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The American Guide Project – A 65-year-old Main Line tour that's still interesting

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
August 21, 2002

The Great Depression affected every element of American life, but one of the remnants of that time is a tour route suggested then that is still just as interesting.

It comes as a result of a make-work program to get people employed again after millions of workers spanning all industries lost their livelihoods.

One of the ways President Franklin Roosevelt tried to help out was with jobs through the Works Progress Administration. For out-of-work newspaper workers, photographers, writers and mapmakers that program was the Federal Writers’ Project.

The American Guide project was announced in October 1935. Katherine Kellock, tour editor of the FWP and an advocate of the American Guide Series, told the FWP writers that she saw the guides’ purpose as educating “Americans for an evaluation of their own civilization.”

From 1935 to 1942, these men and women created a series of books that captured the country in print. Forty-eight state guides plus territorial guidebooks and city guides were published. They were more than mere guidebooks, they became even more than the program’s masters had hoped for.

Part of the purpose of these guides was to show that America was basically sound and that the hardships of the economy would end. It also was clearly designed to elicit support for Roosevelt’s New Deal. Henry Alsberg, director of the FWP, said, “The purpose of the American Guide is to assemble all the data that some 125,000,000 inhabitants possess about their country, boil it down to convenient size and put it into the hands of people who don’t realize wonders exist at their own door.”

But many of the writers of these works were more radical than their political masters, and many today think these books attempted, with varying degrees of success, to create an awareness of class difference and social issues. They weren’t blatant in that goal, but depending on your political perspective they could be seen as either communist propaganda or the truth.

In fact, they were really neither. There may have been an agenda by those preparing the material, but these books were written by committees. They were a series of essays. These men were of a liberal intent, and they did not hide the details of the life of Americans. To them, this was the intent of their marching orders.

These books weren’t marketing brochures; they were the stories of American life, warts and all. Their individual beliefs could not fail to work their way into the text.

In the editing process, up through various committees to Washington and back, there were changes that many have noted. There was certainly a liberal bent to the process, but this was an age when America flirted with socialism, and economic conditions were so bad that it was strongly considered.

The visceral response of the establishment – up to and including physical violence and murder – demonstrates just how powerful these differences were in America’s pre-World War II society.

There is certainly a strong and clear view of what our nation was like in those days. To today’s reader there is some “political incorrectness” which must be considered in the context of the day. But surprisingly, what’s most noticeable is just how accurate these portraits of us were.

The Guide to Philadelphia is a good example, grasping what is the essentialness of the Philadelphia attitude and cultural perspective. Sure, then it was one of the country’s premier industrial centers, virtually all of which is now gone, but the attitudes of the men and women of those days has come through to their children and grandchildren.

According to Valerie Jean Kramer, an enthusiast for the books, the WPAstarted the project in 1935; the first state guide, Idaho, was released Jan. 15, 1937. The last state guide, Oklahoma, was first announced in Publisher’s Weekly on Jan. 3, 1942.

Each book is divided into a series of sections on such things as the natural setting, history, agriculture, industry, transportation, culture, education, religion, fine arts, media, etc.

The final section of each of the guides was a series of “tours.” These were designed to give people a thorough understanding of the area covered. Tours dealt with history, industry, the arts and architecture. In the Philadelphia book, most of the tours are still valid, and 65 years later most could be well worth taking.

For example, there’s a tour of the suburbs, and naturally that meant the Main Line and Valley Forge. For the next two weeks this route will be republished in its entirety. This week, we make our way as far as King of Prussia:

Environs Tour 4 I

Philadelphia-Gulph Mills-King of Prussia- Valley Forge-Devon Wayne-Bryn Mawr- Haverford-Ardmore- Philadelphia. State Rts. 23 and 83, U.S. Rt. 30 – 51 miles The route winds back and forth across the tracks of the Pennsylvania R. R. and Reading R. R. on the outward trip, and parallels the Pennsylvania R. R. on the return. Round trip 61 miles Concrete or macadamized roadbed over entire route passable in all weathers.

City Line Avenue (a boundary of Philadelphia) State Rt. 23 winds in a northwesterly direction through some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest suburban sections, a picturesque countryside of extensive, cultivated estates, and wide stretches of meadow and forest. There are steep-walled valleys, brooks, and thickly wooded settings which belie the nearness of a metropolitan center. This region was well settled long before the Revolution, and all occasional square, stone house, dating back to Colonial times, stands in sight of the road. Farming is confined chiefly to gardening and horticulture for pastime rather than livelihood. The route is rich in historic interest, especially as it nears Valley Forge.

After passing through Valley Forge Park, the route returns over State Rt. 83 to Devon; thence over U.S. Rt. 30, the southernmost of three national highways crossing Pennsylvania and passes through the heart of the Main Line, a chain of prosperous suburbs west of Philadelphia.

