COLUMBUS, Ohio — Once upon a time, a guidebook to Ohio advised visitors who might be driving along old state route 76 in Holmes County to turn down a side road that dipped into the Mohican Valley just outside the tiny town of Killbuck. It wanted them to see this:
The hills, carrying evergreens on their backs, rise steeply from the banks of the willow fringed Mohican River. In winter, when the deciduous trees are black skeletons, the pines and hemlocks are fully clothed in dark green. Spring makes a fairyland of the valley, and autumn a carnival.
The passage goes on to describe darting birds and colorful wildflowers. There is no mention of nearby diners, motels or gas stations. This unusual travel guide does not tarry with the practical needs of a typical tourist. It was written for another purpose, one now coming into sharper focus.
“The Ohio Guide,” published in 1940, is the state’s original travel guide and likely the most complete portrait of Ohio ever compiled. The hefty, 634-page volume takes readers from Public Square in Cleveland to mining towns in Appalachia, from college campuses to forgotten battlefields, from amber waves to smoking mills. It was churned out by men and women working for the Federal Writers’ Project, a tiny offshoot of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration.
The project put unemployed writers to work in the Great Depression exploring the highways and folkways of America. The fruits of their labors, the American Guide Series — which explores each of the then-48 states — is getting fresh attention thanks to a new book chronicling the effort.
In “Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America,” Scott Borchert illuminates an epic effort. Between 1935 and 1943, an army of some 5,000 out-of-work writers, editors, teachers, typists and clerks fanned out across the land to document life and times. Time magazine in 1943 called it “the biggest literary project in history.”
The books, printed by commercial publishers, were generally well-received by the public and reviewers alike. “The Ohio Guide” was published by Oxford University Press in New York City and reprinted for years, well into the 1950s.
“Republic of Detours” focuses on a few key characters in the unprecedented project, including top editor Henry Alsberg, select states including New York and Florida, and the future literary stars who contributed to the effort: Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Ralph Ellison, to name a few.
Ohio barely ranks a mention in Borchert’s book. “The Ohio Guide” came late in the series (1940) and apparently launched no one toward literary fame. But it is worthy of attention. It attracted its own interesting characters, including editor Harlan Hatcher, an English professor at Ohio State University and the future president of the University of Michigan. It was one of the more complex guide books in the series, as it covered what was then and still is one of the most populous and complex states. And it foreshadowed the modern travel guide to a striking degree — making off the beaten path the way to go.
“The Ohio Guide” presents a younger, brawnier, more culturally diverse Ohio. It tells of a state cleared by pioneers and shaped by innovators and immigrants and still expanding toward the unknown, often by country roads. The interstate highways did not yet exist.
I picked up a used copy about 10 years ago and have never stopped reading. It’s my go-to book to relax and unwind, to fall asleep to while losing myself in a narrative that does not rise and fall but often flows, as Truman Capote might say, like a country stream.
Write ‘til you find work
Critics of the American Guide Series commonly complained of flat, formulaic writing that resulted from a collaborative project. Field notes were sent to regional offices to be edited and distilled into a style imposed by the main office in Washington, D.C. The people who wrote for this bureaucracy did not get bylines, so we do not know who authored anything, but the barrier to entry was low.
This was “white collar relief” aimed at getting people fed and maybe trained for an “honest job,” wrote Terry Kennon Webber. His 1971 thesis on the Ohio Writers Project helped him to earn a master’s degree in history from OSU. Webber interviewed some of the former participants, who described a motley crew of colleagues: unemployed news reporters, advertising executives, teachers, typists and salesmen.
“By the time these people faced an OWP supervisor in a dingy project office, they were in a desperate situation,” Webber writes. “They had probably been out of work for a year or more.”
But “The Ohio Guide” enjoyed some secret ingredients. Professor Hatcher arrived in 1937 with literary skills and the ability to shape a big book. He bolstered the staff with trained editors and hired OSU English and journalism graduates. Pride in the project swelled. Anonymous authors bloomed.
