Nailing a freight on the fly: the federal writers' project in Nebraska.
Carol grew up in Wisconsin, where she learned about FDR from her grandfather. "He saved our farm," he would tell Carol as a girl. After ten years in Nebraska, she feels she's just beyond being a newcomer.
I'm in Nebraska to explore the Federal Writers' Project legacy sixty years later. At the time, the Project kept talented minds working in cities from New York to San Francisco, and gave a life raft to thousands of refugees from the collapsed publishing industry. In Chicago alone it fostered the careers of Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel (his first radio writing job), Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, choreographer Katherine Dunham, and Nelson Algren. But what about the rest of America? Did the Project mean anything to people in smaller cities and towns, or was it simply a make-work effort for urban intellectuals? It seemed a question whose answer might say something about shrinking public arts budgets in our own time.
I planned to retrace Tour #1 in the WPA Guide: down U.S. Route 75 along the western bank of the Missouri River and its rich seam of history: the Winnebago and Omaha (now famous for recreation vehicles and insurance), Lewis and Clark's stop at Blackbird Hill, the Underground Railroad, American farm life and the Dust Bowl, and the Stategic Air Command's Cold War mission.
A telephone call to the Nebraska Historical Society, which reprinted the Nebraska guide, is not encouraging. Most of the state's records about the Writers' Project are buried in deep storage. Any contact with surviving staff will be a fluke, and my information on them is sketchy.
The Project's office in Lincoln didn't escape the cronyism rampant in larger cities, according to Jerre Mangione, who worked in the Washington, DC office and later documented the Project in The Dream and the Deal. For state director, a Nebraska senator appointed his friend's ex-mistress, who proved to be incompetent and paranoid. According to Mangione, her desk was eventually moved out (she continued to collect a salary) and editorial duties went to Rudolph Umland, a young man with no editing experience. The Nebraska guide lists Umland as Assistant State Director.
Besides the state and city travel guides, the Nebraska staff of two dozen also interviewed all kinds of people for their life histories, over 300 of which are on the Library of Congress website. You can browse memories of a farmwife in Dakota City, the songs of a hobo in Lincoln, or a cattleman's tale of driving stock to Omaha. Meatpackers tell how they made a new life in a place where they could own their own home for the first time. Some of those voices still sound very much alive; others suggest how fossilized our own views may sound in a few decades. Cornhuskers of the 1930s were conflicted about all the new technologies. "There were some good, lovely little towns in those days that the automobile ruined," a Plattsmouth resident mourned. An Omaha handyman was more optimistic, and laughed at his memory of crusty old farmers pulling on the reins to calm their horses. "They would swear plenty at the autoists," he said.
Those words cross my mind on the morning I drive north from Omaha, when I look in the rearview mirror and see red-and-blue flashers. I pull onto the shoulder of Route 75 and the officer in the brown uniform explains that they still take the 35 mph limit seriously here. Where am I going in such a hurry?
"Dakota City," I say, a little sheepish about the less-than-urgent destination. He runs my i.d. through the computer and lets me off with a warning.
Rudolph Umland did not expect to miss Nebraska when he dropped out of college in 1928 and bummed his way to the West Coast. Born on a farm in Cass County southeast of Lincoln, Umland was twenty-one and eager to see the world as a deck hand on a freighter, and write novels. (He had already written a few stories that were published by his professor Lowry Wimberly in Prairie Schooner.) The last place he expected to be in eight years was back in Lincoln, seated behind an editor's desk, chronicling Nebraska.
By the time he reached California, however, things had changed dramatically. There was no shipwork to be found. For three years in the Depression's darkest days he led a hobo's life, logging 12,000 miles by boxcar. He scraped by as a janitor, farmhand, dishwasher, logger, longshoreman, and day laborer before hopping a freight back to his father's farm in 1932, one of an estimated 200,000 youths on the rails that year. At his father's farm he spent several more years "fighting drought, chinch bugs, depression, and dust storms," before he was ready to wander again. But Wimberly, his mentor at the University of Nebraska, urged him to stay. "It's too damned cold to ride in a boxcar," he told Rudy in a visit to the Lincoln campus. He pointed the young man toward the Writer's Project and its office downtown, which was just getting set up. Umland joined the Project in 1936.
