At the depths of the Great Depression, in 1935, the Federal Writers Project, under the Works Progress Administration, employed over 6000 writers, artists, and photographers. They recorded and documented many aspects of American life during a time of extreme financial distress, natural disasters and a looming war in Europe. Many believe the most lasting contribution of the Writers Project was the American Guide Series, which mapped, in words and moderate pictures, the highways and by-ways and city streets of a struggling nation.
Many of the writers are lost to history, but some very famous writers went on to become household names. Among them, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Conrad Aiken and Richard Wright.
Over the years I have traveled the Midwest, and at times I have taken a copy of the American Guide for that state or states. It was interesting and fun to follow the tours and to see what landmarks survived from a very dark and turbulent time in our country’s history, and a glance at how a country survived and took care of each other and how it eventually overcame what was thought of then as end times. To see what survives to this day in the city and country, and to see the changes gives pause for thought at the terror of those times and the will to endure.
The Federal Writers’ Project Looks at Aurora, Illinois:
One of the many tours is the American Guide Series takes you through Aurora, Illinois. Eighty years ago, Aurora was a city alone on the prairie and not a suburb of Chicago.
The first white settlers to establish a permanent home were the McCarty brothers, in 1834. At that time Chicago was a swamp with a few settlers. The area along the Fox River was long used by Native Americans. One of the brothers visited the struggling settlement of Chicago not long after arriving in Aurora, and, according to the Writers’ Guide, found Chicago ” a place more promising for the raising of bullfrogs than humans.”
The Aurora downtown is has many historic buildings and sites and is located mostly on an island in the middle of the Fox River, called Stolp’s Island. Many of the buildings built at the turn of the Twentieth Century and the following two decades are still standing, often with different uses than when the writer for the American Guide Series noted them. Probably the writer took the Lincoln Highway into town.
The ghost sign spells out the “Elks Hotel and Cafe”, which was built in 1926, and incorporated a Mayan motif.
Aurora, like most of the nation during the 1930’s, was struggling with unemployment and poverty, as it would again in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but it is recalling its past and preserving many of its historical landmarks, while incorporating the natural landscape to complement the past and keep its eye on the future.