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: Herreshoff Boatworks Bristol, Rhode Island 

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

This August, my husband and I sailed into Bristol, Rhode Island to visit the famed Herreshoff boatworks. Since 1863, Herreshoff has been designing and building sleek wooden sailboats, which are prized and still in use throughout New England’s sailing waters. In addition to several classes of recreational sailboats, Herreshoff was the premier designer of 12 meter racing yachts for the America’s Cup races.

In 1939, the Rhode Island State guide urged a visit to the boatyard but noted that permission from the foreman would be required. Not so today; on site is a wonderful museum which houses many of Herreshoff’s most beautiful, carefully restored sailboats.

The Rhode Island Guide features Herreshoff and its place in sailing history: 

“When John Brown Herreshoff, a lover of boats who was stricken with blindness at the age of 18, accepted a commission to design and build a yacht for Thomas Clopham, he began an industry that throve beyond all expectations and brought international fame and honor to himself and to Bristol. 

In his early years, Herreshoff had acquired such a knowledge and ‘feel’ of boats that his blindness was no obstacle. The handwork, however, was done by his brother, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, called ‘ The Wizard of Bristol.’ John had an exceptional memory and a photographic mind. His method was to dictate specifications to his brother, who would construct a model; then by feeling of the model, he could find defects and suggest improvements with uncanny intuition. A secondary faculty was his ability to estimate the cost of a boat down to the last dollar, and no one was ever able to take advantage of him. 

Though the name Herreshoff has come to connote a long list of successful America’s Cup Defenders, dating back to 1893 and including the ‘Vigilant,’ ‘Columbia,’ ‘Reliance,’ and ‘Resolute,’ this plant has designed and built hundreds of pleasure craft and service vessels. In beginning his work in 1863, John B. Herreshoff, then only 22 years old, hired a crew of men, procured supplies of seasoned lumber, and fitted up an old tannery as a shop. In the next year, nine sailing craft, ranging in length from 22 to
35 feet, were launched. […] 

From time to time cup defender yachts can be seen at the Herreshoff Company’s dock. The ‘Resolute’ was built to defend America’s Cup against Sir Thomas Lipton’s ‘Shamrock IV in 1914, but owing to the World War, the race was postponed until 1920 when the ‘Resolute’ was again named to defend the Cup. This series (1920) was the first in which the defender and challenger were sailed by amateur crews. In the first race of the series, the ‘Resolute’ parted the throat halyard of her mainsail and broke the gaff-jaws, so she had to be towed back. This is the first instance of a defender failing to cross the finish line. The second race was also won by the challenger, but the ‘Resolute’ won the remaining three races, and retained the Cup.”

Rhode Island Guide 195-6. 

Today, the Museum recounts the stories of Defiance, The Resolute, and other famed yachts. It displays trophies and lists of crews dating from the very first races to those of the present. But the most beautiful boats here are the small ones. Handcrafted, perfectly balanced, utterly graceful. They put our modern fiberglass sailboats to shame. 

August, 2021 

Wade Hampton State Office Building