WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: Wiscasset, Maine

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included recommended tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. This post, following a suggested tour in Maine, is the second in a series of articles based upon the guides.

Wiscasset Scene

Wiscasset is a historic town that sits directly on Route One; its main street is, in fact, the route itself. Although the American Guide Series asserts it was “a ghost town” in 1938, reduced in population by 50% since the 19th Century, this is not true today. The population in 1938 was 1186; currently it stands at 3290. The town is thriving. 

The Guide dwells mostly on the architecture and provenance of Wiscasset’s colonial era houses. In 1938, some may have been empty or dilapidated, but today, every house appears to be in its magnificent and graceful original state. The sights of the colonial houses with their manicured, flourishing gardens are stunning. 

Houses on Route One


Garden path

Wiscasset (justifiably) calls itself “a living museum” and present-day writers are lavish in their praise.

Here is just one sample:

The historic town ofWiscassetis fondly known as the prettiest village in Maine. Historic homes and antique shops dominate the center. You don’t have to walk far to witness Wiscasset’s historical charm—there are interesting sites on just about every corner. The town boasts some of the region’s most famous architectural landmarks. 

The Boston Globe

I spent an entire day in Wiscasset. I stated my visit in the morning by photographing some of the houses mentioned in the Guide. First up was the Nickels House:

Nickels House (1807)

The author of this section of the American Guide Seriesmust have been a keen student of colonial architecture, and a stern critic. The writer criticizes the Nickels House for its “unfortunate arrangement of windows” on the third story-facade and its “inharmonious railing” on the second story portico:

The WILLIAM NICKELS HOUSE (1807-08), corner of Main and Fort Sts. [Route One] is a massive three-story structure with a one-story entrance portico, Corinthian pilasters, a long central Palladian window in the second story, and a large semicircular window above it interpolated between the square windows on each side in the third story. 

This unfortunate arrangement of windows is a characteristic central motif of the facade in houses on the Maine coast. The inharmonious railing above the portico is a later addition (c. 1890). 

But other architectural details of the house are noted and highly praised:

An interesting variation in the detail of the main cornice is the omission of the modillions and the use of a double row of dentils in their place. 

The main portal with its elliptical fan light and elaborately mullioned side lights is particularly notable for slender pilasters and delicately carved transom rail and architrave. The face of the pilasters is carved in herringbone pattern. 

In contrast, the Abiel Wood House receives only praise. Showing a sophisticated understanding of classical architectural principles, the writer draws our attention to the decorative elements of the house:

The ABIEL WOOD HOUSE (1812) however, has greater distinction because of the more pleasing proportions of its Palladian window, and the lack of such superficial embellishments as the Corinthian pilasters. 

Abiel-Wood House (1812)

But despite offering stern critique of the builders’ unconventional use of Classical motifs, the writer is not a snob. The Guide describes the Lilac Cottage, an older, vernacular house from an earlier century, with clear affection: 

The CLAPP HOUSE, or Lilac Cottage, on US 1 opposite the Common, is an old story-and-a-half structure of unknown date, now painted white with green shutters. The front yard, which is fragrant with lilacs in the spring, is enclosed by a picket fence. 

 The cottage remains exactly as the guide described it in 1938 and it is still surrounded by a white picket fence and scores of lilac bushes. Only the green shutters are missing.

Lilac Cottage (front view)

Lilac cottage side view (The Clapp House)

The town’s public architecture is also classic New England, restrained and elegant. The Congregational Church and the Lincoln Courthouse sit next to each other at the highest point on the Wiscasset Common. They, too, remain unchanged since 1938.

It is possible to spend the entire day admiring the towns’ historic architecture, but the guide led me in another direction. It referred, mysteriously to “a very old piece of fire apparatus” in the town library. Off I went in search of what that might be.

Public Library

 There was nothing obviously fire-related in the reading room, so I asked the librarian where I might find the fire-fighting apparatus that was mentioned in the guide eighty years earlier. At first, she responded that she knew of no such thing, having been born after (but not much after) 1938. But then she paused, a light dawned, and she told me that, several years ago, she’d noticed four glass balls filled with a clear liquid mounted on iron brackets near the ceiling. The balls were labelled: “In case of fire, throw these balls at the flames.”

These instructions alarmed her and she called in the fire chief to consult. The chief agreed that the balls seemed more dangerous than helpful and he replaced them with a standard-issue fire extinguisher. The librarian thought that the chief had destroyed them by detonating them. I hoped not.

I next went to the Fire House. The building was locked, but several persons standing outside chatting had volunteer fireman’s badges on their windbreakers. (It turned out to be just as it was in 1938, when the guide noted that Wiscasset depended solely upon volunteers for its fire protection.)

I described my conversation with the librarian to the volunteer firemen and they were able to compete the story. The glass balls were indeed a form of firefighting equipment not uncommon in Maine in the late 1800’s. Called “fire grenades,” the grenades were filled with carbon tetrachloride and, yes, they were meant to be thrown at fires in order to extinguish the flames. 

It turned out that the fire chief had not immediately detonated the grenades. Instead, he put them on display in the fire station where, one of the volunteers said, “I actually got to see them.” Although they were no longer on display, if I could come back on a Wednesday evening at 6PM, when the volunteers had their weekly meeting, we might be able to locate the balls. 

 I hope to do that very soon, but, for now, here is a picture of a typical 19thcentury fire grenade:

Fire Grenade