait of the state as it existed up to 1943. For perhaps the first time, writers, artists, and other researchers recorded for the nation’s collective memory a detailed, balanced historical overview of Florida that has stood the test of time.

The New Deal gave the American people a well-documented and intimate view of the country at a time when it was attempting to lift itself out of severe economic depression and poverty. It was a unique era in United States history and it endowed the nation with governmental traditions and social models that will be difficult for future generations to equal or surpass.

NOTE: For a complete list of Florida WPA publications, see items 46-100 in the Exhibition Checklist.

This article first appeared in The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts #23 (1998), Florida Theme Issue, published by The Wolfson Foundation of Decorative and Propaganda Arts and the Wolfsonian - FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33139, phone (305) 535-2613, fax (305) 531-2133.

Main MenuBack to Main Menu