Montana's WPA History Collection Catalogued, Available to the Public

by Evelyn Boswell

BOZEMAN -- Several hundred writers scoured Montana from 1935 through 1942 to make sure that the stories of its pioneers, tribal members and early settlers didn't disappear in the dust of the Great Depression.

With varying degrees of talent, they interviewed their fellow Montanans and wrote down their memories through a writing project funded by the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The writers described Montana's towns for "Montana A State Guide Book," a book that is still being sold today. They took photographs of scenery, ordinary people and everyday events for a USA Pictorial Guide that was never published. They collected brands and folklores and painstakingly copied down every record kept by some 20 counties. Their pay was $63 a month.

"It's not a canned history like you would read in a textbook," said Elaine Peterson, associate professor in the libraries at Montana State University-Bozeman. "Instead, what you are getting are actual interviews with the people who were remembering the 19th century."

But then World War II came along, and the WPA Writers Project disbanded. Seven years of work and 52 feet of Montana documents were headed for the dump.

"A lot of states actually did destroy their records," Peterson said after visiting Indiana State University, where researchers looked at all the states that were involved in the WPA Writers Project.

Montana's papers were saved, however, because of efforts by the late Merrill G. Burlingame, an MSU history professor who started the process to preserve the records. The WPA papers and photographs came to MSU in 1943, where they are now housed in Special Collections at the Renne Library. The collection is Montana's only complete set of documents from the WPA Writers Project.

"It's really a wealth of information, not just to historians or ethnologists, but also to people who are doing family history, people who are interested in local buildings and towns," Peterson said.

The documents are even more valuable now, because Peterson has just finished organizing them under a $4,500 grant from the Montana Cultural Trust. Besides cataloguing all the materials and placing them in acid-free folders, Peterson developed a 28-page guide to make the collection easier to use. The guides were sent this month to libraries and historical associations all over the state. Anyone who's interested can use it.

One writer, for example, described Butte as being like "a vast page of disorderly manuscript, its uneven paragraphs of buildings punctuated with enormous yellow and gray copper ore dumps and with the gallows frames that mark mineshafts. From a distance, Butte seems to straggle all over the hills, but this impression is lost within the city itself which has a lively, up-to-date air."

Another writer told of Kid Royal, an outlaw from the 1890s who stole property from ranches in five southern Montana counties. One wrote about hungry elk that forced the Walter Hoppe family to sell the Cinnebar town site near Gardiner. Photographs showed a rancher cleaning a cricket trap near his field and a lab filled with a year's supply of vaccine for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

"They talked about their current lives, but they also interviewed people who were the first settlers here," said Peterson who started organizing the documents in July 1995. "They not only took photos of what life was like, but they actively went out and collected old photographs."

The WPA Writers Project was a worthwhile venture, and so was the project to make it more accessible, Peterson said.

"I believe the documents are worth preserving because they are a unique source of information," she explained. "Not only white pioneers who were the first settlers of Montana, who are getting old by the 1930s, not only were their recollections unique, but the other thing the project did was interview tribal elders. That information gathered 50 years ago would have been lost."

Peterson hopes to be able to put at least a portion of the 250,000 documents on the web and is trying to find funding for the project. If you have questions for her, use the "email" tag below.

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