Never Forget! Pokagon State Park Celebrates Its New Deal Heritage

Glory-June Greiff

Recently, I headed up to Pokagon State Park in the far northeast corner of Indiana for the 69th annual CCC Remembrance – formerly, the CCC reunion – held in the Nature Center. This was my 32nd consecutive reunion, and my job was to talk about some of the CCC boys (enrollees) that I had gotten to know in those years. The memories drew a tear or two.

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The CCC Pocket Museum in the former gatehouse, which is the only CCC structure in the park that used brick.

The Nature Center, built in the 1980s, is one of the few structures in the park the CCC did not build (along with the Inn, which was there when they came). It has just undergone a stunning interior remodeling.  The wonderful new displays, many interactive, include considerable information on native culture and quite a large exhibit on the CCC boys.

Pokagon has done the most of any park over time to celebrate its New Deal heritage. Not only have they retained the annual CCC celebration – which is the oldest in the nation, beginning in 1953 – but the site of the camp was marked with signage and photographs over 30 years ago. The rock pedestal on which the marker rests was constructed by Roger Woodcock, one of the CCC stonemasons. It was he who started the reunion nearly 70 years ago, and his collection of tools and equipment forms much of the material on display.

Today, the camp’s building locations are marked along a trail through the former campsite with signage for each one. In 2016, the centennial year of Indiana state parks, a tiny “pocket museum” on the CCC was dedicated in the former gatehouse. Within, among interpretative signs and artifacts, is a nearly life-size photograph of Roger in tribute to his efforts.

Company 556 settled in for eight years and set about to create something that looked less like abandoned farmland bordering a three-basined glacial lake and more like the public’s concept of state park. That meant planting thousands of trees, hauling fine glacial gravel to the edge of the lake to create a beach, and laying out a trail system. The CCC constructed several attractive buildings of timber and glacial stone, the most impressive of which is a two-story shelter house with three massive fireplaces built into the hillside overlooking the beach. That building is listed separately in the National Register.

In addition, the boys constructed a group camp with a lovely octagonal dining hall, a bridge that carries a county road through the park out of harm’s way, a saddle barn, a bathhouse for the beach they created, and their final project: several family cabins near the inn. The boys also built a toboggan run for their own amusement, which has over time evolved into the park’s biggest winter attraction. Since the 1990s, the park has restored several of the buildings and is currently at work on the Spring Shelter, a beautiful trailside structure adjacent to a natural spring.

As the least altered since the New Deal left its mark more than eighty years ago, Pokagon is Indiana’s most representative CCC-developed state park. When I wrote the National Register nomination in the mid-1990s, a 1940s map of the park and a current one appeared nearly identical, including the trails. Revisiting is always a joy!

It’s worth noting that Steuben County is graced with another New Deal gem about ten miles to the west, also listed in the National Register, although sadly its integrity has diminished since I wrote the nomination 25 years ago. On the north edge of the village of Orland lies the Fawn River State Fish Hatchery, one of several the WPA built around the state. A small town park was built alongside of it and some of the stone picnic tables remain. The original entrance is the most impressive structure, but it is no longer used. Monster campers likely would cause damage if they tried to go through. Most of the fish rearing ponds remain and evidently are still used for the purpose. One of our lesser known sites, but certainly one of the coolest, in my book!

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A large portion of the new displays in the Nature Center celebrate the CCC’s work in the park.

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Unfinished lumber was used to surround the exhibits to suggest the interior of the CCC recreation hall.

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Not to mention the trails and all those trees!

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Roger Woodcock saved everything–a boon to historians! These, along with the rest of the uniform, were on display at the celebration event.

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Roger Woodcock’s footlocker–and a lot of its original contents-on display at the celebration. 

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Interior, CCC Pocket Museum.

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View from first story porch of CCC shelter built into the hillside overlooking the beach the boys constructed.

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Spring Shelter, currently undergoing restoration.
Glory-June Greiff is a public historian based in Indianapolis. She has been researching the work of New Deal for 35 years.

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