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Original Essays

Unpredictable Pathways

by Nick Taylor
 
  1. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work "Taylor vividly and painstakingly paints the full story of the WPA....[A] splendid appreciation of the WPA with which to celebrate the upcoming 75th anniversary of the New Deal's beginnings in 1933." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "Readable and vividly rendered — a near-definitive account of one of the most massive government interventions into domestic affairs in American history." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


Writers wind up in a lot of the places they wind up entirely by accident. The great Gay Talese made that point exquisitely in A Writer's Life as he described following promising stories down unpredictable pathways where they habitually disappeared. You can't know when you set out on a project where you are going.

Not long after I had started to research the book that became American-Made, my wife and I passed through Portland, Oregon, on the way to her cousin's wedding in Bend. We skirted the foot of Mt. Hood, where a sign pointed the way to something called the Timberline Lodge.

"Do you want to stop?" Barbara asked.

Bend was a good way from Mt. Hood. We had two old ladies in the car, Barbara's aunt and an older cousin, and the festivities were to start that evening, so I said no. We reached Bend, had a fine time at the wedding, passed through Portland again on the way home, and I forgot about the side trip we hadn't made.

But as I continued my research, people inevitably asked what I was working on. When I told them it was a history of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal's signature jobs program, as often as not they came back with, "Have you been to Timberline Lodge?"

It wasn't long before I started to be embarrassed to say no. I started to wish we had taken that side trip up the mountain. There must be something to this Timberline, I thought. I'd better check it out.

So began one of the most rewarding aspects of my exploration of the vast, entertaining, deeply human story that was the WPA, because I learned what the people who were asking if I had been there already know. Timberline was one of the WPA's signature projects, and a remarkable monument to the men and women who created it.

That realization first emerged with the birth of an organization called the Friends of Timberline. The non-profit group formed in 1975 to preserve and chronicle the Timberline legacy. Sarah Munro is the Friends of Timberline historian, working mostly as a volunteer in addition to her job in a Portland law office. She was wary of me when I first contacted her. This was understandable. The Friends of Timberline archives contain a trove of interviews with the lodge's creators and workers, and she didn't want to give away the franchise when a much more detailed, specific book on Timberline was still waiting to be written. But it was clear eventually that my book covering the entire WPA wouldn't rule out another confined to the Timberline story. So she agreed to admit me to the archives.

Then I got in touch with Linny Adamson, Timberline's curator. The lodge had suffered abuses in its early years. After it opened to paying customers in 1938, guests had pilfered art and handcrafted furnishings with the impunity of gypsies. The lodge had closed during World War II and again in the 1950s, when the electricity was cut off because of unpaid bills. It was another twenty years before serious efforts began to protect the building and its furnishings. That was when the Friends of Timberline joined with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the lodge, and RLK and Company, which had just taken over its managment, in recognizing that they had a jewel on their hands. The curator's job was one result. Linny started out on a temporary contract in 1975 and has been there ever since. She said to come on out and she'd show me around.

Portland proved to be a place rich with depression and New Deal history that I had no clue about on my first trip. I learned it was the launching point, in the spring of 1932, for the "Bonus March" of World War I veterans on Washington to demand immediate payment of the bonuses they had been promised by the Congress for their wartime service. When President Herbert Hoover rejected their appeals and Gen. Douglas MacArthur torched the shantytowns where they and their families were living, Franklin D. Roosevelt foresaw the victory that would sweep him to the presidency that November.

Once Roosevelt was in the White House and the New Deal was underway, Portland and northwestern Oregon got their share of the benefits, particularly after the WPA was born in 1935. Timberline wasn't the only story the city and its surroundings had to offer. Diana Banning at the Portland City Archives showed me files on the extensive roadwork done by WPA workers in and around Portland, particularly the roads to the coast through the Tillamook Burn, a massive forest fire that had ravaged some 240,000 acres in 1933. Hundreds of WPA men had lived in camps west of the city while they worked on the Wolf Creek and Wilson River highways that would give Portlanders their first direct route to the Pacific coast. Later I drove the WPA route and marveled at the rugged terrain from which WPA laborers had carved a modern road, working much of the way virtually by hand.

At the Multnomah County Public Library, while I was looking for background about E. J. Griffith, the Oregon WPA administrator, I found myself searching through a painstakingly handwritten index to the Portland Oregonian. This index had been compiled by WPA workers as one of the many jobs that were created for the white collar jobless, people who would have been useless at roadbuilding but had other skills to offer.

It was at Timberline, however, where the full range of the WPA's talents was on show. In its conception and construction, a picture emerged of people from all walks of life, some with unique skills, others with little but strong backs and shoulders, all idle and available during the depression, working together. There was the architect Linn Forrest, working for the U.S. Forest Service designing fire watch towers because he had made only $120 in 1932, who became a part of the Timberland design team. There was chef Albert Altorfer, who had cooked in some of Portland's finest kitchens before he found himself without a job and was hired by the WPA to cook for the crews who built the lodge. There were tales of a visit to the lodge by WPA administrator Harry Hopkins and its dedication during a trip by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The interviews in the Friends of Timberline archives were rich, almost living things.

But Sarah Munro and Linny Adamson had more resources in store. One was Douglas Lynch, the artist who had carved and painted the linoleum relief murals in the lodge's coffee shop. Doug, white-haired and sturdy, was as active at 90 as the fishermen and campers he depicted in his outdoor scenes. We drove out to the lodge together and I struggled to keep up with him. He showed me Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Basin on the way back to Portland, and when we reached his home at the end of a long day, he toasted our companionship with a pitcher of martinis.

Henry Moar was not so active. He needed help getting around in his assisted living home in Portland's eastern suburbs. But he was infectiously cheerful, a big grin wreathing his face as he recounted his work on the lodge as a laborer and then a blacksmith's helper, swinging a hammer that was almost as big as he was.

When I left Portland and Mt. Hood after several days, I and American-Made were both richer for my visit. You can't always know where a project is going to take you. You can only hope it takes you someplace that contributes to the story you hope to tell, and that you have the good sense to recognize it when you get there.

÷ ÷ ÷

Nick Taylor is the author of seven nonfiction books and collaborated with John Glenn on his memoir. He lives in New York City. spacer

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