What Is the WPA?

Times were hard in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal contained provisions for agencies that would oversee the creation of new jobs to get people back to work. One such agency was the Works Progress Administration, or the WPA.

I have to admit that I’ve been aware of the WPA for many years. There are some very obvious physical landmarks that remind us of the scope of work that it accomplished. Camp Hi-Catoctin was created as a recreational area in Maryland in 1939. Never heard of it? Well, yes, you actually probably have as it was renamed Camp David in 1942 – the presidential retreat. In 1940, a park was created in Dallas. Its name – Dealey Plaza, site of the infamous “grassy knoll” and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. One more example – New York City wanted a new airport and, with the WPA’s help, La Guardia Airport became a reality.

Besides construction projects, the WPA gave grants to artists and writers. Jackson Pollock was one artist who benefited from this collaboration. However, the writers hired by the WA created a body of records that are probably most useful to genealogists.

Until I stumbled onto the Indian-Pioneer Papers in the University of Oklahoma Western History Collections online, which I described in my June 28th post, I was not motivated enough to go digging for more information about the Works Progress Administration. You see, the products of their efforts are often buried in somewhat less obvious places than vital records, probate and the like.

Why are they so hard to find? The WPA created jobs at the state, county and local levels. Papers generated by these jobs were originally housed at those levels. However, the WPA’s life ended in 1943 when we were in the midst of World War II. When it came time to find permanent homes for the papers, it seems to have been a free-for-all. As a result, many of the works are unpublished and may be housed in 1) state archives 2) county courthouses 3) New England Historic Genealogical Society 4) the DAR Library in Washington, DC 5) a local historical society 6) National Archives or, in the case of Maine’s unpublished records, which no one wanted, they apparently reside at the bottom of Casco Bay, where they were dumped!

How can these records be located? Without knowing exactly what I was looking for, a google search wasn’t terribly successful because so many hits came up that they were useless. I found a more effective way to begin my search: In 1980, a lady named Loretta L. Hefner wrote a 55 page book titled The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes and Transcripts. (Chicago, The Society of American Archivists, 1980.) Although it is out of print, digitization has come to the rescue and it can be found at the HathiTrust Digital Library.

The site is free and no account is needed to search and/or read the digital books.

I entered Hefner, Loretta and the first hit in the list was the WPA Guide. I guess I am showing my age here because 1980 seems like yesterday, even though it was 35 years ago. Obviously, with the creation of the internet much has changed and what was unpublished in 1980 might well be published today.

Here is a page from the guide that covers New York. It is a great example of why it is necessary to go digging.

Page 1

Not surprisingly, WPA holdings are to be found scattered throughout New York City and all of New York state. Repositories include everywhere from the East Hampton Free Library, which has one cubic foot of inventories of county and municipal records for Nassau and Suffolk Counties to the New York State Archives, which houses 158 cubic feet and has an unpublished guide available to the New York City Department of Records and Information Services, which holds 191 cubic feet, again with an unpublished guide available.

Exactly what can be found in all these inventories, indexes and other records? Well, the New York City holdings include a tantalizing sounding Transcripts of Old Town Records. If I were researching in the New York City metropolitan area, I would be very interested to know which towns were included in those transcripts. New York City also has an Inventory of Church Records. I’d like to get my hands on that one, too, if I had family in that area.

How about Transcripts of the Presbytery of Long Island Records,
1790-1811 or Transcripts of the Suffolk Presbyterian Records,
1747-1789? Hmm, more records that look very, very interesting.

Are you ready to get out the shovel and start digging?

One thought on “What Is the WPA?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.