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 WPA State Guides: Fruitlands, Harvard, MA

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 suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

In the first half of the19th century, Massachusetts was the scene of the  intersection of two social movements: Transcendentalism and Utopianism. Best known in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Transcendentalism taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity. Emerson, and especially Thoreau, were individualists who prized self-reliance and living alone. In contrast, Utopian transcendentalist Bronson Alcott purchased farmland in Harvard, Massachusetts and founded Fruitlands to test his communitarian principles.

The Massachusetts Guide tells the story of Fruitlands succinctly (and somewhat sarcastically) in only slightly briefer form that the life of the farm itself:

“Fruitands is the farmhouse of Bronson Allcott’s New Eden. This community lasted only a few months.[It was] established in [May,] 1843 as the nucleus of a new social order in which neither man nor beast should be exploited. Following this principle, the Con-Sociate Family adopted vegetarianism, eschewed the use of wool (obtained by depriving sheep of their covering), cotton (the product of slave labor), and leather. To provide garments for the members, mulberry trees were planted [but the members failed to produce silk since they were unwilling to] exploit the labor of silkworms. The Con-Sociates attemplted to pull their plows [without the use of animals], compromising on this point only when the planting season was too far advanced to produce [crops.]  Practical difficulties were so great that the experiment ended [in December, 1843] before there was an opportunity to demonstrate the high spiritual principles on which it was founded.”

 Massachusetts Guide, p. 512 

The after-life of Fruitlands has been considerably more robust. Interest in Alcott’s experiment  (perhaps due to the populairity of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott) has persisted ever since.  The old farmhouse and its grounds were purchased and preserved by Lucy Sears who re-opened Fruitlands as a transcendentalist museum in 1914. 

“[The farmhouse] has been carefully restored… aided by “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Louisa May Alcott’s record of her father’s venture, in which she took part as as child. The visitor may see the fireplace where the Alcott ‘little women’ hung their stockings at Christmas time, and Louisa’s attic bedroom where she used to lie awake and listen to the rain. Two old mulberry trees, survivals of the abortive experiment in silkworms, stand near the house.”

 Massachusetts Guide, p. 512

Fruitlands is now run by the non-profit organization, Trustees of Reservations, and it has been expanded over the years to include a Native American museum, an art museum, and a Shaker farmhouse and herb gardens. There are hiking trails throughout the property and crafts fairs and performances are held on the grounds in summer. One of the mulberry trees still graces the original farmhouse. It is a magical place for a visit.

                                 Fern L. Nesson

                                      July, 2021