In the 1930’s, thousands of writers, historians, editors and teachers fanned out across America in an effort to record the nation’s history and culture. Employed by the Federal Writers Project (FYP), a New Deal program housed within the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the men and women collected stories and documented sites in big cities, rural areas and everywhere in between. Among the program’s most lasting legacies was a series of books and pamphlets, the American Guide Series, which gathered some (though far from all) the material amassed during the FWP’s short 8-year lifespan. Each state had a guide, as did many cities and regions.
In 2010, a group of Americorps volunteers working in the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia and Maryland set out to re-visit the FWP, using it as an inspiration for a new oral history and storytelling initiative. Called the Traveling 219 Project, the effort follows the path of U.S. Route 219 some 200 miles through hills, valleys, farmland, National Forest and dozens of towns and small communities. In addition to being one of the most scenic drives in the eastern United States, Highway 219 was also one the original automobile tours featured in the FWP’s West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State (1941). So far, the volunteers have gathered over 100 interviews with people who grew up along road; produced 30 news stories for public radio; published 15 articles in West Virginia newspapers; and launched a multi-media website called www.Traveling219.com. In 2011, the West Virginia Humanities Council awarded the project a Media Grant and, in 2012, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ website featured an article about the program.
The Traveling 219 project is exciting because its emphasis is not only on collecting oral histories, an important task, but also on sharing stories and building community throughout the region. Volunteers offer tours and give performances, bringing history and memory alive for residents and visitors who might never have access to recordings kept in archives. In addition, the digital component gives an opportunity for feedback and dialogue, broadening the reach of potential participants to those now living outside the immediate vicinity.
For those interested in new approaches to regional planning and interpretation, the Traveling 219 project offers an important model. It melds cultural and natural history and contemporary stories to create a rich and evolving picture of a region. Its foundation is passion and partnerships and its goals are driven by community feedback. It also seeks to be sustainable by involving residents in addition to Americorps volunteers, many of whom will eventually leave the region.
The Traveling 219 project is currently engaged in a fundraiser on Kickstarter. Also, the Americorps VISTA program is facing severe budget cuts as a result of the sequester with the worst impacts hitting West Virginia. See what the Traveling219 coordinator had to say about it.