A guide to the past -- and the future

A 1930s Montana guidebook contains lessons for today

  • Photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson, Cover courtesy University of Arizona Press, Pages From Original WPA book, Image of plain book (c) Istock and Mordolff

I've lived eight years in Montana, and already I possess no fewer than 17 state guidebooks. Together, they total perhaps 4,500 pages, telling me where to hike, bike, ski, canoe, hunt, fish, golf, bowl, watch birds, smell flowers, eat steak and drink enough beer for several lifetimes. I have only this lifetime, however, and so, more often than not, paralyzed by the proffered cornucopia and preferring my own cooking, I retreat to the hammock in my own backyard, there to read and reflect. Out of all my guidebooks, only one really fits this purpose. And this year, it turns 70 years old.

I first picked up The WPA Guide to 1930s Montana, compiled and written by Montana members of the Federal Writers' Project, because I wanted to know what life was like here during the Great Depression. A stand-alone chapter on labor, for example, catalogs the miners' union's long fight for recognition. In 1934, Treasure State workers finally won a closed shop, 40-hour work week, and a weekly payday. Basic wages were $4.75 a day, "with a sliding scale of increases based on the copper price." The book doesn't talk about bread lines, but its coverage of dust bowl devastation concludes with notice of "a new phenomenon -- that of ghost towns on the prairie." According to the Works Projects Administration, as of December 1936, between 5,000 and 12,000 farm families "needed some relief from federal, state, or private agencies." Another 7,000 families of all occupations "(could not) be self-supporting under present conditions." Given the total state population and average national family size of the time, we may estimate as many as one in eight Montanans required outside assistance to survive.

Here we are in another depression. The WPA Guide was originally published in 1939 by the state Department of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry, but reprinted 15 years ago by the University of Arizona Press with a wry foreword by William Kittredge. "It doesn't really bother me much that some of the detail, I understand from historians, is likely to be skewed or blind-eyed or just plain wrong," Kittredge writes. "This book bears news of who we used to be, and still partly are. We see our history in its mirror as we confront the task of figuring out how to live sensibly in the next century."

That confrontation continues. On the subject of my beloved hometown, Missoula, for instance, The WPA Guide reports that "the city has a tendency to straggle away with no apparent plan," an assessment still accurate today. "One section extends far northeastward between Rattlesnake Creek and Mount Jumbo, and ends as a huddle of summer cabins in a grove of pines. Another, somewhat grimy and smoke-stained, is crowded between the Northern Pacific Railway and the base of Waterworks Hill."

As these places are where I and many of my closest friends live, my huddled, grimy feelings were briefly hurt until I read on about the other side of town, the site today of much controversial new construction. "On its wide western edge where it meets no natural barrier, the city advances on the river flat seemingly at random." At this passage, I hooted with the pleasure of recognition. I vowed to attend the next city council meeting and read the admonitory quote into the public record. "Economic depressions come and go," I'd say. "Sprawl is forever." Alas, in my agitation the beer bottle perched between my legs shook so much I'm afraid I soaked the hammock.

All guidebooks bear an inherent tension. Even as they promise absolute impartiality, they have to try to sell you on the trip. For The WPA Guide authors, that trip is temporal as much as spatial -- a bold venture into a better future made possible by enormous federal projects from the Fort Peck Dam to rural electrification.

Such efforts again fill the news. Will another incarnation of the Federal Writers' Project be one of them? Likely not, though with close to 30,000 U.S. journalists laid off or bought out since 2008, the pool of potential FWPers runs deep. Participants back in the 1930s included John Steinbeck and Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. The work they did ranged from oral histories to children's books, but before many Great American Novels there was a Works Projects Administration guidebook.

Little wonder, then, that The WPA Guide to 1930s Montana reads like true literature. Perhaps my favorite passage introduces Butte, then Montana's largest city: "(Butte) lies against a bare southward-sloping hillside, 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 mine shafts." This is a sense of place to rival Dashiell Hammett's classic noir novel Red Harvest. The passage connects wilderness and civilization, environmental exploitation and public hangings. It thrills and terrifies. Whether or not I ever visit Butte because of it, I have to read on. First snowfall may find me still ensconced in the hammock. I only hope I don't spill hot cocoa.

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