Within a few months, all the editorial responsibility for the state's new project would fall on the shoulders of a former hobo.
Umland later called the Project "a challenge greater than nailing a freight on the fly." The shifting cast that passed through its doors, some able writers and many not, ranged from laid-off teachers and typists to bankers, housewives, insurance agents, and an osteopath. In a memoir published in 1997 in Nebraska History, Umland conjured the chaos of all of them packed into a crowded warehouse: "The staccato rat-tat-tat of over a hundred typewriters, voices barking out dictation, clerks opening and closing metal filing cabinets, ringing of telephones, scurrying of workers to and from restrooms ..."
That battlefield atmosphere "was little conducive to writing," Umland conceded. The early drafts of the Nebraska State Guide staggered, shell-shocked, from one sentence to the next, like this description of an early Nebraska traveler:
[H]e came upon a hidden glen where were many buffalo bones piled high, a fearful sight. He sang snatches from grand opera and recited all the poetry he knew to pass the night ... he knew no hunger; he had eaten mushrooms and other wild growths. He had great strength, probably aroused by the great strain of fear and danger; he saw antelope and wolves. In fact, he wanted to fight a wolf but the wolf would not come out of his den.
"When I finished reading the manuscript," Umland moaned, "I was ready to fight several wolves myself." Umland tried to create order by setting up an editorial board with rewrite editors, a tour editor, a cities' editor, an essay editor, and a managing editor.
One editor who joined the staff in 1936 was Weldon Kees. Another Wimberly recruit, Kees was then a short-story writer from Beatrice, a town less than thirty miles from where Umland grew up. The only child of a prosperous hardware manufacturer, Kees upset his mother by joining the WPA because it meant going on relief. Still, he always appeared at the office well coiffed and nattily dressed. Being on the project surrounded the solitary Kees with some like-minded writers from a hodgepodge of backgrounds. The absurdities of the times were not lost on them.
"Lord, we had laughter in those years of economic depression!" Umland wrote in his memoir. It was not uncommon to see Weldon Kees or another staffer choking with guffaws, even rolling on the floor.
Besides getting themselves organized, Umland and his staff faced considerable confusion over the story they were to tell. At that point Nebraska had been settled barely a generation and its history was riddled with hearsay. Yet few on the Project staff felt capable of questioning it, particularly where it concerned local leaders and their rectitude. It didn't seem right that out-of-work teachers, used to drilling order and morality, should be digging up scandals about leading citizens. One researcher was dumbfounded to discover that a prominent Lincoln church woman had had an illegitimate child.
"They accepted, in complete seriousness, the assertion that Lincoln was the Bethlehem of America," Umland recalled. Getting them to document the city's wild frontier days, he found, "called for editors who did not 'lean on their shovels."
In Dakota City, for example, Umland et al. found a sort of Primary Colors scenario: in the late 1800s Father Martin, a local journalist and sometime missionary, became so disgusted with local politics that he took his revenge on town leaders in a thinly veiled fiction entitled The Conflict: Love or Money?, which he serialized in his paper for nearly a decade. His enemies were easily recognizable: Martin's real-life rival editor Atlee Hart became Atlee Heartless. "There were no libel laws, and the editor died of natural causes," the guide reports.
After prodding and fact-checking and polishing the juicy tidbits, the WPA city guide to Lincoln hit the streets in 1937. Pricetag: twenty-five cents. To everyone's amazement, it became a local bestseller, and was praised even by Republican newspaper editors who had expected to skewer it. The reception seemed to augur well for the state guide.
Yet Umland's shovel comment underlines the skepticism that the Project workers always faced, as shiftless "pencil leaners" and boondogglers on the dole. Conservatives complained that all WPA programs were a huge waste, and introducing yourself as a WPA writer could end an interview on the spot.
I catch a whiff of that attitude in Tekamah. It's a pleasant town and the Bus Station City Cafe looks like a perfect place to grab a late lunch and talk with folks. But the waitress says they don't have any lunch left, just coffee. And when I sidle up to where the septuagenarian bridge group has gathered for its Friday afternoon game, the air gets frosty. My attempt to make conversation and draw out memories of the WPA is met with stony silence.
