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Colossal College of Calluses

They were only looking for “three hots a day,” but CCC workers earned their keep and much more as they built parks that Texans still enjoy.

By Elaine Robbins

The rustic sandstone cabins in the pine forest of Bastrop State Park seem to emerge organically from the landscape like the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Balmorhea pool, the largest spring-fed pool in the country, sits like a sparkling gem in the West Texas desert. The whitewashed, adobe-style Indian Lodge nestles like a pueblo against the towering backdrop of the Davis Mountains. I’ve long felt that there was something special about these state park places, but I’ve only recently discovered what it was: They were all built by the CCC.

Established in 1933 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery plan, the Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for 2.5 million young men ages 18-25 whose families were struggling to survive the Depression. Across the country, the CCC — or the Colossal College of Calluses, as workers called it — transformed the American landscape. Workers arranged in companies of 200 men planted 2 to 3 billion trees and built 13,100 miles of hiking trails. In Texas, they virtually built our state park system from the ground up. During the brief span between 1933 and 1942, the CCC built an astounding 56 state parks — including Bastrop, Palo Duro Canyon and Garner — 31 of which still stand. They offer a shining architectural and conservation legacy that still inspires park visitors today.

The CCC was a lifeline for people like Thomas Earl Jordan, who first heard about the program while standing in line at a Kilgore employment office. After Jordan’s father had quit sharecropping, which had barely sustained his family, they were pitched into instability. “Daddy did public work whenever he could find it. I think every time the rent come due, we moved.” Although he was just 16, Jordan lied about his age to sign up. His $30-a-month paycheck — $25 of which was sent directly to his family — helped sustain them through hard times.

In a time of bread lines and soup kitchens, the CCC’s free meals and lodging were as attractive as the paycheck. “When you was out there working on a farm, you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from,” says Ezekiel Rhodes, who sold sweet potatoes to the African American Company 3807 at Fort Parker before he joined at age 18. “But when you was in the CCC camp, you knew where you was going to get your three hots a day.”

During their six-month stints, workers learned useful trades from the out-of-work architects, carpenters and stonemasons — LEMs, or local employed men — hired by the CCC. Texas architects were supervised by Herb Maier in the National Park Service’s Oklahoma office. Maier is considered the “father” of a distinctive park building style that came to be known as “National Park Service Rustic.” Under his exacting eye, local architects designed entire parks — from cabins and group shelters to picnic pavilions and handcrafted furniture. According to Jim Steely, author of Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal, the “NPS rustic” style borrowed ideas from many architectural movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the “Great Camp” Adirondack style, the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Arts and Crafts movement.

Promoting the philosophy that park structures should harmonize with nature, Maier taught CCC architects and landscape architects the elements of style that best achieved that effect. He encouraged the use of local wood and stone such as limestone, oak and cedar. (Perhaps the most impressive use of local materials was the Palmetto State Park refectory building, whose roof was originally thatched with 32,000 palmetto fronds from the surrounding stand of dwarf palmetto.) Materials were finished with simple tools using pioneer building techniques. Maier encouraged the use of low, horizontal lines and warned architects to avoid straight lines and right angles. Muted browns and grays were the preferred colors; green, although it seems a likely choice, was found to be too difficult to match to the natural scenery.

Even the park landscapes that we think of as “natural” were in fact created — or at least improved — by a cadre of talented Texas landscape architects. Unlike national parks, which were established in the country’s most spectacular natural settings, Texas state parks were often carved out of marginal land that needed major restoration. CCC workers dammed rivers and built beaches, creating dozens of the recreational lakes we enjoy today. They built hiking trails that offer a new discovery at every turn, and they planted native vegetation that appears to have been rooted there forever. Perhaps most impressive, they reseeded Bastrop State Park, transforming what was then an eroded and overcut timber harvest tract into today’s bucolic forest of loblolly pine.

Like the best Arts-and-Crafts-style houses, the CCC work reveals the craftsmanship of the human hand that made them to everyone who takes the time to notice. “These rocks wasn’t put up here in one day,” says Alvin Thieme, 89, gesturing to some rockwork at Bastrop he helped build as a young man. “Some of them have chisel marks on them. I think, ‘Does the young generation see it?’ You got to get around, see things, see how it’s made.”

The handcrafted structures they left us would be impossible to replicate. “For us to build those cabins today would take millions of dollars,” says Janelle Taylor, CCC coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The heavy stone foundations and rough-hewn timbers that are classic CCC style used very labor-intensive construction techniques. They’re very different from tilt wall and prefab — terms you hear in construction today.”

In the modern American landscape of Wal-Marts and Taco Bells, it’s sometimes hard to find a sense of place or a connection to the past. At times like these, we can always head to the CCC parks for inspiration.

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