In the fall of 1932, as we entered the 3rd year of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of people were migrating out of large cities, which had quickly become overwhelmed by the needs of their desperate citizens. Although initially insulated from unemployment and food lines due to a largely rural population and strong agricultural economy, Texas also soon felt the devastation, as the formerly burgeoning lumber and oil industries crumbled, livestock and crop prices tumbled and the Dust Bowl swept across the plains.
But things were about to change.
At the 1932 Democratic National Convention, Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was the responsibility of government to ensure that every man had “…a right to make a comfortable living" — the New Deal
The FDR campaign swept to victory that fall. At his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, FDR uttered those famous words: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
And then he got to work on his promised New Deal.
Congress approved the Unemployment Relief Act the last day of March, and on April 5, FDR signed Executive Order 6101, which provided structure and funding for the newly created Office of Emergency Conservation Work.
Less than two weeks later the first beneficiaries arrived at Camp Roosevelt in the Virginia Woods. By July, more than a quarter-million young men were living and working in 1,300 camps across the country.
The act and order were relatively generic in scope. The government would provide jobs that would restore natural resources and advance public works to relieve the “widespread distress and unemployment” facing the country. The press dubbed it the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the name gained enough traction that it was elevated to official status in 1937. While the New Deal eventually resulted in the creation of nearly 70 so-called “Alphabet Agencies,” the CCC was by far the most popular and successful.
There were criteria to be in the CCC. It wasn’t a job that could be done by everyone, nor was it intended to be. You had to be young, male and single. Although the age requirements fluctuated during the CCC’s 9-year existence, 2/3rds of the over 3 million young men that worked in CCC camps were 20 or younger. Physical fitness was key, as days were long and work was arduous.
To qualify, your family received some form of government relief. The average CCC worker came from a family of eight. While wages were kept artificially low to discourage unfair competition with local businesses, most of it was sent directly home. A CCC worker made $30 a month and kept only $5 for himself.
Most camps had libraries and organized recreational sports; workers formed orchestras, published newsletters, and held regular dances. In addition to the vocational skills learned during the workday, CCC workers were provided with an education.
Many workers were illiterate at worst and minimally educated at best when they arrived in camps. Basic subjects like spelling, reading and math were taught in camp and at local high schools. At some camps radio, shorthand, advanced math, debate, typing, vocal performance, and dramatics were offered.
Between 1933 and 1937, 35,000 men learned to read and write, while over 1,000 achieved high-school equivalency and 39 earned college degrees.
The CCC’s directive — to restore natural resources and advance public works — was carried out in every state and the territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and then-territories Alaska and Hawaii. There were no conservation projects that the CCC couldn't master; soil erosion control, flood mitigation, bridge and dam building, road construction, battling fires, reforestation. But without a doubt the CCC is most intrinsically linked to the revitalization of the National Parks system, and the creation of state parks throughout the country.
For Texas, the CCC couldn’t have been more fortuitous. While the Texas State Parks Board had been in existence since 1923, the Legislature never actually funded it. In 1933, seeing the opportunity inherent in the New Deal programs, Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson petitioned the federal government for funding of 26 CCC projects, and pushed the creation of the Texas Rehabilitation and Relief Commission (a pre-cursor to today’s Health and Human Services agency) to facilitate the relief aid. Texas would see a total of 97 CCC camps established; 27 were dedicated to development of state parks.
Around 50,000 young men lived in Texas CCC camps between 1933 and 1942. For most it was the first time away from home. They arrived in camps mostly undernourished — the average worker gained 11 pounds even while working strenuous jobs. They gained strength and confidence, an education and vital job skills they could take back with them.
While here, they created 56 national, state and city parks. Today, 29 of those parks remain in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for visitors to enjoy. Here are a few that you can visit to see their craftsmenship.
Two CCC companies worked on the creation of this 529-acre park between 1933 and 1935. Both groups were veterans of World War I; the second, an all-Black company. Using native limestone and red sandstone the men crafted everything in a style reminiscent of classic Romanesque architecture. A unique feature of the park dating from the era is the Star Picnic Table along Elm Creek.
In the Blackland Prairie, near the Oklahoma border, Company 894 worked on erosion control and built an earthen dam to create a 65-acre lake. Local cream-colored limestone and red cedar were used to build a dance terrace, concession building, picnic tables and water fountains between 1933 and 1936. Today the boathouse, originally built as a storage building, is a stellar example of CCC construction.
The hardwood forests of northeast Texas boast a 501-acre park built around 80-acre Little Pine Lake. The development of the lake was initially the primary focus of CCC Companies 2891 and 1801, with the rest of the park’s architectural features built to take advantage of the vistas created by this central point. From 1935 to 1940, the CCC worked on trails, steps and roadways, and buildings that frame the lake and offer scenic views.
