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: Quincy, Massachusetts, home of the Adams family

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

The small city of Quincy has an outsize place in Presidential history. John Adams, second President of the United States and important contributor to the draft of our Constitution, was born here in 1735.  His son, John Quincy Adams, our sixth President, was born in the house next door, in 1767.

Also born in Quincy were Adams’s grandson, Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to England during the Civil War and his son, Henry Adams, a distinguished 19th Century American historian.

Quincy was the hometown of Josiah Quincy III, first Mayor of Boston and, later, President of Harvard College and John Hancock, bold signatory of the Declaration of Independence and first governor of Massachusetts. 

Quincy respects its history. The houses of each of these notables are now museums that compromise the Presidents’ Trail.  And the Stone Temple houses the tombs of both Presidents and their wives.

The Guide points out all of these sites in laconic, uninflected language:

“John Adams Birthplace […] adm. 25 cents, is a small red clapboard salt-box farmhouse built in 1681 […] with a small steep, winding stairway, huge central chimney, and mammoth fireplace […] The ceiling beams are hand hewn.

The Stone Temple, “Church of the Presidents,” was built in 1828 of Quincy Granite […] in the style of the Greek Revival. The name is derived from the fact that John Adams and John Quincy Adams worshipped and are buried here. The Old Cemetery, opposite, is the burial place of many members of the Quincy and Adams families.”

Massachusetts Guide p. 339-40 

Reading the Guide, I had assumed that these places were skippable. But I was wrong. Visiting the Adams’s simple country houses, I found the contrast between their modest upbringing and the sophistication of their thinking and accomplishments to be surprisingly moving. 

Throughout the interior, the spirit of John Adams was palpable. I was escorted by the custodian into the crypt and he permitted me to pay my respects by touching the tomb. He also showed me the handwritten register of the church recording Adam’s death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Upstairs, I sat in pew 54, in which John Quincy Adams worshipped on Sundays. 

The adjoining graveyard contained not only the graves of Josiah Quincy and dozens of Adams’s and Quincy’s but many other early settlers and American Revolutionary War veterans. Any Bostonian would recognize their names; their descendants live among us to this day.

A modern downtown surrounds the Common but within its confines, all is quiet and our cherished American history reigns supreme.

Fern L. Nesson

August, 2021