Minnesota Memorial Honors Sacrifices of CCC Men

A monument to those CCC'ers who lost their lives on duty.

A monument to those CCC’ers who lost their lives on duty. Natalie Heneghan, 2015

On the west bank of Lake Phalen, on the east side of St. Paul, sits an unassuming monument honoring the men who died while working for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The brainchild of Company 4727 Educational Advisor Edward Mueller, the memorial is a mounded collection of hundreds of stones from CCC camps throughout the U.S., rock donations from three federal departments, and a slab from the floor of the White House. It speaks to the dangers of working in the wild, the camaraderie that developed among the workers, and the government’s gratitude.


Company 4727 set up camp about ten miles north of St. Paul in August 1935. In their two years in Minnesota, the men of Company 4727 graded county roads, built park amenities, and conducted an exploratory survey of soil conditions on nearby Vadnais Lake. Enrollees, mostly from North Dakota, nicknamed their camp “Eveless Eden” and their monthly newsletter the “Eveless Eden Eavesdropper”–the men were clearly  attentive to both the area’s natural beauty and the CCC’s gendered component.


The newsletter was officially titled Bear Facts, and it tracked the monument’s construction. Its editors praised Mr. Mueller, a beloved advisor and teacher, for his “novel and excellent idea” for the monument. Mr. Mueller integrated monument planning into camp education. (Reports noted, however, that construction took place on weekends only by men interested in volunteering their time, and that it cost the government nothing.) Early plans for the memorial situated it on the banks of Vadnais Lake, close to the camp. Superintendent William Kaufman of St. Paul Parks suggested Lake Phalen, just south of Vadnais Lake. At Phalen, the Kaufman could ensure “perpetual care” for the monument. Company 4727 spread word through the CCC’s national newsletter, Happy Days, to solicit “native stones” from 400 camps. Requests specified that stones should be less than four pounds, allowing companies nationwide to send them via franked mail. Stones started arriving in St. Paul late in the summer of 1936. President Franklin Roosevelt sent a stone slab from the floor of the White House, which, although it broke in transit, formed the cornerstone of the memorial. In November, stones from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior arrived, and the company expected a package from the Department of War soon after.


The onset of winter weather pushed construction back to the spring of 1937. Enrollees formed the monument from the “hundreds” of donated stones. (Bear Facts offered no final count of contributions, though they expressed gratification with the enthusiastic response of camps nationwide.) Company Foreman John Carlgren directed construction. By late spring, work was completed, and the company placed the finishing touch–a bronze plaque–on the monument. Advertisements for local businesses, contributions from the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce funded the plaque.


In July 1937, the company transferred to a camp near Fargo, North Dakota. They had planted thousands of trees, beautified lakes and parks, and made the natural resources of Ramsey County accessible to the public. But of all their projects, the one-of-a-kind stone monument will forever stand as a memorial to enrollees nationwide and as a testament to the initiative, creativity, and integrity of Company 4727.



Notes from the Field: Restoring the Black Mountain Lookout Tower

Black Mountain Lookout Tower, Summer 2014

Black Mountain Lookout Tower, Summer 2014

At 9,500 feet, the Black Mountain Lookout Tower offers a stunning, 360-degree view above the tree line of Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built this tower in 1939, one of hundreds of such structures erected by young men working for the federal government during the New Deal. Though no longer in use, the Black Mountain Lookout Tower has remained a popular hiking destination but had fallen into disrepair.


Each morning for a week last summer, I climbed to the top of the tower–hammer in one hand and a pile of shingles in the other–and took part in its restoration. The preservation of Black Mountain Lookout Tower was facilitated by HistoriCorps, a non-profit based out of Denver, CO. HistoriCorps protects and rehabilitates old structures throughout the country while offering unique outdoor experiences for their volunteers. HistoriCorps’ 2014 season included twenty sites, four of which were CCC-built. Projects ranged from cabins to lookout towers to amphitheaters.


The Civilian Conservation Corps, along with the other public works agencies created under the New Deal, built a vast network of towers, bridges, lakes, dams, forests, roads, parks, post offices, and pools throughout the country. These resources have been essential to our communities and infrastructure for decades, yet many have fallen into disrepair. I loved being able to add a hands-on dimension to my passion for these places. The lookout tower has been out of use since 1987. Like many New Deal projects these days, it still serves a valuable purpose; it just needed a little facelift. It was thrilling to breathe some life into it and begin to see its future as a rental cabin for hikers.


Natalie at work restoring the tower.

Natalie at work restoring the tower.

Both literally and figuratively, the hands-on aspect of HistoriCorps took me to the backcountry of preservation. As such, the project offered a behind-the-scenes view, one that I don’t often get at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, where my work stays on the advocacy and outreach levels. Indeed, our tasks included re-shingling the roof of the tower, cleaning out the interior, hauling scraps down the mountain, applying putty to windows,and sanding shutters. It was the epitome of a team effort, and I quickly realized I had stumbled upon an impressive cadre of hard-working, civic-minded people. In a way, HistoriCorps draws on the tradition and legacy of the CCC. Volunteers are committed to the preservation and accessibility of historic places on public lands and the stories behind them. Like CCC enrollees, we have the opportunity to gain personal and professional skills.


