Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994



The New Deal, the CCC, and Missouri State Parks

by James Denny




James Denny is an historian and writer for the division of State Parks and Historic Preservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Both the Ozarks region and the New Deal have played vital roles in shaping Missouri's system of beautiful state parks. It was in the Ozarks that virtually all our early state parks were located. At the onset of the Great Depression, 12 of 14 parks created during the 1920s were to be found in the Ozarks. Most of these parks in the Ozarks region benefitted immeasurably from the New Deal programs. During the thirties Ozarks parks continued to dominate the system in terms of size, attendance, and Civilian Conservation Corps activity.

Before discussing the influence of the New Deal on Ozarks parklands, it is useful to examine the early development of the state park system. The vision of a system of state parks that accompanied the legislative founding in 1917 was an Ozarks vision. The rugged and geographically isolated Ozarks region had long been a paradise for hunters and fishermen, and now with the coming of the automobile age and the prospect of good roads, this previously inaccessible region was ripe for a revolution in tourism and resorts. Fish and Game commissioner Tim Birmingham described for Governor Arthur Hyde the bright future he envisioned for tourism and parks in the Ozarks:

The possibilities for State parks in Missouri are great. No State surpasses us in beauty spots and tourists are traveling miles and miles from home to see advertised beauty spots that do not compare with ours in the Ozarks, With the selection of a chain of parks covering this section and the proper advertisement, many of our people would...spend their time seeing the beauties that we have right at our own door. A chain of state parks located in the Ozark section of the State would be a great drawing card for Missouri as to immigration and travel; the good road movement will open up many of these heretofore hidden nature spots and make it possible that the public can get to them on their way in and through the state.

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Missouri State Parks in the Ozarks were the most popular in 1938.

National Archives and Record Service photo, courtesy James Denny, Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
A few more years were to go by before the links in this chain began to be forged, but by the mid- 1920's the first Ozarks "beauty spots" were purchased: Big Spring, Round Spring, Alley Spring1, and Bennett Spring. Within a few years Montauk, Sam A. Baker, Meramec, and Roaring River were also added to the growing state park system. By the end of the first decade of expansion the park system had grown to encompass 38,400 acres. Only two of the fourteen parks lay outside the Ozarks: Arrow Rock and Mark Twain, the only historic sites in the system.

The pre-New Deal park system was very different in terms of philosophical orientation and sense of mission from what we see today. It had been established by the Missouri General Assembly as a part of the state Fish and Game Department, and its funding base consisted of five percent of the Department's revenue. This share increased to twenty-five percent in 1925. The Game and Fish Department naturally felt that its primary mission was to establish game and bird refuges, public hunting grounds, fish hatcheries, and public fishing and camping areas. Public recreation areas were incidental to this primary mission. It was a system that was subsidized by sportsmen and it served the interests of sportsmen first and foremost. In 1928, ninety percent of state park acreage was devoted to game refuge purposes.

The built-in hunting and fishing bias of this proto state park system had little or no effect on the rapid growth of its popularity. By 1927, annual visitation had surpassed 100,000; by 1931 the number rose to 400,000. Only the devastation of the Depression halted the momentum--after 1932, attendance dropped by about 100,000 per year.

Although the Great Depression is rightfully viewed as an era of hard times and widespread misery, it proved to be a golden age for the state park system. The reason was the New Deal. Benefits were manifested at many levels, the most basic being funding. Of the twenty-nine million dollars spent in Missouri on conservation and recreation between 1933-1937, ninety-five percent of it came from federal sources. Equally impressive was the infusion of manpower, mainly in the form of the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC had been established by the Emergency Conservation Act of 1933 for the two-fold purpose of easing the critical unemployment situation for America's young men and to provide for the conservation of the nation's devastated forest and soil resources. National and state park development soon became an important part of its mission. In one of history's most impressive peacetime mobilizations of men, materials, and transportation, but thirty-seven days were required to recruit 250,000 young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five and locate them in CCC camps. A federal-state partnership was devised whereby the National Park Service would provide strict guidance and supervision through its staff of architects, landscape architects, inspectors, camp superintendents and various technicians and foremen, while the Department of Labor handled the enrollee selection process. The camps, each consisting of approximately 200 enrollees, were operated by the Army. The states submitted work programs and acted as procurement agents.

By June of 1933, the first CCC camps were established in three Ozarks state parks: Sam A. Baker, Meramec, and Roaring River. Within a year, four thousand men would be employed on 40,000 acres of Missouri park lands. By 1936, ten state parks and three federal Recreational Demonstration Areas had camps active in a variety of tasks : ranging from quarrying to road, bridge and dam construction, to landscaping and trail development, to building a wide variety of service, administrative and recreational buildings and facilities. Of the twenty-six state parks that existed by 1938, twenty were developed to some extent by CCC manpower.

