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: Springfield Armory

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

Guns are much in the news today. Thinking about the genesis of American fascination with them, and the terrible consequences of our misuse of them, inspired me to visit the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Springfield was our country’s first federal factory for the manufacture of guns. The next was in Harpers Ferry, VA—the site of John Brown’s raid. Springfield guns were used in every war, from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War. In 1932, the Armory was still producing weapons and the small museum on site could be visited only with permission:

“The U.S. Armory and Arsenal occupies a site selected by George Washington. It was established by Congress in 1794 and the first muskets were manufactured here in 1795. The Civil War brought a great influx of workmen and in 1864 over 3000 men were employed turning out 1000 rifles a day. The Springfield rifle is still made here. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stopped at the Arsenal on his honeymoon; his wife noticed the resemblance of the tiers of stacked arms to the pipes of an organ, and Longfellow afterward wrote ‘The Arsenal at Springfield.’

The Museum has an excellent collection of small arms. Of especial importance is the old Blanchard lathe, an invention for turning gunstocks.”

Massachusetts Guide,  p. 365.

The Armory ceased production in 1968 and the entire site is now a museum run by the National Park Service. Many of the old machines dating from the early 1800s are on display, including the fabled Blanchard lathe. In addition there are rooms displaying every gun that the Armory produced from early muskets, to single-shot revolvers, to rifles, to the very first machine guns.

Of immense historical interest (and particularly elegant beauty) are the famed Springfield rifles. The first Springfield rifles were designed in 1795 by Eli Whitney (of cotton gin fame!). They were standard issue to US troops in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1846–48) and to the North in the Civil War. The rifles were highly sought-after by the Confederacy as well. Several cases in the Museum display Springfield 1795 were captured in raids upon Southern arsenals. 

After 1865, the 1795s were replaced by Model 1873, designed by Erskine Allin, master armorer at the Springfield Armory. The Model 1873 was easier to load and more accurate and powerful that the 1795. It could kill a person (or a horse) at up to 1000 yards. The recoil of the gun was so powerful that soldiers would joke that it could knock down two men with each shot—the man it hit and the man who fired it.

While one could arguably claim that Springfield rifles were serving a just cause in the Civil War, they were turned to more nefarious uses when that war ended. In the 1870s, the Army began a campaign to exterminate the Native Americans in the West. Model 1873 was its weapon of choice during these Plains Indian Wars. Our soldiers carried Springfield rifles at all of the significant battles in the West, including the battle at Little Big Horn in 1876. Over twenty years later, the rifles were still in use in the Spanish-American War.

As the Guide describes, in early days at the Armory, guns were placed on open racks while awaiting shipment to the troops. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the Armory in 1843 and was inspired by his wife’s comment on these racks to write a poem decrying war:

The Arsenal at Springfield

This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling

      Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;

But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing

      Startles the villages with strange alarms.

Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,

      When the death-angel touches those swift keys!

What loud lament and dismal Miserere

      Will mingle with their awful symphonies!

I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,

      The cries of agony, the endless groan,

Which, through the ages that have gone before us,

      In long reverberations reach our own.

On helm and harness rings the Saxon hammer,

      Through Cimbric forest roars the Norseman’s song,

And loud, amid the universal clamor,

      O’er distant deserts sounds the Tartar gong.

I hear the Florentine, who from his palace

      Wheels out his battle-bell with dreadful din,

And Aztec priests upon their teocallis

      Beat the wild war-drums made of serpent’s skin;

The tumult of each sacked and burning village;

      The shout that every prayer for mercy drowns;

The soldiers’ revels in the midst of pillage;

      The wail of famine in beleaguered towns;

The bursting shell, the gateway wrenched asunder,

      The rattling musketry, the clashing blade;

And ever and anon, in tones of thunder

      The diapason of the cannonade.

Is it, O man, with such discordant noises,

      With such accursed instruments as these,

Thou drownest Nature’s sweet and kindly voices,

      And jarrest the celestial harmonies?

Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,

      Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,

Given to redeem the human mind from error,

      There were no need of arsenals or forts:

The warrior’s name would be a name abhorred!

      And every nation, that should lift again

Its hand against a brother, on its forehead

      Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!

Down the dark future, through long generations,

      The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;

And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,

      I hear once more the voice of Christ say, “Peace!”

Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals

      The blast of War’s great organ shakes the skies!

But beautiful as songs of the immortals,

      The holy melodies of love arise.

Longfellow was the most famous American poet of his day, but his call for peace had no effect. The Mexican and Civil Wars followed directly afterwards with Springfield 1795s dominant on the field.

The open racks of rifles were eventually phased out but, in 1871, the Armory designed the double musket rack mentioned in the Massachusetts Guide as the centerpiece of its (then) small museum. This rack still stands today and it is stunning. At 12-feet  tall, 11-feet long, and 7-feet wide, it holds 1100 Springfield rifles. Mrs. Longfellow was right: it does resemble an organ and it is truly an impressive sight.

 November, 2021