Foundations of the Past: The WPA Historical Inventory Project in Virginia
by Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., and Stacy Gibbons Moore
Published in the Virginia Cavalcade 43 (Spring 1994): 178–191.
By 1935 it was apparent to everyone that better economic times were far from close at hand. In fact, in the face of a Great Depression that seemed all the more unrelenting, the federal government that year initiated a “second New Deal.” Included among its many new or revamped programs was the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, as it became more familiarly known. The WPA was intended to hire at a “security wage” as many of the unemployed as possible and put them to work on locally sponsored public-works construction and improvement programs. By the mid-1930s that was hardly unique. What was different, though, was that the WPA, unlike so many of the other government recovery programs, was authorized to assist the growing number of white-collar unemployed.
In Virginia, for instance, the economy between 1935 and 1937 exhibited several mild signs of recovery—yet the number of white-collar workers seeking some form of government-relief assistance increased steadily. Thus, although the Virginia WPA wage ranged from only twenty-one to seventy-five dollars per month—one of the lowest rates in the country—the Old Dominion’s program was always inundated with white-collar applications. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the various WPA programs. Critics even joked that WPA meant “we piddle around.” Some white-collar programs, such as the state’s Federal Theatre Project, were admittedly not as successful as their supporters had hoped. Others did somewhat better. For example, the Virginia Art Project and the Virginia Handicraft Project in time employed scores of people in scattered localities; the Federal Music Project funded a joint North Carolina-Virginia symphony orchestra. And even the WPA’s most vocal critics had to admit that still other programs had proved to be extremely useful.
The WPA had, after all, hired hundreds of clerical workers and specialists to complete detailed compilations of public health and education needs, city land-use surveys, traffic studies, and analyses of rural land-values and mortgage-assistance programs. Easily the best known of the WPA’s new white-collar programs was the Federal Writers’ Project. Under the direction of well-known historian Hamilton J. Eckenrode, the Virginia writers’ program in November 1935 began hiring clerks, writers, and editors to compile remarkable anthologies of oral history, folklore, and music, as well as several well-received local and specialized guidebooks such as Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion, published in 1940 under the direction of Eckenrode’s successor, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, and The Negro in Virginia, sponsored by Hampton Institute and ably supervised by chemistry professor Roscoe E. Lewis.
Unfortunately, much of what the WPA accomplished would not be realized for decades. But the extensive photographic and typescript files that were in so many instances stored in state and federal archives have in the last twenty years finally emerged as invaluable resources. Dr. Eckenrode supervised just such a program: one generally forgotten, its files seldom utilized, and its contribution to the preservation of the Old Dominion’s cultural and architectural history largely unappreciated—the WPA Virginia Historical Inventory Project, or VHI, as it was called by its workers.
The far-better-known and still-active Historic American Buildings Survey, originally part of the 1930s Civil Works Administration, employed professionally trained architects and draftsmen under the auspices of the National Park Service to measure, document, and illustrate the nation’s most significant architectural and historic landmarks. The mission of the Historical Inventory Project was quite different. It was charged instead with recording the less well known, the more mundane, the more local and vernacular, the homes and workplaces of more ordinary folk. In other words, because of their very profusion and familiarity, these everyday structures were the most easily ignored and often untended, at best cared for only as a little extra money might accrue to their owners in the midst of hard times—thus they were also the most endangered remnants of the nation’s, and Virginia’s, past.
The VHI, like so many WPA programs, was federally funded but state sponsored. Every six months the program applied for renewed funding, but the day-to-day hiring, training, and supervision of field-workers; the review, editing, and preparation of reports; and the creation and organization of the inventory files were functions of state government, in this case the State Commission on Conservation and Development’s Division of History and Archaeology. It was a surprisingly complex program. Just keeping track of the workers, much less the files, was a massive task. Underemployed teachers, former bankers, clerks, secretaries, owners of small-town businesses-gone-bad, and many others with a broad knowledge of their communities and with either clerical or general research and writing skills might be suited to the project’s numerous tasks.