"WPA. That would have been in the thirties," the man shuffling the cards says icily. "You might check the historical museum." No one else says a word. I pay for my coffee and slink out.
Further along Route 75, I find that the modern additions include a nuclear power plant on Ft. Calhoun's northern edge. It could have been on this very spot where an evil muse led one WPA writer astray in an early draft of Tour #1: "But lo, what is that in the distance? A town, you say. Yes, sure enough, it is that old historic scene, Fort Atkinson, which is now called Fort Calhoun. Let us see what the town holds in store for us today."
Umland the editor wrestled the demon to the ground and scratched the purple. (The version he admitted into the guide is unadorned.)
In the town, the historical museum inhabits the husk of a bank that failed in the mid-1930s. The curator, Agnes Smith, vividly recalls the record-cold winters of those Depression years, when her beau took her skating on the frozen lakes outside of town. They would sweep over the ice for hours, then huddle around a bonfire to thaw. As she tells me this, their skates stand on display behind her.
Those icy winters endure less idyllically in a story Weldon Kees wrote for Prairie Schooner while he worked with the WPA. George, a cold and frustrated character in "So Cold Outside," worries about his high coal bills, yearns for sunny Florida, reads about blocked roads all over Nebraska, then escapes into the comics with Mutt and Jeff and Moon Mullins. Everything annoys him: his neighbors' inane greetings ("Cold enough for you?"), the licorice-smelling liquid soap in the washroom, and the paper towel dispenser that says sanctimoniously, WHY USE TWO WHEN ONE WILL DO? "George used four, wadding up the damp sheets and throwing them at the wire basket under the washbowl. Only one of them went in...."
Agnes remembers going to the library where WPA workers showed movies every week. Her father worked as building manager for the old World-Herald building in Omaha (at 15th and Farnam). Later in the '30s he took a new job in Sioux City, but that company folded six months later and he was out of work.
Nearby stands Ft. Atkinson, the first U.S. garrison west of the Missouri River, looking every bit the pioneer outpost. A sign at the park's entrance warns, "ATTENTION: If sirens sound continuous tone, tune radio to 1110 khz for emergency information concerning nuclear circumstance."
Nowhere has Route 75'S landscape changed more than in Omaha. The city has nearly doubled in size since the 1930s. I stumble along sidewalks, looking in vain for Agnes' father's World-Herald building, where William Jennings Bryan presided as editor in the 1890s before his "cross of gold" speech and four unsuccessful bids for the presidency. Gone is the Omaha Club building, which served briefly both as executive mansion for President McKinley (who trounced Bryan) and as a posh jail for two cattle barons arrested in 1905. (An indignant Teddy Roosevelt wired to demand that they be moved to the real jail.) Of course, tumultuous change suits the boomtown character that Omaha had at the start. Back then, newspaper editors settled their differences with horsewhips, and in 1910 car dealers would race through the city's streets to advertise the automobile. From its start as Nebraska's first capital, Omaha was a place of fast deals, dubious land claims, and casinos. The WPA guide tells you that, but you won't hear much of that in guidebooks now.
Even on Omaha landmarks like Capitol Hill, new guides are mostly mum. A plaque there soberly tells me the site once held Nebraska's state capital. On the other hand, the WI'A guide's description of the first July Fourth celebration on this hill in 1854 is a scene from Buster Keaton:
The anvil salute consisted of ramming the hole in the top of the anvil with powder, inserting a fuse, turning the anvil upside down and lighting the fuse. The resultant blast sent the anvil more than 100 feet in the air. To the consternation of the party, the report of the anvils attracted a band of Indians who were camping at Sulphur Springs. The women and children were frightened and the entire party hurried to their wagons and drove pellmell to the ferry landing. They escaped unharmed.
On a quiet Sunday morning it's just footballs that fly over Capitol Hill. On the field there a little league football game is getting underway. One of the player's mothers informs me it's Bears Midget White vs. Bears Midget Orange. Unlike 95% of Nebraska, she herself is not white. Omaha, birthplace of Malcolm X and Gerald Ford, seems to be an oasis of diversity. I don't yet know why. I wander a few blocks away to what was once Jefferson Square, at Chicago Street and 16th. The Nebraska guide describes this spot with a whiff of real life rare for tour books, but a scene that hobo-emeritus Umland knew well. The WPA guide calls the park "a rendezvous for the idle men who crowd its benches," and says, "The personnel changes from day to day, but the scene, with its air of frustration and despair, remains the same."
