|Vol. IV, No. 3, Winter 1991|
by Bonnie Stepenoff
All the men of Veteran Company 1772 of the Civilian Conservation Corps were past their first youth. All had served their country in the First World War. The 198 charter members had been schoolteachers, preachers, laborers, farmers, clerks, and salesmen, before the Great Depression had thrown them out of work. Seeking relief from hard times, they joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "tree army" in the summer of 1933. For five months they sweltered in tents at Memphis, Missouri, lining up for army rations and doing soil erosion control work.
Before winter set in, the company moved to Camp SP-7 at Bennett Spring State Park, in Laclede County, in the Missouri Ozarks. Their luck was beginning to change. They bunked in wooden barracks, and the food was good.
The park setting was extraordinary. Its principal feature was an immense spring that poured 100 million gallons of water a day into a clear circular pond with an outlet that flowed into the Niangua River. A grist mill in the adjacent village of Brice had recently served farmers in the surrounding valley. Fishermen had been flocking to the area since the turn of the century when the Missouri Fish Commissioner first stocked the spring branch with mountain trout.
"The general conditions at this camp at this time are wonderful," wrote Project Superintendent D.J. Norman in 1936. "Bennett Spring State Park is a very beautiful place to be any way and everyone concerned seems to be attached to the place. We have had lots of visitors since March 1st on account of the open season on trout and have seen some wonderful catches here. This Park and Roaring River of course being the favorite fishing places in the Ozarks."
Well fed and well housed, the CCC men worked hard and left a legacy to prove it. From November 1933 through December 1937, Veterans' Company 1772 completed hundreds of projects, from picking up rubbish to quarrying stone, from laying telephone lines to digging sewers. For thirty dollars a month, these former soldiers provided the muscle and skill required to build cabins, shelters, hatchery structures, and an arched stone bridge that has become the familiar emblem of the park. The sprawling dining lodge that opened in February 1938 continues to welcome visitors today.
The men of Company 1772 realized the changes they were bringing to the milling hamlet of Brice. Perhaps the great upheaval that upset the courses of their lives and drove them to join the CCC made them appreciate the losses and gains that come with what we call progress. One man wrote in the camp newsletter, the Bennett Spring Bugle, on June 28, 1935:
As one studies the situation today and recalls the wagons standing in line at the mill waiting their turn, sees the.., farmers of that time who are making their annual pilgrimage to the mill; then [as one] turns to view the vast state project in the val-ley--the lodge, the cabins, the driveways, the new dam, the fish hatchery, the bridge --being brought to reality by the men of VCCC Co. 1772 (many of them sons of those who came annually to the mill), he has brought home to him just how great are the economic and social changes of which we hear so much today.
Brice became the memory of a town. Only the church remains as a functioning entity. The mill burned down in 1944. In place of the farmers waiting patiently for the miller to grind their corn, fisherman by the thousands--by the hundreds of thousands--wait in the park store to buy their trout tags.
The CCC dining lodge, with its large stone fireplaces and its patrons in their fishing hats and waders, provides a connection between present and past. Its architecture exemplifies the rustic style--sometimes called government rustic--promoted by the National Park Service, the federal agency that supervised all the construction projects carried out by the CCC. Through the use of native materials and craftsmanlike methods, the rustic style aimed at creating structures that fit gracefully into their natural settings.
Stonemasons and carpenters from the nearby towns guided the work of CCC enrollees in creating a lodge that embodied local building traditions.
As an example of Depression Era rustic architecture, the dining lodge has great significance. Its sprawling irregular floorplan seems to hug the valley floor. Its cut stone and wood construction complements its natural setting in the Ozarks highlands. Interior details such as the great stone fireplaces and the chandeliers with a trout motif reflect the values of the park as well as the careful craftsmanship of the CCC laborers.
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