1941 WPA travel guide to post-Depression Arkansas tours unknown state

In 1941, Arkansas operated eight state parks. Seven were open only to white visitors. The eighth was reserved for second-class citizens who were politely called negroes.

Peaches were a major cash crop in Arkansas at the time. In the now defunct Highland Peach Orchard south of Murfreesboro, nearly a million Elberta peach trees stretched out as far as the eye could see.

Fox hunting still took place in rural Arkansas eight decades ago, but without the English tradition of horseback riding. Local hunters preferred to relax outside with a cigarette and a drink while listening to the distinctive bark of each dog chasing the fox.

Toby’s shows toured rural areas of the state prior to World War II. The barker, known as “Toby,” is said to sell boxes of candy believed to contain tickets to win a plaster elephant or other gewgaw. Then he and a few supporting players passed the hat on while entertaining the crowd with some homemade comedy.

And in Little Rock at the end of the Great Depression, a dozen homeless families lived in waste wood and tar paper shacks on a riverside plot known as Squatters’ Island. Considered a tourist attraction, they cultivated tomatoes, okra, peppers and pumpkins in the alluvial soil.

These time warp nuggets and countless others are scattered among the mostly fascinating and even astonishing information repositories within the 448-page “WPA Guide to Arkansas”.

The book, created for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration by a platoon of federally paid writers and publishers, was printed in 1941. It was one of the last of 48 state guides published, to from 1937, by the agency’s controversial Federal Writers’ Project. . The series also included the territory of Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC

Reprinted in 1987 with a new introduction as “The WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas,” the original volume takes today’s readers back to what was then the predominantly rural “Wonder State”, but which will soon receive a new one. nickname: “Land of Opportunity”.

Today, Bentonville has a population of 54,164 and the 2020 census estimated the metropolitan area of ​​Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers at 546,725. The population of Bentonville in the 1940 US Census was 2,359. Springdale’s was 3,319. Rogers was 3,550. Fayetteville’s was 8,212. The combined number of 17,430 in 1940 was far surpassed by 21,290 for Pine Bluff, then the fourth largest city in the world. ‘State, now at No. 10.

The 1987 edition of the guide can be purchased online for $ 25 to $ 40 or read for free at some libraries (there are other reprints as well, including one by Trinity University Press in 2013). The 1941 original sells in some venues for hundreds of dollars. The content describes Arkansas at a tipping point between the Great Depression and the United States’ entry into World War II. Countless sites, often routine at the time, but now missing or changed, parade through the guide’s eight city tours and 17 road routes (sometimes on unpaved national highways).


Preceding the expansive touring sections are 19 essays on a medley of topics that shed light on public and private life eight decades ago. Topics include natural settings, archeology and Indians, history, transportation, agriculture, recreation, religion, folklore and popular traditions, government and music.

Arkansas literary personalities Bernie Babcock and Charles J. Finger were in charge of the guide when the project began in 1938. They were quickly replaced by Dallas McKown, who completed the process under the sponsorship of the Secretary of State for then, CG “Crip” Hall. The list of consultants mentions 147 contributors.

“To get information for the guidebook, workers at the Arkansas Writers’ Project haunted libraries, processed countless faded documents in archives, and read hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers,” McKown wrote. “They have traveled thousands of miles on highways that crisscross the delta, pass through deep pine forests, follow river valleys, and straddle the ridges of the Ozarks and the Ouachitas.”

The Federal Writers’ Project has drawn persistent criticism nationwide from conservative circles, including the House Un-American Activities Committee. The accusations made by the committee focused on alleged Communist ties or sentiments which were never substantiated. The charges included the alleged promotion of racial integration, at a time when Jim Crow laws ruled the South and racial discrimination was rife elsewhere.

“The Arkansas WPA Guide” contains no obvious sympathy for any relaxation of legal segregation – let alone ending the Jim Crow laws. Separate public facilities are mentioned as obvious, such as with “Watkins State Park (for Negroes), 8.9m NW of Pine Bluff on US 270.” The park is no longer on the map.