Here hobo A.L. Gooden told WPA interviewer George Hartman of his arrival in Omaha over fifty years before, in 1882. "My first night in Nebraska I slept in a big elm tree in Omaha," Gooden said. He spent twenty-five years in Nebraska before drifting on to California. Hartman described Gooden as tall and willowy, stooped, with gray hair. Gooden was still drifting. "Informant came to Nebraska in a freight car and likely to go out in a freight," Hartman wrote. "He is old and passed [sic] his best days."
The park is now completely paved, twenty feet below the concrete trees of a crosstown expressway. On this Sunday morning, though, it still hosts transients. I watch two men exchange shots from a bottle that goes back into one's pocket.
In the course of the WPA research, Umland, Kees, and the other Nebraska staff corrected a lot of misinformation and historical markers. The Omaha Public Library's coin collection, for example, supposedly contained coins dated 246 B.C. A stone marker on the city's Military Road solemnly proclaimed the site marked "one of the Oregon Trails." There was just one Oregon Trail, of course. And it didn't go through Omaha.
But the true stories that they uncovered, Rudy Umland came to love. "I used to like to go into a tavern, order a beer, and sit and watch the other beer drinkers and speculate on them," he later recalled. "[W]orking on writing the WPA guidebooks, I became deeply conscious of local history, the drama played by Nebraska pioneers, and the passing of the generation of the old bearded men. The tavern encompassed it all." Quite a change from the young man who had set out for the high seas.
For Weldon Kees, however, the past was tedious. "He had a brain that didn't like to go back at all," according to Umland. "The future was always yawning ahead and Weldon was furiously impatient to get into it." More and more he fended off Umland's editorial comments with a dismissive, "Nonsense, Rudy!" The Schooner's Wimberly wondered aloud to Umland if Kees might be a new kind of person, "whose mind might be forever fixed in the present and the future."
Things were happening in the wider world. Several times Umland visited the tavern with a friend newly returned from the Far East, where he had reported on the atrocities in China under the Japanese invasion. Everyone knew that war loomed across both oceans, and that their hometowns were changing.
Of the changes I see in Omaha's landscape, one of the most painful is the loss of 912 Douglas Street. The building with elaborately carved stone columns had been a brothel managed by "a notorious queen of Omaha's underworld" until she bequeathed it to the city for use as a hospital, the guide says. City elders argued long and hard about whether it was seemly to take such a gift. In the end they accepted it, but removed the carvings of naked women.
My poking around the parking lot there raises alarms for a security officer.
"Can I help you?" she says suspiciously. When I explain what I'm looking for, she loosens up. As a lifetime Omahamian, Barb Glussman understands how drastically the city has changed. Her daughter teases her by saying that every building she guards gets torn down. But Barb remembers as a girl, coming back from visiting her grandmother in Grand Island and seeing farmers' trucks lined up for miles in the dark along the stockyard road, waiting to sell their animals.
She says if I want a sense of Omaha's past, that's where I should go: the stockyards. They are due to be closed soon and redeveloped as condos, she says. Before I leave, Barb unlocks the building and shows me the lobby of the hotel that replaced the city hospital, and points out what might be some of the madame's original marblework.
In Plattsmouth the next day the King Korn Karnival, which kicked off with a parade earlier in the week, is still going strong, with old polka bands holding court on the Center Street stage. In 1938 the Missouri River was right at the edge of town, but after walking a while I still can't see where it has decamped to. Things change, but this festival is very alive and yet has changed little since the first King and Queen Korn were crowned in 1935. In 1999, it occurs on the same weekend in September as the WPA guide's calendar of events listed for 1939. Another parade is scheduled for the evening.
Like King Korn, the WPA life histories show a penchant for pioneer days and tall tales. Recalling the grasshopper plague of 1873, Plattsmouth old-timer Ed Grantham claimed that the bugs devoured his family's fifty acres of high corn to stubble in hours while they were at church. In a neighboring tobacco field, he said, the grasshoppers "added insult to injury by sitting on the poles of his corral and spitting tobacco juice in his face."
