|Vol. I, No. 4, Spring 1988|
by Lynn Morrow
One of Missouri's cultural treasures was produced in a painful period of this century: the Great Depression. In the 1933-42 decade, workers in relief labor projects built a group of beautiful rustic buildings and structures in public parks across the nation, including many in Missouri's then new and undeveloped state parks. A considerable number were in the Ozarks. Habitues of our state parks have taken those wonderful places pretty much for granted, as most of us do with the familiar, especially when we know little of its history. Now that may change.
Historians James Denny and Bonnie Wright of the Division of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, recently climaxed an extended research project by nominating them to the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, 247 buildings and 95 additional structures in fourteen state parks and one state historic site are on the nation's honor roll of places significant to American history and architecture.
Experts consider the quality of design and craftsmanship in the Missouri group, especially the stonework, to be the best in the United States. They reflected the National Park Service "Rustic Architecture'' movement, which achieved its most extensive expression during the years of the Depression. The rustic designs owed much to the Arts and Crafts and the "camp beautiful" Adirondac School movements of the late 19th century. These rustic designs combining high style and regional folk expressions sought to blend natural landscapes and carefully designed buildings and grounds into a harmonious unity. The success of the designs may be judged by the extent to which they have been widely imitated in resorts and tourist parks throughout Missouri and the nation.
The famous "alphabet agencies" of Franklin Roosevelt's administrations--the AAA, CCC, CWA, ECW, FSA, FERA, WPA, etc.--provided relief to unemployed workers, farmers, and minorities by engaging them in a monumental national building program. Altogether they built or improved 600,000 miles of roads, highways, and streets; some 116,000 bridges and 110,000 buildings. On average, they contributed 10 public buildings to each county in the nation. Three of the agencies, the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Works Projects Administration (WPA), changed the face of the fledgling Missouri state park system and propelled it forward toward the enviable position it now holds as one of the best in the nation.
The large crews and skilled professional directors with federally-supplied budgets, following landscape and building design models of National Park Service architects (as a group the best in the U.S. for such work), built a quantity and quality of rustic amenities in often remote parks that has no parallel before or since. Their labor-intensive improvements included entrance gates, signs, wells, retaining walls, trail steps, bridges, curbing, dams and spillways, outdoor fireplaces, concession buildings, administration buildings, shelters and recreation buildings, lookout towers and overlooks, bathhouses and swimming pools, restrooms, cabins, custodians' residences, service buildings, stables, and well-houses. The U. S. Army operated these busy work camps, each consisting of approximately 200 men.
The movement for wilderness parks was still relatively new. Missouri provided for the establishment of a state park system in 1917 (though the first park land was not acquired until the mid-1920's), and for a state highway department the same year. The two agencies were to develop together: the growing number of Missourians who owned automobiles wanted easier and better access to rural Missouri, including the previously inacessible Ozarks. By 1933, the dawn of the New Deal, the number of Missouri's parks had grown to fourteen. Twelve of these parks were located in the Ozarks.
Visitation to the parks increased until 1931, declined during the Depression and World War II, and then enjoyed a steady growth until the present. The public was, over the generations, developing a love affair with these special places.
New Deal agencies influenced the whole direction of public parks development and management. From 1933-37, fully 95 percent of the 29 million public dollars spent on conservation and recreation facilities development in Missouri came from federal sources. The Missouri system nearly doubled in size from over 38,000 acres to over 72,000 acres; and of the 26 parks in existence by 1938, 20 were developed to some extent by Depression relief man power. The first of successive waves of encampments of federal workers arrived in June, 1933, at Baker, Meramec, and Roaring River parks, all in the Ozarks.
Coincidentally, the popular and successful Missouri State Game and Fish Department, which administered other public lands for the pleasure of sports-
men, began to conflict with the state park system's mission. Each of the two Missouri agencies competed for budgetary appropriations. State parks depended originally for funding on a percentage of revenue generated by the older Fish and Game Department primarily by hunting and fishing license fees. The Fish and Game Department felt that state parks should furnish game and bird refuges, public hunting grounds, fish hatcheries, and public fishing and camping areas. The multiple-use recreational philosophy of the parks movement conflicted with the sportsmen's vision.
Then the New Deal development period suddenly changed the very nature of the parks. They matured quickly, at least in terms of the quality of facilities. In 1937 a constitutional amendment created a Missouri Department of Conservation; and the legislature created a separate State Park Board. In 1938 the National Park Service, the WPA, and the Missouri State Planning Board prepared the first master plan for the Missouri park system. Consequently, the parks were able to develop along a separate path from that of the sportsmen- and wildlife-oriented Conservation Department lands.
In the late twentieth century, along with new buildings recently constructed in Missouri parks, the grand buildings Of the Thirties and the Depression continue to serve, now bearing the proud denomination, NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES.
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