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: North Adams, Massachusetts

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

For much of its history, the western Massachusetts city of North Adams was a mill town. In 1937, the Massachusetts Guide could imagine no other purpose for its existence:

“This little mill city bursts suddenly into view in a setting of striking mountainous beauty […] Woolens cotton goods, silk and rayon goods, shoes and radio and electrical supplies are today produced in the plants of the city.”

Massachusetts Guide p. 459 

With the exception of Mt. Greylock, the state’s highest mountain, the Guide found nothing to attract tourists. 

Were the writers to return today, they would find the geography and architecture familiar, but would likely be astonished at the city’s transformation. In 1860, the Arnold textile mill  produced uniforms for Civil War soldiers and, by 1905, it employed 3,200 workers. During the Depression, the company to was forced to close. Sprague Electric took over the buildings, producing weapons components during World War II and consumer electronics thereafter. In 1966, it employed 4,137 workers, but it, too, was forced to close in 1985 due to foreign competition.

After 1985, North Adams was no longer a mill city. Its economy tanked and the old brick buildings sat empty.

Here’s where the sad story starts to get good. In the late 1980s, Thomas Krens was the director of the Williams College Museum of Art. Krens, who later became the director of the Guggenheim Museum, suggested that the Sprague Mill would be a perfect space in which to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries. 

Krens and the Mayor of North Adams raised $8 million dollars and hired a bevy of talented architects, including Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi, to design a museum. The vast Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1999. It is the largest contemporary art museum in the world. 

Mass MOCA’s mill buildings house galleries, indoor and outdoor performing arts venues, and all forms of contemporary art from sculpture, from painting to photography to sound and light installations. The buildings house cafés, restaurants, a coffee shop, and a microbrewery as well. Mass MOCA hosts music festivals in the summer and music and dance performances year-round. 

Renowned artists are featured, the immense spaces permit them to show work that could not be installed in conventional museum settings. For example, the museum has a whole wing of James Turrell light sculptures, and its grounds have one of his  sky gardens.  Sol Lewis has an entire floor of the largest mill building for his outsized paintings. A visit to Mass MOCA for an art lover is a dream come true.

North Adams now draws tourists and artists from across the globe. There are hotels, restaurants, artist’s lofts, and galleries. This little mill town has transformed the Northwestern corner of the state into something completely unique. 

August, 2021