From City Hall, Philadelphia, follow the Parkway NW; R. around Logan Circle and skirting the Art Museum, into Fairmount Park; L. around the Lincoln Monument into East River Drive; at 5.7 miles L. on US 1, which crosses City Line Avenue Bridge. At 6 miles (on right)

West Laurel Hill Cemetery may be seen. Large private estates line the righthand side of City Line Avenue, shut off front the road by stone fences, over which bloom dogwood, wisteria, and flowering shrubs. At 6.7 miles (on left) paralleling the road for an eighth of a mile, is the walled Athletic Field of the Friends Select School.

At 7.2 miles is a junction with State 23; R. on this. Now the route is State 23 (Conshohocken State Road).

Standing serenely a short distance beyond the intersection (on left) is the old Wisconsin House (1), a square, clapboard structure with a weathered sign lettered “Wisconsin” on the front of the upper story. This was the Wisconsin State Building at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition. Purchased by the Simes estate, it was moved here from Fairmount Park, where it had stood between the English and Ohio buildings.

The first contractors engaged to move the building were unable to complete the job and, as a result, it rested for more than a year in the middle of Conshohocken Road near Belmont Avenue. The transfer was completed only when Philadelphia authorities threatened to burn the structure. Phipps and Bair opened the building on its present site as a hotel, calling it the Wisconsin House; then sold it to Dan Titlow, a local resident, from whom it was purchased by W. H. Doble, father-in-law of the present owner. It was operated as a hotel until 1915.

The cupola, shown in old engravings, is gone, and one of the three porches was removed to permit widening of State 23. Part of Union Avenue, formerly Ford Road, fronting the Wisconsin House, was given to the owners of the hotel at the time of the construction of State 23.

Left of the Wisconsin House is a white-plastered house dating from Revolutionary times. At 7.6 miles (on left) is the Site of an Old Toll House.

At 7.7 miles is the Bala-Cynwyd station of the Pennsylvania R. R

Bala-Cynwyd (250 alt.; 3,000 pop.) is a suburban community composed chiefly of large estates.

The highway crosses the railroad tracks and turns R.

At 8.7 miles (on left) is the Chinese Burial Ground (2), founded in 1888, where most of the Philadelphia Chinese bury their dead with all the ancient ceremonies of the race. Each headstone is engraved in Chinese letters, which give the year, name, and home district of the deceased. The custom of leaving spirituous liquors on the grave to accompany the body on its journey to the Temple of Confucius is observed. The brick ovens in the cemetery are used for burning paper money, paper clothes, and incense in accordance with their funeral traditions. When the family accumulates enough money the body is exhumed and sent to China.

At 10.2 miles (on right) is the G. Brook Roberts Estate (3), fenced in by a wisteria-covered stone wall. The main entrance is guarded by a three-inch oak gate bound with wrought-iron strap hinges four feet long, and fitted with a massive latch of the same metal. Just inside the entrance is a sunken circular pool, and directly ahead a mansion of polished brick rises from several levels of terraced stone and brickwork. These terraces are adorned with fountains and statuary-filled niches; curving stone stairways mount the eminence on either aide. On the left of the gateway is an ascending rock garden, bright with varicolored flowers; on the right, huge banks of rhododendron. This was the home of the late G. Brook Roberts, former president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Penn Valley is reached at 11.2 miles. There is a sheer drop (on right), to sparkling Mill Creek. The road descends to the valley floor and crosses Mill Creek, passing two small cascades a little farther on. Again the road winds past vast estates skirted by luxuriant flowers, shrubs, and trees.

At 16 miles is a junction with Eagle Road.

Left on Eagle Road 6 miles is a Pet Animal Cemetery (41). The cemetery is attached to the Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals, founded by Mrs. George Hare McClellan as a memorial to her pet dog “Francis.” In the cemetery are graves of more than 3,500 animals, including dogs, cats, monkeys, canaries, parrots, two horses, and a lion. Many of these were interred in elaborate concrete or steel coffins. Granite monuments, some with pictures of the dead pets under glass, have been erected over many of the graves.

At 16.6 miles (on right) is a large Overhanging Rock (5), under which Washington marched with his army during the retreat from Germantown to Valley Forge. There is a legend that Washington used the rock as a stand to review his troops.

Gulph Mills, 17 miles (160 alt.; 100 pop.) consists of a post office, a store, a gasoline filling station, and a few homes. State 23 swings left at the fork. At 17.4 miles (on right) is the Gulph Mills Golf Course (Editor’s Note: Next week we pick up the tour as it arrives in King of Prussia and makes its way through the park and back to the Philadelphia of 1937.)