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CCC Strong: Historic 1930s structures in our state parks

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri State Parks

 DE SOTO, Mo. – Ancient Indian rock carvings are the highlight of Washington State Park. But a more recent form of stone artistry also is on display.

The stonemasons of the all-black Company 1743 of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked in the park between 1934 and 1939, leaving behind an impressive legacy of rustic stone architecture.

Although the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929, was an era of hard times and economic misery for most Americans, it was the dawn of a golden age for Missouri state parks

In 1933, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Congress passed the Emergency Conservation Act with the purpose of putting young men to work and to restore the nation’s devastated landscape.

The Ozarks, with its natural beauty, was targeted and the first CCC camps were established at Sam A. Baker, Meramec and Roaring River state parks. Within a year, some 4,000 men between the ages of 18 and 25 were spread out in 22 CCC camps in Missouri, each with about 200 men.

Of the $29 million spent in the state between 1933 and 1937 on conservation and recreation, 95 percent of it came from federal funds.


CCC crews worked in 15 Missouri state parks, nearly all in the Ozarks. A total of 342 structures built in the state park system are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The work can be found at Babler, Sam A. Baker, Bennett Spring, Crowder, Cuivre River, Knob Noster, Lake of the Ozarks, Lewis and Clark, Meramec, Montauk, Pershing, Roaring River and Van Meter state parks.

In north Missouri, Company 1743 built a stone shelter at Mark Twain State Park and, in the central part of the state, another CCC crew built a stone shelter at Arrow Rock State Park, now a state historic site.

The CCC projects at Washington State Park include a dining hall decorated with a stone thunderbird like the one found in the Indian carvings, an octagonal shelter high on a bluff overlooking the Big River valley and the 1000 Steps Trail, where giant stone slabs were muscled into place to form stairways up and down a hillside.


“The Indian carvings date back 1,000 years, the CCC structures go back some 70 years, but it’s all rock work that ties in very well,” said Tiffani Martin, natural resource manager at the park.

“People come specifically to see the 1,000 Steps,” Martin said of the slabs. “They weigh a lot more than they look. Our guys have tried to lift them to put some of them back into place, but haven’t been able to.”


Two programs, same goals

Today, Missouri is using a similar formula in its State Parks Youth Corps program. The corps is made up of young people, most of them low income with barriers to employment, who work at state parks and historic sites. Federal funds are used to pay the minimum wage.


John Cunning, who directs management and interpretation for Missouri State Parks, noted that the CCC had a much larger scale and bigger budget than the State Parks Youth Corps, but both programs achieve similar goals.

 “They’re aimed at young adults and provide a tremendous opportunity to have these folks learn some job skills by putting them to work in Missouri’s most beautiful settings,” Cunning said.

“In both programs, we got a tremendous return on our investment. There are projects that would never have gotten done without the CCC in the 1930s and SPYC in 2010.”

Although most of the CCC workers are long gone, a few survivors attended a reunion held last summer at Roaring River, where they were greeted by their much younger counterparts in the State Parks Youth Corps.

“They still called themselves the CCC boys,” Cunning said. “Everyone there said seeing the CCC boys reacting with the SPYC kids was an incredible experience.”


High quality work

The National Park Service directed the CCC projects and was responsible for the high quality of work still obvious today.

“The park service called it ‘rustic architecture’,” Cunning said. “Today, we use the term ‘parkitecture’ because it is so symbolic of what you see in state and national parks across the country.”

Professional landscape architects were brought in and designed the structures to harmonize with the surroundings. Buildings were low and constructed of local materials, with the stone left in somewhat of a rough form and the timbers sometimes hand-hewn.

“In Missouri, especially in the Ozarks, you would find stonework and timber, or log cabin style construction,” Cunning said. “Visit a CCC park in the Southwest, and it’s going to look more like adobe and sandstone.”

The CCC crews not only excelled in stonework, they also added finishing touches like the trout chandelier in the dining lodge at Bennett Spring and the thunderbird motif in the dining hall at Washington.

The CCC work would be hard to reproduce today, Cunning said. He noted that the handsome Camp Pin Oak dining hall at Lake of the Ozarks State Park recently burned, and the state is considering options for replacing it.

“It would be very difficult to get timbers large enough to reproduce it,” Cunning said. “It would be a real challenge.”


A classic stone bridge

Visitors to Missouri state parks have a wide choice of destinations when seeking out the best of the CCC work, Cunning said.

“Arrow Rock is definitely one spot I would send them,” Cunning said. “The picnic shelter is not huge, but it’s almost iconic for the beautiful stonework.”

He also recommended the dining hall at Washington, the stables at Babler and the dining hall and three trail shelters at Sam A. Baker. “The neat thing is that people still use them,” he said of the shelters.

After a pause, Cunning came up with one more choice.

“Ever since I was a kid visiting state parks, I have always loved the bridge at Bennett Spring,” he said. “It’s such a classic stone bridge, the CCC did a great job in building it.”