But with workers eventually scattered all across the state, with supervisors constantly on the road, and with the clerical staff required to follow every bureaucratic nuance, problems were bound to arise. Dr. Eckenrode time after time found himself sometimes soothing, sometimes ruffling feathers, depending on the situation. In defense of a secretary, Eckenrode in 1935 instructed one of his field assistants that “Miss Butler” alone should distribute the paychecks: she, at least, “does it gracefully,” and “otherwise . . . may become indignant and refuse to let us have any checks.” He chastised an aide for compiling a list of hotels for field-workers that included “several high-priced ones, particularly the Monticello at Charlottesville and the Stratford at Fredericksburg.” “You might as well understand,” he added, “that such high-priced hotels are out of the question.”
And with so many people involved, the quality of the work varied. One supervisor commented in an August 1936 report that the “dates and facts seem correct but [the] English is rotten. I started to assist [the field-worker], easing him over the bumps, but found I was rewriting the whole thing.” Most reports, too, were supposed to include a photograph: usually of a house, perhaps a church or cemetery, often a storefront. Some subjects required plat drawings or, for decorative details such as mantels, pen-and-ink sketches. There, too, results varied. Asked to interview, research, write, and, above all, persevere, few field-workers could in addition to all that claim any experience in drafting or photography. As a result, photographs, for example, were often taken with the wrong exposure. Sometimes the image was not even in focus, or was framed at some bizarre angle, or obscured by a passing truck or pedestrian. The reports nevertheless comprise a remarkable collection of local lore.
Each week or so the field-workers submitted their reports to Richmond or a regional office, accompanied by photographs or an undeveloped roll of film. The regional supervisors, often on the road during the week, then spent considerable time reviewing the accumulated reports (frequently on Saturdays), requesting additional information and notations, editing, and finally passing the material on to a battery of typists. A typescript report submitted in May 1937 to the project’s fifth district office in Waynesboro underwent a typical review. An interim cover sheet was affixed, listing the field-worker, date, site location, and report classification (house or cemetery, for example). After queries to the field-worker, a reviewer edited the original report as well as additional material sent a few days later and selected a file photograph from the several available. The reviewer also initialed the report and appended instructions for retyping. Once the text had been approved, a picture was attached to the final typescript and the completed report filed alphabetically by category for its respective county. Every report was also formally logged in, with each subject recorded in the applicable county’s spiral notebook. The notebooks evidently functioned both as an ongoing project catalog and as a record of the field-workers’ pace. The Richmond office also maintained county maps marked with most of the sites researched.
The Greensville County file, for example, includes 179 reports. Several were researched by Louise Braxton Batte, of Jarratt. Most, though, were submitted by Gladys H. Boone, of North Emporia. Boone during 1936 and 1937 evidently spent a large portion of her time as a WPA field-worker. Every worker, as instructed, explored the usual houses, churches, mills, and other buildings. She and her fellow worker, however, went further, even adding notes on a local eighteenth-century whipping post and on an early arrest order. For whatever reason, though, the Greensville County files include few photographs.
As with so many WPA-sponsored projects, some workers interpreted their instructions too liberally and inventoried everything they could find. Thus the files for many counties—Alleghany, Amherst, Fauquier, Mecklenburg, Prince Edward, Prince George, Stafford, and York, to name only a few—include genealogies, or excerpts from local wills and broadsides, sometimes transcriptions of diaries, recollections by former slaves, descriptions of antique furniture, even a description of a World War I training area for trench warfare. Some files—Gloucester County’s, for instance—are incomplete, containing only brief and scribbled notes. Others include just a few finished reports. There are, for example, only twenty-one for Tazewell County, three for Middlesex. Nevertheless, there are research collections of varying quality for all but eleven Virginia counties: Amelia, Bland, Brunswick, Charles City, Charlotte, Clarke, Essex, King and Queen, Mathews, Richmond, and Smyth.
The Rockbridge County collection precisely follows the assigned categories. There are detailed research reports on 29 buildings, 21 cemeteries, 21 churches, 13 hotels and taverns, 14 mills, 2 monuments, 6 schools, another 26 files on miscellaneous structures (bridges, forts, and foundries, for instance), and 489 homes—621 reports in all. Field-worker Rada Moore, a Lexington resident, completed 45 of the reports; Eleanor Shields from Fairfield researched another 42.