* Big Spring, Round Spring, and Alley Spring State Parks were turned over to the National Park Service in 1970 to become incorporated into the Ozark Scenic Riverways system.

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The level of development achieved in recipient parks depended on the number of 200-man CCC camps and how many "camp periods" (a camp period lasted six months) were active in a locale. While a park could sometimes receive but one camp for a single camp period, and therefore benefit from only limited activity, usually Missouri parks were allotted several camp periods, making more extensive development possible. In terms of camps and camp periods Ozarks parks fared well. Of the twenty-two camps established in Missouri parks over the life of the CCC program, thirteen were located in Ozarks parks. More revealing, however, is the number of camp periods these parks received in comparison with parks outside the region. Of the 124 camp periods allotted to state park activity, 70 camp periods, over haft of the total, were devoted to developing parks located within the Ozarks.

The infusion of New Deal resources quickly created a noticeable change in the parks. The Missouri Game and Fish Commission proclaimed in a ca. 1935 brochure that "during the last two years more progress has been made in the development of Missouri's State Parks into public recreational areas...than had been accomplished in the first ten years of the state Park system's steady growth." This was no overstatement.

In many cases, parks that had been in the system for several years---those original Ozarks "beauty spots"---received their first large scale development for recreation purposes in the CCC period. At Meramec (acquired 1927) trails were laid out and a dining lodge, recreation hall, concession building and several shelters were built between 1933 and 1935. Roaring River, acquired in 1924, received twelve CCC camp periods during which its elaborate fish hatchery was built. The picturesque stone arched bridge at Bennett Spring State Park (1925) along with the dining lodge and several cabins were built over nine camp periods between 1933 and 1937. At Montauk State Park (1926) a CCC company of WWI veterans rehabilitated the old mill, constructed a dam and bridge, and built several tourist cabins and other buildings, At Sam A. Baker (1926) five camp periods accomplished the following: telephone and water line installations, trail development, tree planting, fire fighting, and an ambitious building campaign that resulted in bridges, cabins, latrines, a stable, and the beginning of a dining lodge later completed by Works Progress Administration workers.

WPA involvement in state parks development was less extensive by far than that of the CCC, and was usually confined to large scale building projects. Still, the WPA made an important contribution. In addition to work at Sam A. Baker, at Roaring River they built a three-story stone-and-timber dining lodge.

Several Missouri parks acquired by Missouri during the 1930's also received development. Notable among these was Washington State Park (1932) important for its fine vistas and an Indian petroglyph site. One of Missouri's few black CCC camps worked in this park for eleven camp periods. They left a legacy of fine rustic stone structures that included the dining lodge with a Thunderbird motif patterned after the most notable of the several Indian petroglyphs found in the park. The camps also muscled large slabs of stone into position to create the rock staircase known as the "1000 Steps Trail."

Hatchery Bridge, Bennett Spring State Park. This ashlar bond limestone structure typifies the best of CCC construction in Missouri State Parks.
Famous Trout Chandelier, lodge dining hall, Bennett Spring State Park.
Bonnie Wright photo, for Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

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Another New Deal initiative from which Missouri profited was the Recreational Demonstration Area program. RDAs were established to convert sub-marginal farm lands to recreational purposes. Of the forty-six RDAs established in the nation three of them, over 25,000 acres, were in Missouri. The largest, now known as Lake of the Ozarks State Park, was established in 1934, just three years after the impoundment of the Osage River at Bagnell Dam. This behemoth park, still our largest, sprawled over 17,000 acres and bordered eighty miles of shoreline. Three CCC camps spent a total of sixteen camp periods constructing a variety of facilities such as group camps, administrative buildings, roads, and a landscaped public beach.

It was at the Recreational Demonstration Areas that the concept of group camps was introduced, and buildings from four of these camps, still survive at Lake of the Ozarks State Park. In 1946, all RDAs were donated by the federal government to the state park system.

The buildings and structures built by the CCC in the Ozarks parks and elsewhere have stood the test of decades of constant use. One reason for their endurance was the design philosophy that guided their construction. When the National Park Service entered its partnership with the states it already possessed a sense of the high design standards. Those standards were continued for CCC working state parks. From the inception of the National Park Service in 1916, professional landscape architects were involved in park planning and development. They initiated the "Rustic Architecture'' movement within the service, from which sprang the philosophy that park improvements were to harmonize with the landscape. Work was to be carried out from a preconceived plan developed with special reference to the preservation of the natural landscape. All building was to reflect a harmony with natural and cultural settings achieved through simplicity of design. Local wood and stone, left in a somewhat rough form, were to be utilized wherever possible. This powerful, overarching philosophical commitment to good design principles, in combination with the large labor force of CCC boys and adequate amounts of federal funding, imparted a distinctive character to the parks that is instantly recognizable today.

Limestone quarry work, CCC construction for Missouri State Parks.
Lookout shelter under construction, Washington State Park CCC project.

