Travels with The WPA State Guides: Brattleboro, Vermont

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 1930s , Brattleboro was a scrappy industrial town, known for the Estey Organ factory  and other assorted manufacturing businesses.  The Vermont Guide mentions a few artists  who were born and (pretty quickly) left the town and praises the architecture of a few of its buildings.   But, in a state where beauty both natural and architectural abound, Brattleboro was not suggested as a place in which it might be found:

“Brattleboro  spreads  along  the  Connecticut  from  its  junction  with  the West  River  south  to  Whetstone  Brook,  and  climbs  an  irregular  chain  of plateaus  to  the  west.  The  rocky  wooded  height  of  Wantastiquet  Mountain on  the  New  Hampshire  shore  of  the  Connecticut  presses  down  upon the  town  from  the  east.  Main  Street  passes  from  the  brief  charm  of  the Common  into  one  of  the  most  crowded  business  sections  in  Vermont, winds  steeply  down  between  darkened  brick  buildings  to  the  native  stone railroad  station,  south  of  which  lie  the  yards  and  factories  of  the  industrial flats  along  the  river […] From  the  semi-circle  of  terraces  that  rise  west  of  Main  Street,  houses look  down  upon  the  jumble  of  shed  roofs  and  smokestacks […] [The town has] something  of  the  loud,  unlovely  industrial  atmosphere of  Bellows  Falls,  where  the  Connecticut  is  even  more  sharply  walled-in  by  hills. 

In  1771,  Stephen  Greenleaf,  from  Boston,  opened  what  is  believed  to  have been  the  first  store  in  the  present  State.  Not  of  much  significance  in  itself, the  fact  exemplifies  the  zeal  for  trade  and  industry  that  Brattleboro  has always  manifested  to  a  degree  equaled  by  few  other  Vermont  towns. Of  the  many  manufacturing  firms  that  came  into  being  during  the  last century,  the  most  widely  known  was  the  Estey  Organ  Company […] The  ‘parlor  organ’  is  almost  as  obsolete  as  the  top  buggy, but  the  Estey  Organ  Company  now  leads  in  the  manufacture  of  multi-manual  pipe  organs  for  churches  and  private  homes. Other  commercial  products  of  Brattleboro  include  cotton  goods,  pen-holders, brush  handles,  lacquer,  heels,  bathroom  accessories,  finished woods,  toys,  overalls,  paper,  soft  drinks,  and  granite  monuments  and memorials.”

Vermont Guide, p. 95-7.

Almost 100 years later, Brattleboro the town looks remarkably similar to its 1930s aspect but the nature of the community has changed radically. Instead of factory workers and mills, Brattleboro is now the center of a thriving arts community.  The town’s red brick and granite buildings have been repurposed into art galleries, artisanal coffee shops, sophisticated farm-to-table restaurants, music venues, and bookstores.

In one of the most radical changes, the original  railroad station has become The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center. This transformation was accomplished in 1972 by a group of volunteers from the town without sacrificing either the dignified exterior or the elegant, airy interior. The waiting room still contains the original ticket windows with their extraordinary dark wood moldings and a multitude gallery spaces have been carved out of the space.

Currently, the museum is displaying the work of six artists.  I was especially impressed with  the work of two of the artists: Keith Haring, “Subway Drawings” and Cathy Cone, “Portals and Portraits.”  Haring and Cone take radically different approaches. Haring is all about surface. His drawings fill the page with energetic outlines of figures who dance with each other in a burst of energy. They have no depth, no shadows, no mystery.  Everything  that Haring wants you to know about them is right there for you to see. The life that they have  is one of motion, openness, and joy—and they’re eager to share it with you.

Cathy Cone’s subjects, however, are all about depth and mystery. They are masked or veiled, shaded, half—or even more than half—hidden. They keep their secrets, reminding us that we can never truly know another fully. Try as we might, there will always be something that remains hidden. This is disquieting but also reassuring. Even in an age when all seems to be public and exposed, we can take reassurance that we can keep a certain amount private, choosing to divulge some but never all of who we are.

While Haring and Cone take such different approaches, they have one essential quality in common. They are both exquisite artists. Their command of their medium and their ability to convey meaning through the visual is unsurpassed. Early spring is mud season in Vermont. You might want to skip a sightseeing drive through the Green mountains. But a trip to Brattleboro to see these exhibits, to browse in art galleries, to hear some folk music,  and to eat superb fresh farm cuisine is an utterly satisfying way to spend a spring weekend.

May, 2023.





Fern L. Nesson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and received an MA in American History from Brandeis and an M.F.A in Photography from the Maine Media College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She practiced law in Boston for twenty years and subsequently taught American History and Mathematics at the Cambridge School of Weston and the Commonwealth School in Boston. Fern wrote Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply (1982), Signet of Eternity (2017) and Word (2020). She is currently working on a combined history and photography book on the WPA’s American Guide Series. Nesson's photographs have been shown internationally at the Politecnico University in Torino, Italy, Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France, Ph21 Gallery in Budapest, Hungary and at The University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. In the United States, Fern has had solo exhibitions at the Grifffin Museum of Photography, MIT Museum, The MetaLab at Harvard, the Beacon Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, the Pascal Gallery in Rockport, and Maine, and Through This Lens Gallery in Durham, NC. Additionally, her work has been selected for numerous juried exhibitions in the U.S., Barcelona, Rome and Budapest. Her photobooks, Signet of Eternity and WORD, won the 10th and the 12th Annual Photobooks Award from the Davis-Orton Gallery. Nesson’s photography work can be found at

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