The remaining 534 files are the remarkable work of James Willson McClung. How he came to accept the task of compiling them is a singular story in itself. Born in 1866 to a farm family in Brownsburg, a resident of Lexington for decades, and treasurer and deacon of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, McClung already knew and appreciated much about Rockbridge County. He also brought an analytical eye to the job. For several years McClung had worked in Lexington for the Rockbridge National Bank and in 1904 helped organize and later served as president of the Peoples National Bank. In October 1914, he had accepted an appointment as treasurer of Virginia Military Institute, and there he likely would have remained except for a catastrophic lapse.
In the autumn of 1931, while implementing a new accounting system, state auditors noted improprieties in McClung’s handling of institute funds. When further investigation revealed that the various amounts in question exactly matched deposits to the treasurer’s personal bank account, VMI’s Board of Visitors had no choice but to demand Major McClung’s resignation, submitted in November 1931. A subsequent and more extensive audit exposed an even darker truth: McClung over seventeen years had misappropriated, including interest lost, nearly thirty-one thousand dollars.
Arrested the following April and indicted in May, McClung at his July trial—in a courtroom packed with onlookers—pleaded guilty to all charges against him. He might have faced a ten-year prison term, but the judge, after noting his age and “that he had made restitution satisfactorily to the Institute, and in so doing had sacrificed nearly all of his property and that of his wife,” sentenced him to two years in the state penitentiary. He was fortunate on two counts. With good behavior, he would be out after a year. And as fate would have it, the prison superintendent, Rice McNutt Youell, was a 1914 VMI graduate. Youell assigned McClung to the prison library, thereby sparing him much discomfort.
Thus by the mid-1930s McClung found himself one of many applicants for WPA employment assistance. Assigned to the Virginia Historical Inventory Project, he began collecting materials in March 1936 and by early June was already submitting detailed reports to his district supervisor, William A. Moon Jr., in Waynesboro. Moon was responsible for field-workers in fifteen different counties and, like so many other WPA employees, brought several skills to his tasks. He was an avid historian and had developed a considerable knowledge of rural public libraries. Moon was later temporarily assigned to Richmond as the project’s statewide supervisor.
What Moon may have thought of his new staff member is not known. In any case, as McClung went about his work, it must at times have been painfully difficult to face his Lexington and Rockbridge neighbors. Despite that, he gamely asked for the community’s assistance, especially welcoming “any suggestions” and “any historical data which anyone may have.”
Like every other field-worker’s, McClung’s files underwent editorial scrutiny. He apparently submitted his last research notes in the autumn of 1937, at which point the regional and Richmond offices organized the hundreds of files and made corrections or additions, sometimes by retyping pages, and sometimes by simply pasting revisions onto an earlier draft. McClung, like many of his fellow WPA workers, was justifiably proud of his accomplishment—so proud, in fact, that a year and a half later, in 1939, he published an abbreviated sampling of his work. In the book’s preface he commented that he had completed some 700 reports, whereas the Rockbridge County files attributed to McClung total 534. That was not a remarkable discrepancy. Files were often declined and far more often merged. What is remarkable is that McClung completed so much within as few as eighteen to twenty months. Perhaps it was a restitution of sorts. Remarkable, too, is that when he died in 1945 his obituaries made no mention of his singular feat, or of his crime.
Whatever an individual worker’s motivation for seeking employment with the inventory project, an enthusiasm for the task permeates nearly every file. To ensure that the assembled information was consistent from county to county, field-workers were asked to list only those structures built before 1860 and to follow certain precise guidelines. For example, in her report on the H. E. Mayhew house in Botetourt County, Lavalette Dillon—a twenty-three-year-old woman from Indian Rock—provided location, the probable date of construction (circa 1813), a detailed chronological list of owners, an extensive transcription of a family will, and a description and history of the property. Dillon, as instructed, also included a list of her “informants” and citations to deed books and other primary sources needed to complete her seven-page, single-space report.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the project inventory was its broad interpretation of “historical significance.” It was sufficient, then, that the circa 1840 Hughes house in Lexington had been the home of Lewis Hughes, for years a custodian at Washington and Lee University, and that in later years the first-floor front had been a Chinese hand-laundry with a small bakery somehow shoehorned into a corner room on the same floor. Or that the Rupp home in Shenandoah County had been in the same family since 1837. Or that a Fauquier County jail enjoyed a local reputation for hospitable quaintness: “Some one, a lady of discrimination,” field-worker Francis B. Carter wrote in 1937, “said to me recently, ‘I always say, if I have to be put in jail, let it be the old stone one in Warrenton, it has such a picturesque look.’”