Open the book and dip into one of the 19 profiles of Ohio cities; or maybe join one of the 31 automobile tours, and see what awaits around the bend. The practical information is obsolete, of course (“ferry, 5 cents”), and many of the roads and roadhouses are long gone. But it’s a wonder what emerges when writers are loosed upon the land. They add a little legend, a scrap of description, and once-upon-a-time comes alive.
At Licking Creek near Etna appeared in 1801 a black-eyed young man leading a pack horse loaded with burlap bags. He was 26 years old and dressed in the homely, practical clothes of the frontiersman. Finding a clearing, he loosened the soil of a small plot, opened his bags, and withdrew some appleseed that he carefully planted at regular intervals.
From that first Ohio sighting of John Chapman — Johnny Appleseed — we learn of a man who walked barefoot across the state for three decades, planting apple trees and befriending pioneers and Indians alike, before his death in 1845.
He became almost completely legend; and now and then someone announces that he never really existed. Ohioans know better and have erected three monuments to him, their greatest folk hero.
The writer who described a lively downtown Fostoria in the late 1930s had a keen eye and a way with words: “Five railroad lines crisscross the town, and the networks of tracks flinging themselves across the streets without benefit of viaduct or underpass constitute a rankling annoyance to townspeople and tourists alike.”
As you read “The Ohio Guide,” you’ll understands why billowing smoke stacks were seen as good omens in Ohio River cities like Steubenville.
By day, the city is often overhung with clouds of smoke and soot, but this means that the steel mills are having good runs, and Steubenville accepts this mantle of prosperity cheerfully. At night, lights along the valley climb the slopes of the back hills to quiet residential sections, while along the river, steel converters redden the sky.
Yet the writers do not romanticize the life of the Ohio laborer. They describe how Brookside, once a tranquil town on the Ohio River, was transformed by the coal industry.
Today huge slack piles and tiers of miners’ houses, monotonous in their similarity, overlook the rocky stream. In the village, black-faced miners, dinner pails tucked under their arms, are seen going home at the end of a shift.
Everywhere they found wonders to report, like the mammoth mastodon that an astonished farmer dug up in his garden in Johnstown, northeast of Columbus, in August 1926. It was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it’s on display today.
The original rough guide
The guide was sponsored by the Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, now Ohio History Connection, and history and folklore are prominently featured. The project tapped the insight of local historians and writers as much as possible, which may account for the quantity of local legends and eccentric characters.
“It’s a little on the quirky side,” acknowledged Lisa Wood, a curator for Ohio History Connection and a fan of the guide. She especially likes the black and white photographs that portray Ohio life in the 1930s. Wood had the photos scanned and digitized to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the New Deal in 2008.
“People sent in photos. They used photographs from the Farm Security Administration. It’s just a really great, enduring record of the state of Ohio,” she said.
Wood was initially stunned to lay out the state map that comes folded in the back of the book and realize there were no highways to speed along. Touring was by city streets and country roads, maybe unpaved.
She sees a surprisingly contemporary guidebook, one that presages the tour books and Facebook pages that urge people to discover a lonely planet.
“In that way, it’s kind of modern,” she said. “Get off the beaten path, explore forgotten places.”
But what most impresses her is the body of knowledge the project amassed. While researching “The Ohio Guide,” local teams published dozens of smaller guides, historical pamphlets and public service manuals. “It was an extremely productive group,” Wood said. “They were prolific.”
Meanwhile, staff turnover was high. This was, after all, relief work until they found real work. A job interview was an acceptable excuse for being late, Webber writes. Yet the project churned on. Writers and editors were trained, replaced, and trained again.
“It’s interesting. They created a structure that allowed for that,” Wood said. “A lot of cooks in the kitchen, and they still produced a pretty good book.”
You can find a used copy online for $20 to $30. (A deal compared to $2.75 in 1940, which equates to about $54 today). Open the book at random. You’re bound to come across a riveting passage or a remarkable tale about an Ohio you never knew.
Smith, a former reporter for The Plain Dealer, is a Cleveland freelance writer.