“Farm at Night,” by Frank Utpatel.
Eighty years ago, in the middle of the Great Depression, the U.S. government put Wisconsin writers and artists to work with an epic project, the results of which remained rolled up on microfilm in the Library of Congress for decades.
Now John Zimm, an editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, has culled through those rolls and compiled what he found into a book.
The Works Progress Administration, a relief measure established by Congress in 1935 by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, gave writers the opportunity to create individual state travel guides “that captured the ‘native and folk backgrounds of rural localities,’” Michael Edmonds, deputy director of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s library archives, writes in the foreword to Blue Men & River Monsters: Folklore of the North, a newly published collection of those tales. “WPA editors encouraged staff to interview farmers, factory workers, immigrants, former slaves, Indians and other Americans typically left out of traditional travel guides.”
Although the short-lived program was criticized for giving work to writers and artists, WPA director Harry Hopkins defended the recipients: “Hell, they’ve got to eat like other people.”
And, boy, did those writers earn their meals, penning thousands of pages of notes that provide a record of what Depression-era Wisconsinites held dear. From tales of tribal and homeland customs, foods and cures to unexplained stories of predicted deaths and miraculous healings, editor Zimm read them all to select the best ones for Blue Men & River Monsters.
Divided into three sections — “Myths and Legends,” “Local History” and “Daily Life and Customs” — the book includes previously unpublished narratives about the formation of the Wisconsin River (apparently, we have a giant serpent to thank), the origins of the “Badger State” name (derived from lead miners in Grant County), and the founding of Sun Prairie (oddly enough, it involves the construction of the State Capitol building).
Handsome images, mostly woodblock prints, are given full-page treatment throughout the book and depict scenes from daily life. They, too, were produced under the Federal Art Project, another branch of the WPA.
Whether browsing these pages, scanning the index for specific locales or reading each yarn from beginning to end, readers likely will find something of interest. Kudos to John Zimm for saving this slice of Wisconsin social history from obscurity.
Blue Men & River Monsters: Folklore Of The North
Edited by John Zimm, Wisconsin Historical Society Press