Each structure’s file also included a summary sheet. Field-worker Mary S. Venable’s analysis of the Gladys Inn in Alleghany County provided details on the structure’s size, roof type, weatherboarding, cornices, shutters, porch, and entryway, as well as interior features such as the stairway, basement, and styles of doors. On the lower floor, for instance, she noted that the locks and hinges were “nothing of worth,” but that the floors were made of oak planks two and a half inches wide and that the mantels were “‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ like Noah’s ark.” The importance of such detailed research was only reinforced by her concluding comment to the summary sheet: the house was “razed to make site for [the] C. & O. Hospital.”
Every worker, in fact, was asked to comment on a building’s “present condition, and state if spoiled architecturally by remodelling” and whether its occupant “seem[ed] to appreciate old architectural features.” Both were good questions. The VHI researchers were examining houses, stores, and other buildings that despite their eighteenth- or nineteenth-century origins were appreciated by their owners or tenants more for their adaptability over time and for their ability to withstand day-to-day use than for any aesthetic origins. That, though, was the premise under which the VHI project worked: these were the very homes and community centers that best reflected a democratic rather than a more narrowly select milieu of architectural styles. They were also the structures that by their utilitarian nature were the most likely to deteriorate or disappear. Imagine, then, the satisfaction of being able to remark that a house was in “good shape” and “pretty well kept and modern,” and the disappointment in having to write that another building was “right much run down” and that its “owner cares for nothing but the rent.”
Field-workers had ample opportunity to note more specific aesthetic aspects of buildings. In describing the circa 1790 Hocker home in Buckingham County, VHI researcher Rosa G. Williams remarked that its owner “must have been a very eccentric person”: not only were “all of the fire places . . . in the corner of the rooms,” but also just “to the rear of the down stair hall” there was what was known as the ’smoke room’ with a dirt floor for curing meat.” Any detail was worth noting. Lelia P. Davidson wrote that the “quite quaint and attractive” Henry C. Jayne house, built in 1860 in Scott County, was especially enhanced by its grounds: “the lawn is spacious and grassy” and “is fenced around with old-fashioned hedge” accented by an ancient and “gnarled oak tree which stands directly in front of the house.” In similar fashion, Lou Anna Blanton inventoried the grounds of Popeland in Cumberland County. The lawn included “a grove of five holly trees, an elm tree, a hackberry tree, a catalpa tree, a mulberry tree and a yard of thirty-six boxwood.”
Often the smallest and simplest houses received the most attention. James Taylor Adams, of Big Laurel, in September 1937 submitted a report on the William Bond home in Wise County and in November followed it with a second report, each one meticulously detailed. Born in Kentucky, Adams had grown up in Virginia and lived in Arkansas, Missouri, and West Virginia. In 1923 he had moved back to Wise County and had since then contributed numerous articles on the folklore and history of the Cumberland Mountains to a local weekly. After spending several years attempting to establish his own regional periodical, Adams registered for relief in late 1935 and was assigned to the Historical Inventory Project.
Adams was a determined field-worker, precise and complete in his descriptions. Of the Bond-family home, he wrote that the original story-and-a-half cabin measured eighteen by twenty-two feet, with “all logs, timbers and lumber of yellow poplar” and a “roof of black walnut shingles.” The cabin porch, he added, faced to the east and downstream. Moreover, the two doors were mounted on “hand forged strap hinges.” Of the interior, Adams reported that its steps were “peculiar in construction, being twelve inches high and twelve wide,” and that throughout the house “all beams and lumber used was whipsawed and hand-dressed on the ground from choice yellow poplar.”