Black communities are covered in all eight city tours and elsewhere in the guide. But urban blacks are often portrayed in stereotypical terms as carefree people primarily looking to have a good time. Comments about rural blacks can be even more offensive, emphasizing ignorance and superstitions. Reading them in 2021 would offend many readers of all skin tones.

The guide also echoes some stereotypes about the backcountry White Arkansans, such as in these descriptions of a route through Newton County south of Jasper:

“The women wear sun caps, and many of them use snuff, taking a small amount from the end of a ‘raw elm toothbrush’ and chewing it like snuff. unclean habit, only suitable for white garbage and plains.

“The men are weather beaten and have tiny wrinkles around their eyes. Their loose, shuffling gait is unsightly, but deceptively quick, whether they are heading towards town six or eight miles away, or doing so. just a circle to kill a few squirrels. “


Agriculture in Arkansas was becoming increasingly mechanized as WWII approached, a progress reflected in this tribute to the mule:

“Although their numbers have declined since tractors took over much of the flat land, mules are still preferred over horses in the cotton fields. The mule is tough, stubborn and stiff. He turns his back to the winter wind and nibbles on forage that a Mustang would despise. “

On Saturday, farmers and their families traveled to the nearest town. Main streets were malls, long before the advent of malls on arteries leading to highways and other highways. Here’s how it was in Blytheville:

“Main Street is a wide, sunny avenue lined with brick and office stores. Shoppers are the most numerous on Saturdays. On this day, stores put on extra clerks, barbecue and hamburger stalls prepare for a rush. , and theaters charge Western detective novels.

“Farmers fill the sidewalks to sell produce, buy groceries and dry goods, and meet their friends. Sacks of food and squawking chicken coops are stacked outside the stores at the east end of Main Street. Perhaps a huge catfish, freshly hung from a Mississippi swamp, hangs outside a dining room. “

The hot springs were also lively as they welcomed tourists, but with leisure activities for the most part different from today:

“Outdoor photography studios, where visitors have their photos taken astride a sleepy burro or behind a prop lounge bar, pop up in vacant lots next to lavish hotels. Small shops serve fresh seafood, juice or goat’s milk. Stands display crystals, trinkets, souvenirs and trinkets. In the narrow canyons, patrons of the shooting ranges ignite on the mountainside. “

The reprint of the 1987 guidebook added a new introduction by Elliott West, a Fayetteville historian at the University of Arkansas. He said that “if there is a common theme uniting the past and the present and the different parts of the state, it is that of poverty”.

This is less true in 2021 in metropolitan areas of the state, but it remains a dismal reality in many small towns and rural areas. Per capita income in Arkansas today ranks 45th among the 50 states.


But the first few pages of the original edition cite Arkansas’ non-monetary treasures. These other avenues of pleasure are described in rhapsodic terms, which clumsy readers might consider saccharin:

“Part of the wealth of Arkansas today is not in its minerals and forests, but in the sights and sounds encountered by a visitor.

“It may be the little thunder of a flock of quail that he will remember the longest, or a flight of mallards descending into a swamp because of a hunter’s expert call, or the brilliant glow of stacks of straw burning in the rice fields after threshing The zigzag fences overgrown with honeysuckle, the clear, smoke-free air of the towns, the tumbling mountains east from Winslow, the smell of wood smoke from a large stone fireplace at the back of a hut, the prickle of pine sawdust and the groan of the saw biting into a log, the tufts of mistletoe in the leafless trees.

“You won’t soon forget these things, although these aren’t the important aspects of Arkansas, where the politeness of the South and the kindness of the West are both responsible for the personal tone of ‘Y’awl, hurry up. ‘”

It was time for cod liver oil in kindergarten when Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Werner Lee (1903-1986) visited the Lakeview Resettlement Project, 15 miles southwest of Helena, in December 1938. (Library of Congress Prints & amp; Photographs Division)

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