Indiana Federal Writers' Project/Program Papers:
Guide to the Microfilm Edition

Ronald L. Baker

Professor Emeritus of English
Indiana State University


When I came to Indiana State University in 1966 to teach folklore courses, George Smock, then chairperson of the Department of English, told me that there was some WPA material from the 1930s in the ISU library that might interest me. I told him that the Indiana files of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration were in the Folklore Archives at Indiana University because, as a student there, I had seen the manuscript material. Professor Smock said that Indiana University had some of the WPA material because Stith Thompson, then Distinguished Professor of English and Folklore at Indiana University, had visited the Indiana State University library and had pilfered some files, but, chuckling, Dr. Smock said that Stith Thompson didn't get all of the files. Since then, we discovered that Professor Thompson carted off only three file drawers of material, mainly legends, but the material had been loaned to him by then President Raleigh Holmstedt. Those three drawers of material now have been returned to the Cunningham Memorial Library at ISU and have been integrated into the other files.

The same day that Professor Smock told me about the WPA collection, I went to the library, looked up special collections librarian Robert Carter, and he took me to the Indiana Room, at that time mainly a storeroom in the old library building. There we discovered several oak file cabinets full of manuscript material collected by WPA workers during the depression. Later we located other WPA manuscript material in ISU's Department of History. Dr. Smock was right. I was interested in the material. In fact, I have been mining the WPA files now for a quarter of a century. Three of my books--Indiana Place Names (1975), Hoosier Folk Legends (1982), and Jokelore: Humorous Folktales from Indiana (1986)--include material from the WPA collection, and one of my books--French Folklife in Old Vincennes (1989), save for historical background, is entirely from the collection.

For a folklorist interested in texts of regional folklore, the WPA collection is better than manuscript collections in most university folklore archives. Of course, like most collections in university folklore archives, the WPA material was not professionally collected. Fieldworkers, untrained in ethnography, were unemployed writers of various abilities who felt they could and should tamper with the texts to make them more literary than oral texts generally are. Moreover, the WPA fieldworkers did not have contemporary audio and video equipment available to them. Since the texts were not recorded verbatim and since the contextual and informant information is sparse, some professional folklorists will argue that the collection has serious limitations. Nevertheless, the material was field-collected, and the WPA files probably tell us more about Indiana folklife in the 1930s than any other source. The WPA collection covers the state and includes traditional songs, beliefs, customs, sayings, personal experience stories, recipes, and cures, as well as legends, jokes, place-name anecdotes, descriptions of folklife, and accounts of local history. As a folklorist and native Hoosier interested in regional culture, I find the material both valuable and fascinating.

Some of the folklore material in the WPA collection is both valuable and fascinating because it is not collectible today. For example, in the WPA files there are a number of legends about witches in Indiana. In recent years, only a few Hoosier witch tales have been reported, suggesting that witch beliefs are not as popular in Indiana as they were sixty years ago. Some of the witch tales in the WPA collection are international tale types, such as "The Witch Cat," with versions reported from Asia as well as from Europe and North America. Also in the WPA files are around 140 interviews with ex-slaves or their descendants living in Indiana in the 1930s. George Rawick has photoprinted most of these texts in The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, a monumental collection of unedited narratives, and currently I am editing the Indiana slave narratives to make them available to an "ever-widening public"--one of the aims of the Federal Writers' Project, according to its folklore editor, Benjamin Botkin.

There are many good things about working at Indiana State University. As the late Professor of English Joseph Schick said, Indiana State provides the context for "complete intellectual freedom, the peace of mind, and the very real satisfaction of being able to do what [he] thought was of everlasting importance." Indiana State University has provided me not only with a context for doing what I think is of everlasting importance. With its WPA manuscript collection, the University also has provided me with research materials that, for me and other Hoosiers, are of everlasting importance.

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