Grantham was just warming up. He talked about Wild Bill Hickock as if he'd just seen the legendary lawman a day before. "I got quite well acquainted with Wild Bill," Ed said. "I have seen Bill at target practice many times. I have thrown up bottles and empty cans for him to shoot at." (According to Ed, Wild Bill was a quiet fellow and vastly preferable to Buffalo Bill, whom Grantham also got to know in the 1880s.) Grantham complained that in Cecil B. DeMille's movie about Hickock, Gary Cooper got the draw motion all wrong. Cooper did a slick "crossdraw," but that's just bogus. Wild Bill drew his gun straight up, righthand gun from his right side.
The Writers' Project was likely the only welfare project that had successful writers as groupies. Mari Sandoz was perhaps the most successful of Lowry Wimberly's former writing students, a self-made daughter of Swiss immigrants to the Sandhills who earned a university degree despite not having finished high school. Although she never worked on the Project (she would have been disqualified by the $5,000 prize she received from The Atlantic Monthly for Old Jules, her 1935 biography of her complex father), Sandoz had many friends at the WPA. She often met Rudy Umland for coffee in the bus depot, and plied him for news about the Project's work and gossip about its workers.
Sandoz worked steadily on her fiction, but she also conducted WPA-style interviews with ancient veterans of Little Big Horn and other battles. These turned up information that academic historians had never uncovered. Her 1939 novel Capital City kicked up dust in Lincoln for what residents felt was an unflattering portrait of the place; she was so harassed in the backlash that she left the city and Nebraska the next year. "Interesting people always seemed to have a habit of leaving Lincoln," Umland noted.
Further south on Route 75, Nebraska City offers a much slicker version of history than Plattsmouth. The town boasts Arbor Lodge, home of the man who founded Arbor Day. The most egregious instance of the town's marketing blitz is John Brown's cave, a tourist trap that lures history buffs with the fact that the Underground Railroad passed through the area. Except that the railroad never went through that cave. It's true that John Brown visited Nebraska City several times, and it may be true that the cabin there is the oldest structure in Nebraska still standing on its original site. But that's all. Kees would be laughing, but I'm bored and drained and so I leave town as a Huskers pre-game show gets started on the radio.
I find refuge in tiny Union. Founded during the Civil War, the town consists of two rows of buildings that face each other on a slope toward the broad plain. The WPA guide says that in frontier days one resident near here was particular about spelling--"he killed a man because he did not like the number of d's the man wrote in the word 'peddler'"--and liked to stage fake gun fights. Carol Ahlgren told me Union is a ghost town with people living in it.
Today it's alive with a farm auction on the main road. The auctioneer, a bearded man named John Henderson, stands on a flatbed trailer calling for bids on the farm detritis stacked around him: old routers, handtools, coffee cans, two smoke detectors, a bunch of burlap potato sacks, boiled linseed oil, mulch, wood planes, an electric stapler, a caulking gun. Henderson keeps a steady buzz of words going, amplified by the wire on his blue shirt. He waves his arms back and forth between bidders. A big bag of baseball cards goes for four bucks. A woman in a LUCKY shirt struggles to write down the winning bids. "Too fast!" she mutters.
Moving inside the shed, Henderson sells off quilts, records, books, everything in his path. I follow behind, munching on a Polish sausage. He attacks freezers, furniture, and then approaches a great Hercules barber's chair where an old farmer is lounging.
In Nebraska during the Depression's bleakest period, the dismantling of the family farm advanced daily, as farms fell to mortgage holders. On October 6, 1932, it was widow Theresa Von Baum who was forced to put her farm and equipment on the auction block. On the day of the auction, her neighbors launched the Depressions first farmer revolt. Over two thousand taciturn Nebraska farmers faced the bank's receiver as one said, "We don't intend to have that woman sold out." They offered him $100 for the mortgage. When he balked, they took over the auction themselves, and livestock, horses, plows, and equipment went for pennies each. All the items were then returned to Mrs. Von Baum, along with a collection. The "penny auction" was a farmer's Bunker Hill against the disastrous shifts in the American economy.
