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I ENJOY when learning a little about something encourages one to discover a bit more. For example, I knew next to nothing about Wyoming until I randomly opened The WPA Guide to America: The Best of 1930s America as Seen by the Federal Writers’ Project.. Next thing, I was reading Great Depression snippets of Wyoming and using the Internet to learn more. Not to excess, mind.
As its name suggests, the Federal Writers’ Project was to writers what the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project was to theater people. The FWP was in effect from 1935 to 1941, sort of a government-supported literary selfie.
Writers earned around $80 a month (perhaps $1300 in today’s money) in researching and writing about American ethnology, geography, zoology, anthropology, sociology and folklore. FWP products were purposely unattributed, though writers included the likes of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Studs Terkel.
Some 1200 books and pamphlets were produced, along with unpublished but cataloged material in 325 cubic feet of the Library of Congress. The WPA Guide selections are arranged by geographical regions, each offering an “At a Glance” overview and finishing up with charming folklore, just enough to encourage a bit of added research.
The Devil’s Tower, for instance, is part of the Lakota tradition calling this Wyoming monolith Mato Tipi (Bear’s Lodge). From the WPA Guide: “Three maidens gathering wild flowers were beset by bears. To escape, they climbed upon a large boulder; the gods, seeing their distress, made the rock higher. As the bears tried to climb the rock, it continued rising, until at last the bears fell and were killed. The girls braided their flowers into a rope, by means of which they reached the prairie. The channels in the tower wall are the marks left by the bear claws.”
Also, says the WPA Guide, Sitting Bull made medicine nearby, where the spirits assured him of victory in a coming campaign. (Little Big Horn, perhaps?) In our time, the Devil’s Tower National Monument played a prominent role in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“The Veiled Jurors of Laramie, Wyoming” is another tale in the WPA Guide. This one celebrates five women being the first in the U.S. ever to serve on a jury. It was March 1870, less than six months after Wyoming’s Territorial Legislature granted women equal political rights. That is, Wyoming women could vote as well, first in the nation and 50 years before national suffrage arrived in 1919 with the 19th Amendment.
Laramie received wide publicity when news of its “mixed” grand jury got around. Noted the WPA Guide, “King William of Prussia cabled congratulations to President Grant on this evidence of ‘progress, enlightenment and civil liberty in America.’ Newspaper correspondents came to the frontier to watch the feminine jurors at work. Heavy veils masked the women jurors….”
I learned that the first woman selected for jury duty was Eliza Stewart, her name drawn from the voters’ role. A teacher from Pennsylvania, Stewart moved to Laramie in December 1868 and within two months became the town’s first teacher. In 1873, Mrs. Boyd née Stewart was the first woman in Wyoming (and probably in the U.S.) to be nominated to run for territorial or state legislature. She declined.
Another Wyoming town, Kemmerer, displayed other indications of progressive thinking. My curiosity got the best of me again, and I looked up this town founded in southwestern Wyoming in 1897. Kemmerer is the home of the first J.C. Penney store, the mother-store, as it’s known, opened in 1902 and still in business as a member of the chain.
A 1911 Kemmerer photo shows, from the left, the Opera House, the Golden Rule Store (J.C. Penney predecessor) and the rest, “saloons and worse.” The town’s item in the WPA Guide tells of “Preaching Lime” Huggins and his saloon, one of 21 such establishments serving a population of about 1000.
Lyman Huggins got his nickname from mottoes hung over the bar: “Don’t buy a drink before seeing that your baby has shoes.” “Whatever you are, be a good one.” And “Fill the mouths of the children first.”
The WPA Guide item adds: “One patron remarked that he liked Preaching Lime’s place because he could repent while sinning and ‘get the whole thing over at once.’ ” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015