Rediscovering Oral Histories of the WPA

The WPA collected oral histories of early Orange County residents.

Boarding House, Laguna Beach, Calif.
The WPA collected oral histories of early Orange County residents.

Although most widely remembered for its construction and art projects, another of the WPA’s missions was putting unemployed historians and writers back to work.  In Orange County, California, this materialized in the form of WPA Project #3105—an exhaustive chronicling of the county’s history, told through diverse topics such as fashion, transportation, architecture, irrigation, and sports.

WPA Project #3105 can be found—with dedicated searching—in the collections of the Santa Ana Public Library. While all two-dozen volumes contain valuable information, a standout is titled “Pioneer Tales.”

An 1880 sketch of Newport Bay preserved by the WPA.

McFadden’s Wharf
An 1880 sketch of Newport Bay preserved by the WPA.

“Pioneer Tales” contains several hundred pages of oral histories compiled by WPA employees. The interviews, conducted in 1935 and 1936, document the stories of the county’s first settlers, many of whom moved to California during the 1870s and 1880s. Had the WPA not captured their stories, many of these pioneers’ would never have had the chance to share their colorful recollections with subsequent generations.

“Pioneer Tales,” like all of Project #3105, was never published to a wide audience. In fact, only two copies are known to exist.  Yet, some 80 years after they were compiled, the stories remain both historically important and entertaining to the modern reader.

Orange County—a quintessential suburbia today—has history replete with bullfights, lynching, and shoot-outs. Pioneer James McMillan, for example, told the story of a steamship that was wrecked in Newport Bay. It was only through his heroic rescue that the crew was saved. In his oral history, J.E. Parker recalled the massive Mexican fiestas on the ranchos in the days before Orange County had seceded from Los Angeles. Perhaps the most harrowing tale came from Mr. N.T. Wood, who described in detail his near-death encounter with a grizzly bear in one of Orange County’s canyons.

The WPA collected stories about the county’s early settlers.

The MacMillan Family
The WPA collected stories about the county’s early settlers.

There is no doubt that many communities across America had similar historical projects funded by the WPA. Who knows how many volumes of WPA writings are now languishing in libraries—their pages crumbling like those of Project #3105—at risk of being lost forever. Thousands of pages of Project #3105 have yet to be transcribed from the original typewritten manuscripts, so the project’s contribution to the historical record remains virtually unknown.

Putting such historical WPA works into the hands of readers and researchers is a step in the right direction. Efforts to preserve WPA artworks and structures for future generations are underway in cities and towns across America; shouldn’t the same attention be paid to preserving the written word of the WPA?

Charles Epting is the author of Orange County Pioneers: Oral Histories from the Works Progress Administration, available now from the History Press.

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