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As vital as the design philosophy was, without the huge pool of CCC workers, the labor-intensive quality of the work performed would not have been possible. The average 200 workers assigned to each CCC camp provided a remarkably large force of workers for park construction and development. This situation ideally suited the National Park Service policy of utilizing native materials and hand tools in a man-net intentionally reminiscent both of pioneer construction and construction in harmony with the natural and cultural surroundings. Photographs that accompanied work reports invariably depicted large crews of young men at work. Often they were shown in quarries obtaining stone, or at building sites dressing rocks to form the walls of a latrine, or the facing for an arched bridge, or hewing logs for the heavy beams that would form the framework of a picnic shelter or recreation hall. Without such crews, the prodigious amount of hand work required could not have been accomplished. Certainly the State, with its scant financial resources, could not have done it.

The excellence of the supervision of all those workers is everywhere evident. At its best, the work achieved a genuine distinctiveness noticeable in numerous small details: the Trout Chandeliers in the dining lodge at Bennett Spring; the sensitive use of the Thunderbird motif at the dining lodge at Washington State Park; the acorn-drop trusses in the dining hall at Camp Pin Oak, Lake of the Ozarks State Park. Pioneer-like hewn log techniques were employed in several structures at Lake of the Ozarks to achieve a sense of continuity with the folk building traditions of the area. Even the intentionally simple frame overnight cabins, with their rock-faced footings, small porches; and rough hewn siding, reveal a sensitivity to the rustic ideal of simplicity and unobtrusiveness.

If subsequent work of comparable quality cannot be encountered in the Missouri state park system, it is largely because we simply lack the modern equivalent of the large work crews of the CCC or WPA necessary to lavish the time and energy necessary to do such work.

The one area where the Ozarks region did not benefit during the New Deal was in the creation of new Parks. There was scant enthusiasm on the part of state and federal planners to add new Ozarks parks to the system during the New Deal years. If anything, politicians, managers and planners felt that the Ozarks was receiving too much attention in terms of parklands at the expense of other admittedly less scenic but nonetheless deserving regions of the state, and they set out during the thirties to correct the imbalance. During the New Deal years, of thirteen new parks added, only two were in the Ozarks. By 1937, park acreage nearly doubled in size, growing from 38,400 to 72,840 acres (including the RDAs). Nevertheless, some 52,000 of those acres were in Ozarks parks.

New Deal money and manpower so improved state parks that by the late thirties some half a million visitors a year came to them. The New Deal had changed the very nature of the park system. It had grown far beyond the original chain of Ozarks "beauty spots" to become statewide in extent. The multiple recreation uses of the parks made them virtual stepchildren to their administrative agency, the Game and Fish Commission, whose clientele otherwise were hunters and fishermen.

The time had come for a parting of the ways between sportsmen and advocates of other forms of outdoor recreation. The twenty-five percent diversion of game and fish funds to parks had long been opposed by sportsmen. Matters culminated in 1936 with adoption of a constitutional amendment creating a new Conservation Commission to regulate wildlife, replacing the Game and Fish Commission. In 1937 the Missouri legislature created a State Park Board and repealed the former twenty-five percent diversion in favor of an annual legislative appropriation. All wildlife functions and four parks (mainly Ozarks game preserves that had received little CCC activity) went to the Conservation Commission. All recreational functions and the remaining nineteen parks were placed under the direction of the new Park Board. It was a reorganization reflecting the new recreational dimension the parks had acquired under the influences of New Deal programs.

Rain shelter, Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
Bonnie Wright photo, for Missouri Department of National Resources.

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All of the building that occurred in Missouri's Ozarks parks and elsewhere during the New Deal created a legacy of valuable, historically important assets to our present park system. That building served as an important expression of a set of architectural and landscape design ideals that have profoundly influenced the shape of modern parks. Perhaps the best assessment of this legacy was an early one made by the Game and Fish Department back in 1936: "The enormous sums of money spent by the federal and state governments have not only proved of great benefit to Missouri from a financial standpoint, but the construction work accomplished will remain indefinitely for the enjoyment of this and future generations of Missourians and visitors to the state."

Some ten years ago the decision was made to identify and nominate to the National Register of Historic Places the buildings and structures that remain from the New Deal years under the Emergency Conservation Work programs. A massive National Register nomination was prepared that recognized 342 New Deal era resources (247 buildings and 95 structures) concentrated in eleven historic districts scattered across fourteen state parks. Those resources were duly listed in NRHP. The nomination document is now consulted any time an action is taken that involves any of the buildings or structures so listed. The 342 officially designated historic structures bear telling witness to the profound role played by the New Deal in shaping the outstanding system of Missouri State Parks that continues to enrich the lives of millions of visitors.

Gatekeeper's cottage, Sam A. Baker State Park, under construction. Such rustic designs, supplied by National Park Service architects, were labor-intensive to build. James Denny photo (copy of a NARS original).

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