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: Union Grove Baptist Church, Union Grove, NC

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 state guides use two different sizes of type: 12-point type for major sites, 8-point for byways and places of less importance. But it is often these 8-point type blurbs that prove the most interesting.

A perfect example is the 8-point type entry for Union Grove Baptist Church in North Carolina.

The Guide gives wonderfully detailed directions to the church:

“Left from Prospect Hill (100 pop.) on unpaved State 144 to Bushy Fork Crossroads 7 miles; Right 2 miles on an unpaved road to the junction with a dirt road at a white house; Right 1.5 miles on a dirt road to Union Grove Baptist Church.”

I followed the directions exactly, aided by my GPS and by the fact that these roads were now paved.   

The Guide’s 1939 description of the Church is exactly as I found it in 2020:

“The original wood-frame one room church, dating to 1893, built by Negroes, remains in its original location on the property.” (Although the congregation now worships in a newly-built brick church next door.)

Behind the church, the graveyard churchyard contains the grave markers of its four founding families. And, judging by the recent burials, the very same families worship in the church today. 

One of the most delightful aspects of the Guide’s entries is its story about the rooster:

“The leader of  a church-owned flock of chickens, a pet rooster named for the Apostle Paul, lies buried [in the graveyard] beneath a marker inscribed ‘PAUL, Killed Nov. 10, 1933, aged 10 years.'”

NC Guide p. 367

It was Paul who inspired me to seek out Union Grove. I combed the graveyard looking for his grave marker. No luck. Several markers could have been his, each inscription washed away by the rains of almost 100 years. I like to think it is this one:

In my search, I did meet two elderly Deacons of the Church, who were delighted that, so many years after the fact, someone from Massachusetts was interested in their church’s history. They confirmed that the Guide was accurate; Paul lay somewhere in the graveyard. As young boys, they had been raised on their fathers’ stories of Reverend Bradsher and his pet rooster. 

The reverend was “a really great old-time preacher” who also brought his pet, a black snake, to services on Sundays. Even had his sermons been less fiery, the snake ensured that parishioners paid close attention to his every word!