WPA Writers' Project
An interesting new project which includes Pocahontas County is in the works to renew the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers' Project in communities along US Rt. 219.
The Federal Writers' Project was a New Deal Program that existed between 1935-1942 and employed talented out-of-work writers and researchers. The Writers' Project produced the American Guide Series, including West Virginia, a Guide to the Mountain State, which was finally published in 1942. Organizations interested in this project, Pocahontas Communications Cooperative, Pocahontas County Historical Society and Pocahontas Free Libraries, hosted a series of talks by historian and author Dr. Jerry Thomas in Marlinton, Lewisburg and Union.
Dr. Thomas recently presented a program at the McClintic Library about the history of the Writers' Project in West Virginia and Pocahontas County.
Dr. Thomas, author of An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression, and a forthcoming book An Appalachian Reawakening: West Virginia and the Perils of the New Machine Age, 1945-1972, is a recently retired History Professor from Shepherd University.
Dr. Thomas was accompanied by Roxy Todd, a VISTA volunteer, who is working to develop a renewal of the old Writers' Project in West Virginia. The new project will begin immediately as Todd works with volunteers from Pocahontas County to update and publish material from the West Virginia Guide, focusing on local impressions from folks living in communities along US Rt. 219.
Pocahontas County writers involved in the original Writers' Project were Roscoe W. Brown, Rella F. Yeager, Miss Merle W. Martin, Lillian W. Belcher, Ella Prichard, Nellie Y. McLaughlin, Juanita Dilley, Richard F. Dilworth and Samuel G. Smith.
Nearly 7,000 people were employed as part of the Federal Writers' Project, what was no doubt one of the largest government funded creative ventures to have ever existed.
During his presentation, Thomas pointed out that many of the writers with the original Writers' Project had once been employed as schoolteachers, historians or journalists, but they had been laid off due to the Depression. To be employed with the Federal Writers' Project, they had to take a pauper's oath and give proof that they were poor enough to qualify. Next, they had to prove they were talented enough as a writer to be included in the project. Many of these writers had been unemployed for years and had lost hope that their talents would ever be recognized, much less that they might be able to write as a means to help feed their families. In compensation for their efforts with the Writers' Program, writers in urban areas earned $20 per week, but in rural areas, and probably most of West Virginia, the salary was a modest $67.50 per month. "It was enough to keep the wolf at bay. Granted, only if it was a very small wolf," said Thomas.
Besides offering relief money, the West Virginia Federal Writers' Project offered people a chance to tell their stories. The depth of the project led to some of the material to be challenged by politicians and journalists.
Thomas told the group that during its time the Guide to West Virginia was met with almost hysteric controversy over its content, viewed by some, like Governor Holt, as radical propaganda. Looking at the guide today, it's difficult to find just what Holt found so offensive; his successor, Matt Neely, found the guide perfectly appropriate and authorized its publication.
The scope and depth makes it one of the most honest works about West Virginia. The writing, though more than 70-years-old, is most remarkable in that it honors the uncommon stories of America, told by its people. In this way, the Writers' Project offered a kind of nourishment to the human soul to those who helped write the stories- a nourishment that is perhaps still available to those who remember.
For more information about the renewing of the Writers' Project along US Rt. 219, or to volunteer, contact Roxy Todd, VISTA, 304-291-2569, firstname.lastname@example.org.