For their reports, Adams and other project workers frequently went in search of legends, traditional family stories, and other anecdotes associated with structures or communities. In 1937, when interviewed by Florence Jordan about the Darden-family homesite in Isle of Wight County, John Lee Underwood recollected that as a child he was asked to tend his father’s still and in particular to be sure that none of the newly made brandy overflowed. But, with “the light being very dim from the fire,” the young Underwood “lit a lightwood splinter to see if the pitcher was full.” He soon had his answer. With the entire batch of liquor flaming behind him—and with the prospect of a whipping more than likely—he took to his heels and ran.
A November 1937 report on the deserted village of Curdsville, three miles northeast of Sheppards in Buckingham County, included a popular tale still enjoyed by the area’s “oldest inhabitants.” “On one occasion,” an informant remembered, “a circus came to town” and “among the animals was an elephant.” As the pachyderm paraded by the tailor shop, the elephant, being “of an inquisitive nature,” then walked to the window and thrust in his trunk, bearly [sic] touching the tailor’s face; whereby, the tailor in a spirit of fun, stuck the trunk of the elephant with his needle.” Not to be outdone, and with a deep mud hole conveniently nearby, “the elephant in the same spirit of fun, or perhaps retaliation, filled his trunk with the water and deliberately walked back and baptized the tailor.”
Many files preserved life stories that otherwise would have been lost. WPA field-workers were, of course, often encouraged as part of their usual research to learn something about the people they encountered. There were, though, more influential factors to spur them on. The VHI logically assigned its workers to explore their own towns or surrounding rural areas. They knew best how to find their way about the county, and they knew best what might merit attention. They also knew their neighbors, sometimes personally, sometimes by reputation. In either case, it must have been satisfying to share and preserve life stories that no outsider was likely to discover.
May Rice, for example, was intrigued enough with James Jordan, a Halifax County native, to submit his photograph to the project files and note that he had “the honor of having with his father, lived under the administration of every President of the United States.” Likewise, L. G. Mitchell, a Greene County field-worker, in his report on a small antebellum cabin near Standardsville added that its African American builder, Joshua Willis, had earned his living “by making wooden wash boards, re-bottoming chairs with white oak splits,” and making “combs of maple wood,” which he sold to his neighbors. Of another cabin near the village of Lydia, Mitchell wrote that its builder, like Willis, made a meager living selling handicrafts, in his case “making bread trays of yellow heart poplar.”
Another worker, L. Blanche Bess, of Potts Creek in Alleghany County, in 1938 compiled a detailed biography of Jennie Stone, a former neighbor and mountain weaver. Although Stone had died in 1931, she was still fervently remembered by her community. “Aunt Jennie,” as everyone called her, had early in both her marriages been widowed and each time left with several small children. She “raised sheep, sheared them herself and washed; also carded and spun the yarn.” She then used the yarn to weave “rag carpet and blanket linsey jeans” and also knitted “gloves and socks for which she had a good demand.” Thus, by her hands, she earned a living and kept up the rent on her small log house. Stone worked at her trade until shortly before her death when, after so many hard years, “her hands became stiff from toil and old age.”
Like every other file processed and eventually accepted for the inventory, the report on Jennie Stone includes a cover sheet with the caveat that “unless otherwise stated, this information has not been checked for accuracy by the sponsor”—in most cases a warning plain enough to pull up any contemporary researcher. With so many of the field reports, however, the sheer volume of detail, the accompanying photograph, and the citations to county and other government records provide some measure of comfort. In other instances, workers added so much current local news or personal perspective that the files themselves become something of a local newssheet.