The practice spread through the Midwest. By the following spring, legislatures in Nebraska and eight other states had passed a moratorium on farm foreclosures. Before that, people like Rudy Umland and Weldon Kees had seen foreclosures roll over farm families like a juggernaut. The system was broken and threatened people's lives, so when the Communist Party held meetings to offer alternatives, Kees attended them, and Umland tagged along a few times. Over sixty years later, small farms continue to lose ground against the huge structures that have taken over American agriculture.
My trip along Tour #1 ends at Brownville, in the southeast corner of the state, where the Meriwether Lewis dredge sits docked in the Missouri River. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the dredge kept the river navigable along the stretch that I've just traveled; now it's a museum. The wood screen doors, the old metal fans, the bunks and their blankets all have the feel of that era, the woolly smell of it. My guide, Dallas Boshears, is a man in his late sixties or early seventies. As a boy, he watched from the shore as day laborers cleared stones from the river.
"My granddaddy worked for WPA for a few weeks, just enough to pay his poll tax," he tells me. The WPA was a handout and people here, like the folks in Tekamah, were suspicious of handouts. Dallas still recalls jokes about WPA workers wearing out shovel handles from leaning on them so much. "Those who weren't on it thought it was a boondoggle," he says. "But it did a lot of good."
Just as Father Martin's journalism seeped into his fictions, the Nebraska Writers' Project alumni carried their experiences into their later work. Weldon Kees left the Project to pursue life and a career in Denver. He placed several stories in literary reviews, but his real breakthrough didn't come until he shifted to poetry (he was also a film scriptwriter, jazz composer, and accomplished expressionist painter). He told his friend Rudy Umland of his switch to poetry as they washed dishes in the kitchen of his Denver apartment, where Umland visited Kees and his new wife.
"Light verse?" Umland asked.
"No," Kees replied, "the heavy sort."
Years later Umland would suspect that it was the birth of his own child a year later, in the shadow of fascism's global march, that inspired one of Kees's most famous and bitter poems, "For My Daughter."
Kees traveled more and more widely, living in New York and then San Francisco, and enjoyed critical success. But his marriage failed and he wrestled with increasingly serious bouts of depression. On a sunny day in 1955, his car was found on an approach ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge. A few friends long believed that Kees fled to Mexico and lived there for many years. Others, including Umland, concluded suicide.
Rudy Umland stayed with the Project until it ended. Its budget was slashed in 1939 when a Texas congressman accused it of being a hotbed of Communists (he pointed to the Nebraska guide as evidence); it devolved to state funding and staggered along until 1942. During the war, Umland worked for a while in New Orleans and then Kansas City. He raised a family, wrote stories for literary magazines and book reviews for the Kansas City Star, and worked for the Social Security Administration. His stories reflected cornhusker life and his articles dealt with cowboy speech and Nebraska folkways. He retired with his wife Elsie to Lincoln, where he died in 1993.
On my last day in Nebraska, I take Barb Glussman's advice and drive to the stockyards in south Omaha. Signs for Bohemian Care and the Sokol Auditorium recall the thousands drawn here by jobs in the packing plants. As I wander the stockyard's unloading area, a receiving agent prods a truckload of pigs toward the gate, crying, "Yessa! Yessa!" to get them off. His hair is white, his overalls are clean, and he's worked in the yards thirty-five years. He speaks with me briefly before it's time to unload another truck. On the catwalks above the cattle pens I pass over ghostly stalls and imagine a swarming sea of brown cattle flesh, the pungent tang of their bodies. Before the brick livestock exchange that towers over the pens, I peer through the glass into the ornate lobby. The doors are locked.
"There is an atmosphere of incongruity about the Stock Exchange Building," the WPA guide says, "for while the methods and equipment used in carrying on this enterprise are as modern as tomorrow, something of the old West seems to linger about the place. Talk of the range is heard in the ornate lobby, and bronzed cattlemen frequent the bar." After continuous operation since the 1800s, the nearby sea of livestock pens--the world's largest stockyard--is shutting down. The receiving agent tells me the business is moving across the river to Iowa.
My face pressed against the glass, looking in, I feel the change that comes at the end of things, and at their beginnings, like a horse on a carousel slipping away and reappearing on the other side. I feel Rudy Umland looking over my shoulder.