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Highlights Archives

1930s Folklore Interviews Go Online


Cover of "The Fighting Finches" by the Federal Writers' Project in Wisconsin
WHI 79663

Nearly 1,000 pages of interviews with small-town residents have just been added to Turning Points in Wisconsin History. They contain hundreds of stories, maxims, songs, jokes and tales collected by fieldworkers of the Federal Writers' Project between 1936 and 1938. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration instructed a writers' project in each state to capture the "native and folk backgrounds of rural localities." In Wisconsin this work was initially headed by Wisconsin Historical Society museum director Charles E. Brown.

Thousands of Stories, Songs, Superstitions and Sayings Collected

Brown hired 39-year-old Dorothy Miller in December 1935 to head the Wisconsin folklore project. Her job was to collect directly from residents, in Brown's words, "folklore that has been related from generation to generation and [that] would eventually die out." Over the next three years Miller supervised several field interviewers, two clerk typists and about a dozen volunteers. They conducted more than 600 interviews with residents from Lake Superior to Prairie du Chien. They also scoured books, magazines and newspapers for local color. When edited and typed, Miller's files yielded 1,000 stories, 3,000 songs, 1,500 games and superstitions, 9,000 sayings and 8,000 other items.

A Buried Treasure

Four small booklets were all that was published from this horde of material at the time. Most of it has been buried in archives boxes at the Library of Congress for decades. In 1984 Society librarians acquired a microfilm copy of the complete folklore files. Over the last nine months the interview notes have been culled from the great mass of other manuscripts, digitized from the microfilm, and organized for publication at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Because many of the people interviewed were elderly, the collection contains large numbers of tales and customs imported from Europe. The interviews show just how much Old World culture crossed the Atlantic in the great 19th-century wave of immigration.

Documenting Pioneer and Native American Life in Wisconsin

Many other interviews preserve oral traditions about pioneer life here in Wisconsin. There are also stories collected from Ho-Chunk residents and from Ojibwe elders. There are even transcriptions of folk songs from Swiss settlers at New Glarus. In all, nearly 1,000 pages of grassroots local culture is now available to scholars, local historians, genealogists and everyone else who loves a good story.


:: Posted March 3, 2011

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