Goliad is particularly unique in the annals of CCC work in the state. For six years Company 3822 labored to recreate a specific historical period with the structures within the park. They began in May 1935 by building an immense CCC camp. Men were housed in 40 self-built cottages, and nine larger buildings went up to accommodate the work, including fully functioning wood and metal shops. While most of the CCC camps were filled with very young men, 3822 consisted of older men — veterans of WWI, The Spanish American War, and even the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
Spanish colonial mission architecture was studied extensively in both Texas and Mexico, and workers conducted archaeological digs on site in preparation for building replicas of the mission school, a granary and church at Mission Nuestra Señora de Espírtu Santo de Zúñiga.
In addition, the men built a custodian’s complex as residence for the park’s caretaker. The house and its fixtures were built entirely by hand, and the structure served in part as an experimental studio. Creation methods to construct the replica mission buildings, such as kiln-fired tile and heavy metal hinges, were first tested before moving on to the mission complex.
Prior to any building, Company 1801 cleared undergrowth and planted trees on 321 acres on Aransas Bay. They also cared for the majestic, 1000-year-old live oak known as Big Tree. The unique construction material “shell crete” was used to build walls and arches in the iconic concession building. They cast blocks by hand from a mixture of cement and oyster shells, then using the blocks for building. Picnic areas were thatched with palmetto leaves in a tropical style.
Company 1801 was initially a mixed-race group, however on April 1, 1935, the camp became an all-Black camp. Communities in the area objected to the presence of the workers, and the company was transferred to Fort Sam Houston to work on other projects. Sadly, this led to overtly racist structural changes within the CCC, which thereafter required all Black workers to remain in their state of residence.
Today the shell crete recreation building still stands, although with damage received during Hurricane Harvey. It has thankfully received a preservation grant to restore it to its former grandeur.
Although Company 3803 only worked on the grounds of the 264-acre park for three years, they got a lot done. Working from Camp Colp, named after the chair of the State Parks Board, the men constructed a stucco, stone and half-timbered park residence modeled after German architecture.
A swimming pool was built by Plum Creek to utilize spring water, and a cedar-sided, hilltop refectory took pride of place on a bluff overlooking the countryside. Other CCC structures included a concrete water storage tank, outdoor fireplace, picturesque stone bridges and a 9-hole golf course.
Fun fact! The original golf course placed the first hole next to the refectory, allowing players to tee-off from atop the bluff.
For almost the entirety of the CCC’s stay in Texas, Company 854 labored over and under this 639-acre park. In initial stages of work, 2.5 tons of debris — including copious amounts of bat guano — were hauled out of the cavern, allowing for exploration of the underground wonder. CCC workers installed miles of lighting and improved surfaces for public access, and in the process mapped passageways through the cave system.
Above ground, workers built the imposing stone pavilion that served as an administration building, as well as park entrance portals, the dramatic cavern entrance, a prototype cabin, picnic areas, a caretaker’s cottage, and the observation/water tower.
Company 888 worked on a long-forgotten 17th century Franciscan mission buried in the East Texas wilderness. The company, unlike others that worked solely or primarily on state parks, was assigned to reforestation in the area. At the time, what became Mission Tejas State Park was in the hands of the Texas Forest Service, who developed it into a tourist attraction as San Francisco Mission State Forest.
Between 1933 and 1935, 888 — a company of landscape architects and foresters — were assigned the task of creating a vision of what the historic mission may have looked like. They did so by building a commemorative replica of logs with wood-shake roofing and a petrified wood fireplace.
In keeping with their forestry directive, they also built fire towers, a dam and pond, and other water features. Some of these are no longer on site, and the mission building itself has been renovated, although the petrified wood fireplace remains.
At Mother Neff, one of the oldest in the state park system, Company 817 used native limestone in the creation of the water and observation tower and steps. In addition to limestone, local hardwoods (oak, elm, juniper, and cottonwood) were used to form entrance portals, concession club house, caretaker’s building, pump and drainage systems, fences, picnic areas, and storage and auxiliary buildings. Terracing of the floodplain was included in the early on-site work.
The massive open-air pavilion, often called the rock tabernacle, was created by hand, entirely from materials harvested locally. Its presence is a lasting monument to the dedicated 4 years of work put in by the company.
A later addition happened in North Texas at the close of the CCC years. Over five years the Brazos River Conservation and Reclamation District dammed the Brazos to create a reservoir brimming with recreational possibilities. Parkland waited only for the arrival of a CCC company to begin construction along both shorelines of the lake. 2888 was that company, arriving from Tyler State Park and setting up an extensive camp to work from. However, the reservoir filled in April 1941, much more quickly than anyone had anticipated, necessitating changes in plans as the available land for building was significantly reduced.
Still, Company 2888 was able to produce an amazing variety of features in just over a year from the plans that remained. This included roads, walkways, picnic tables, fireplaces, culverts, a caretaker’s cabin, a concession stand, and even a floating pier on the lake. Additional construction, such as a boat house, was abandoned as WWII loomed. 2888 was the final CCC company in Texas, and left their camp on July 13, 1942, bringing an end to the era of CCC construction of parks in the state.
Photos courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Baylor University and TPWD.