For example, in discussing the George Dixon house, built in Rockbridge County on Buffalo Creek in about 1792, J. W. McClung commented that “the present owner, Major Lewis E. Steele, has been connected with Virginia Military Institute for over thirty years, first as Secretary, and at the death of Major E. A. Sale during the [past] summer, was made Purchasing Officer.” “It is understood,” moreover, “that he bought this property for a summer home, however, it will require considerable expenditure to make it suitable, and it is badly in need of repairs.” In a similar vein, McClung when describing the home of John R. Beeton, added that there the family operated “the first laundry in the town” until the Lexington Steam Laundry opened in about 1915. There, also, was a “’Gun Repair Shop’ in the basement for a number of years and the early recollections of the writer, more than fifty years ago, recall seeing its sign, which was a large wooden gun mounted in position on the front of this building.”
It was especially difficult for any field-worker to come upon houses that were not likely to survive. McClung and his fellow workers could at least take comfort that the Virginia Historical Inventory was expressly meant to provide a record of just such dilapidated and disintegrating buildings. Many of McClung’s descriptions nevertheless reveal a sadness at their passing. The home of Lafayette Sehorn “has been,” he remarked, “unused for a number of years, and was locked, so the writer could not secure entrance.” Worse, the house “is in a bad state of repair, with moss and vines covering part of the building, and the roof is nearly covered with moss.” (He likely was quite familiar with the weakened and undoubtedly slippery roof: his report includes measurement for the chimney top.) Unchanged, “except being weatherboarded,” for more than a century and a half, the house, he lamented, “is now only a relic of the past.” Coming upon another victim of neglect, the Dennis-family home in Buckingham County, field-worker Rosa Williams mourned that it was “in a deplorable state, and the long double porch, that was once pretty, has decayed and fallen, and is being propped from every angle, so that the occupant may enter.”
Whether a house seemed doomed to oblivion or not, field-workers were usually careful, as instructed, to provide the most detailed descriptions so as to create a record not only of a building’s history and design, but also of its contemporary appearance and condition as well. Thus for the file entitled “Home of Alexander M. Glasgow,” J. W. McClung made sure to record, among other details, including the house’s various names, that “the coping under the roof eaves is of stone,” the brickwork English, and the two-story front porch “ten by twenty feet, supported by four brick columns, eighteen inches in diameter, plastered and painted white.” As for the interior, “the doors are of pine, four feet wide, three panels, transom and side lights, painted,” the interior walls “plastered and painted,” with “an eight inch pine wainscoting ... above the floors, which are of old fashioned pine planks, varying in width from four to eight inches.” Below all that, “there is a cellar under the front ... dug out of solid rock.” As for its state in December 1936, it had been converted “into a grocery store and meat market” and was only, he believed, “in fair condition and needs repairs very badly.”
Despite having to report on the sad condition of so many commercial establishments, McClung seems to have particularly enjoyed researching the numerous Lexington businesses and organizations. Of “Wright’s Old Livery Stable,” he recollected that “father and son conducted this place of business for twenty five years,” keeping “good horses and vehicles, and it was often that orders were booked for special occasions several weeks in advance.” But that, he admitted, “was the horse and buggy day.” He was not, then, obsessed with preservation for its own sake. At the other extreme, for example, he pointed with a progressive citizen’s pride to the Lexington Motor Company, which when it opened its Ford dealership and garage in 1920 had converted a small, 1843 brick-and-frame structure into an “entirely fire proof” facility, one, he boasted, that ranked among “the most complete and modern motor buildings in this section.” To include a file on the Pettigrew house it was sufficient that James M. Pettigrew and his son, S. G. Pettigrew, had “conducted a confectionary store on Main Street, probably for 75 or 80 years,” where they also kept “a large stock of toys,” making it “a great place for the children.”
A large, fourteen-room tavern in Fairfield, along Route 11, provided an altogether different attraction—fame and a bad roof. Field-worker Eleanor Shields wrote that the site had long been known as the Allbright Tavern and later, perhaps as a pun on the family name, as the All Night Tavern. The former stagecoach way-station had on several evenings supposedly hosted George Washington. When retiring one rainy night, so the story said, he left his watch on the bedside table, directly beneath a leak in the roof. More than the loss of the watch itself, Washington mourned the destruction of its contents—a small picture he had always “prized very highly.” Anna Akers, the owner in 1936, commented that arriving guests still asked two questions: if they could sleep in Washington’s room, and if the roof still leaked.