We were a small but impassioned group, and our nightly camp dinners proved we had more than enough to talk about. The three others and I chatted about favorite hikes and bucket list adventures. Amateur historians in addition to outdoor enthusiasts, we talked New Deal policies, the Protestant Reformation, generational gaps, and turtle extinction in the Galapagos (via a recent This American Life episode). I wondered how I could feel so comfortable and challenged by three semi-strangers whose paths happened to cross with mine for this one week in August, but I have to credit it to HistoriCorps’ brilliant set of “requirements”: interest in history, love of the outdoors, and not minding getting your hands dirty (or full of cedar shingle splinters, in my case).


Since returning from the project, I have encouraged many people to give HistoriCorps a try. I played a very small part in the Black Mountain Lookout Tower’s rehabilitation, and an even tinier role in its history. But for a self-professed New Deal nerd like me, that was more than enough.

“Just the way society was.” Segregation in the CCC

CCC Boxing Team at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.

CCC Boxing Team
CCC Boxing Team at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was born of pure and progressive intentions: employment for young men, conservation work on public lands, and nondiscrimination. Illinois Representative Oscar DePriest, the only black member of Congress at the time, made sure that the 1933 legislation that established the CCC banned discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.”

During the decade it was active, the CCC succeeded in many ways. It put three million men to work, planted over three billion trees, and restored America’s parks and public lands. But it strayed far from its commitment to inclusion. In terms of racial integration and equality, the CCC represents one of the biggest missed opportunities of the New Deal.

Photo taken at Marsh Field barracks shows that some CCC camps were racially integrated.

CCC boys at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.
Photo taken at Marsh Field barracks shows that some CCC camps were racially integrated.

The U.S. Army controlled CCC camp administration and operations, and its policy of racial segregation transferred easily to the new civilian workforce. Most of the CCC’s quarter million African-American enrollees served in segregated companies and were unable to attain positions of authority. Some Southern states categorically excluded blacks, arguing that they were needed for growing and harvesting cotton. There were a few mixed camps in states with smaller African- American populations like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but these were the exception.

Black and white CCC enrollees lived and worked together in Berkeley, California

Clearing land at Tilden Park, Berkeley, Calif.
Black and white CCC enrollees lived and worked together in Berkeley, California

“Historian Olen Cole, Jr. and others note that integrated camps existed outside the South in the early years of the CCC. In some areas, however, negative reactions from neighboring communities triggered separation of blacks and whites.”

Black enrollment in the CCC was capped at ten percent of total recruits–roughly equivalent to the proportion of blacks in the U.S. in 1930, but nowhere near proportional to the number of blacks eligible for relief during the Depression. Thousands were turned away.

CCC workers load pinecones into drying shed near Olustee, Florida, where Willie O'Neal (quoted in this article) was stationed. 1938. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

CCC workers, Olustee, Fla.
CCC workers load pinecones into drying shed near Olustee, Florida, where Willie O’Neal (quoted in this article) was stationed. 1938. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Robert Fechner, director of the CCC, defended the quotas, extending Jim Crow to the new agency. “I am satisfied that the negro enrollees themselves prefer to be in companies composed exclusively of their own race…This segregation is not discrimination and cannot be so construed. The negro companies are assigned to the same types of work, have identical equipment, are served the same food, and have the same quarters as white enrollees.” It would be twenty years before the “separate by equal” doctrine would be overturned by the Supreme Court, in Brown v Board of Education.

In 2000, as part of an oral history project Willie O’Neal, an African American CCC enrollee in Florida, described segregation in the Corps as “just the norm of being black or white…that was just the way society was.”

The work completed by the black camps was at times particularly poignant. At Gettysburg Military Park, two black companies were assigned to refurbish Confederate and Union monuments to the fallen. Historian Joseph Speakman notes, “No one recorded the sentiments of the young black men, some of them possibly the grandchildren of…slaves, who had done this refurbishing work on behalf of Confederate veterans.”

CCC Company 893 in Pineland, Texas, shows African American members of this "mixed" camp to the far right of the photograph. 1933. Credit: Connie Ford McCann, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

CCC camp in Pineland, Tex.
CCC Company 893 in Pineland, Texas, shows African American members of this “mixed” camp to the far right of the photograph. 1933. Credit: Connie Ford McCann, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

Speakman, along with other historians, have argued that the CCC failed to live up to its original commitment. Indeed, the restriction on black involvement is often forgotten in New Deal history. Had the CCC stuck to DePriest’s intention perhaps we could measure the success of the CCC not only in trees planted or miles of road built, but in strides toward racial equality.