Morrison County’s W.P.A. Biography Project

When the founders of the Morrison County Historical Society met with WPA (Works Progress Administration) staff in late July, 1936, for the purpose of organizing our society, one of their main goals was to gather biographies of county residents, past and present. Mrs. Sarah Thorp Heald, a WPA district supervisor, had already launched similar biography projects in Crow Wing and other counties. Her influence was the spark which led not only to the founding of MCHS, but also the gathering of over 1,130 biographies of Morrison County pioneers, settlers, and residents.

The project of collecting biographies (which are essentially oral histories) began in 1936 before the ink was even dry on the MCHS incorporation papers, and by the time that WPA funding was cut in 1939, about one-third of all Morrison County families had been covered. Under the direction of the Society’s founding president, Val Kasparek, a small team of WPA staff was assembled from the unemployed ranks of the Great Depression. In 1936 Morrison County was deep in the throes of a serious drought, but many a farmer still found time to sit down with a WPA interviewer and give their family history. From 1936 to 1939, the Society’s staff of WPA interviewers was comprised of Alois Boros, Minnie Cochrane, John Harsch, Mack View, Clarence Tuller, John Schmolke, Nick Meyer, Carl Tesch, Johanna Michalke, and of course, Val Kasparek (with a few early biographies gathered by Sarah Heald).

The WPA workers travelled the county to interview residents and took handwritten notes that were later typed up by office staff, carbon copied for the individuals or families interviewed, and assigned a number. A backup set of carbons was also sent to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. The public was invited to submit written biographies, and some biographical letters were received, but most bios were the fruits of oral interviews.

To understand the outstanding value of these biographies, one must remember that outside of a few county histories then available, there were no local resources for genealogical or family history research in the 1930s. What few biographies had been published in those local histories were very select, and concentrated on the prominent and political rather than the common residents and settlers of our county. The WPA biographies changed all that and more. They gave the family history of immigrants, pioneers, and settlers (maybe your grandparents or great-grandparents), where they came from, how they got here, where they settled, the families they raised, how they lived, and sometimes, how they survived.

To genealogists and researchers of Morrison County families, these biographies hold immense value. At the time these bios were collected, the subjects were often the original immigrants then in their elderly years, or were first and second generation Americans whose experiences capture the flavor of our County’s frontier years. The timing of this WPA project was such that it could not have been done ten years later due to the ages of the subjects. Many of the biographies detail how hard life was in the Old World, but the labors of homesteading on vast wilderness tracts of the New World of Morrison County are covered in depth. Building a farm on uncut or cutover lands, building villages, businesses and industries, are all described by those who were there and did it!

Most important of all, these biographies are the life histories of real Morrison County people, and their stories are priceless. And what stories they tell! One lady describes in detail the passing of Red River carts by her family homestead, and the awful squealing noise made by the wheels of those long trains of carts, heard for miles away. One Swedish immigrant told how she smuggled three seal skin capes in her underwear to America for her sisters. She fooled customs agents by telling them she was merely fat! An early pioneer farmer described the grasshopper invasions of the 1870s, and stated the destruction made the fields look as bare “as if nothing had ever been planted.” One Civil War veteran recalled his experiences in that bloody conflict, and said that after one battle, his entire company was either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Most biographies describe the desolation of rural homesteading in the 19th Century-travelling miles to the nearest neighbor, village, or school, and waiting for mail that might arrive once a week. Numerous early settlers recorded their contacts with the Ojibwe Indians who still roamed the county, and how they interacted peacefully with them, to the economic advantage of all. Homesteaders often recalled how curious Ojibwe would peer through their log cabin windows-the communal Indians were unfamiliar with both windows and Euro-American lifestyles, and the settlers were equally curious about the Indians.

Today, our collection of WPA biographies form the core of our extensive family files here at the museum. Researchers can readily peruse them and a card index cross-references family names in all the biographies. Several, but not all, of the biographies were published in the Little Falls Herald newspaper from 1939 to 1942, and we have a cross-referenced index for them also. The data found in the WPA biographies has often astounded researchers who discover we might have a life history of their great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents. While the biographies themselves sometimes lack birth dates or precise data on birth locations in Europe, and occasionally errors may be found in them, such shortcomings must be overlooked when one realizes the scope and conditions the WPA interviewers worked under. Whatever their flaws may be, most of the biographies are excellent oral histories, and they record events which would otherwise be lost to memory. Sixty years ago, the citizens of Morrison County gave us a record of their lives, and that record will live on long after we are gone.

Bruce Mellor
Copyright 1996, Morrison County Historical Society

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