Tavern lore, in fact, encouraged some of the most complete and entertaining research reports. Blanche Bess in April 1937 said of the Mountain House Tavern in Alleghany County that it had long been “a favorite ’stop’ on the old turnpike.” Standing in the commodious rooms with their large fireplaces, “one can easily imagine coming to this grand old place on a cold stormy evening in a stage coach, and being ushered into the lobby where a blazing log-fire roared in the fireplace and the odor of a hot supper . . . filled the air.” There, she added, “everything spoke of cheer and comfort.” The inn every year also hosted a community cherry-picking, at which neighbors and friends harvested “hundreds of gallons” of the fruit and then sat down to “a feast for the crowd” prepared by the tavern keeper’s wife, “one of those famous cooks of olden days.”
The VHI Project also encouraged its field-workers to submit reports on community cemeteries, reports that in many cases preserved inscriptions rapidly fading away in the face of time, weather, or encroaching change. Between March 1936 and August 1937, for example, field-workers Sadie A. Anderson, Mary Bullifant, and Eleanor S. Jacobs researched several small cemeteries scattered about the twenty-year-old Langley Field in what was then Elizabeth City County. Bullifant noted what she could from the eroded text of a 1697 grave. She was able to decipher far more, however, from a stone in memory of Peter Heyman, a customs officer shot and killed “as he stood.., on ye Quarter Deck” in a bitter 1700 battle with pirates in Lynnhaven Bay.
Sometimes the numerous research reports on local cemeteries reflected an intermingling of local cultures. In her December 1937 report on the Paradise Hill farm in Buckingham County, field-worker Elizabeth McCraw commented that the property included a cemetery with perhaps as many as two hundred African American graves. “The Stanleys were never slave owners,” she wrote, “but the place seems to have been a free burying ground for negroes just after the war” at a time when recently emancipated families had little money, and certainly no “cemeteries of their own.”
Church records are no less complete—and occasionally inadvertently amusing. In describing the Otterbein Church seven miles north of Monterey in Highland County, VHI researcher Howard Hiner noted that the frame building had been used by soldiers several times during the Civil War. One trooper, in a beautiful, large script “just back of the pulpit,” wrote the inscription “Death to Traitors,” after which he supposedly remarked to all assembled, “we will now abide by the handwriting on the wall.” In another instance, James McClung reported that the High Bridge Presbyterian Church near Natural Bridge had traditionally taken considerable pride in its congregation’s many foreign missionaries—those brave and devoted souls who labored abroad in especially strange and mysterious lands: China, Turkey, Greece, the Belgian Congo—and West Virginia.
By 1938, the project’s field-workers were submitting their last reports. The WPA itself was reorganized in 1939 and again in 1941. With the outbreak of war, what little remained of the WPA’s programs slowly began coming to an end and in July 1943 ceased altogether. The Virginia Historical Inventory Project’s workers had also by the late 1930s begun to redirect their own efforts. By 1938, for example, James W. McClung, five years after his release from prison, had earned a byline for an article in the Rockbridge County News about his work. James T. Adams in March 1938, after two years with the VHI project in Wise County, was reassigned by the WPA and began compiling folklore for the Virginia Writers’ Project. By June 1942, he had amassed at least one-third of the entire WPA Virginia folklore collection. Mary Venable by 1939 was also employed with the writers’ program and working near her home in Covington. Gladys Boone from Greensville County found work with the local Selective Service board. And finally, to mention one other, William A. Moon, the project’s fifth-district supervisor, went on to head a WPA statewide lending-library program. In February 1941 he was appointed head of the Virginia State Library’s Extension Division and in 1943-1944 edited its Virginia Library Bulletin.
How many houses, storefronts, churches, and other vestiges of the Old Dominion’s past they and their fellow project employees saved is impossible to know. Some structures may have been spared deterioration and abandonment because a neighbor working for a federal agency had taken an interest in a home, a bridge, or a small family cemetery. Many other structures have no doubt disappeared. Not completely, however, for through the files, photographs, summary sheets, and source notes of the Virginia Historical Inventory Project a great deal about the Old Dominion’s past—and its people—has been preserved.