University of Wisconsin: Arboretum – Madison WI

Men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked from 1934 to 1941 on the Arboretum of University of Wisconsin Madison, providing the majority of the labor needed to establish the ecological communities that make up the Arboretum. This was accomplished by excavating and moving land to return farmland to it’s natural condition as well as reintroducing native plants.

Between 1900-1920 there were many civic leaders of the fast-growing city of Madison, Wisconsin interested in returning the countryside to it’s natural glory. These leaders recognized the importance of the conservation of open spaces for the citizens of the city. To ensure the protection of natural lands, community leader John Nolen donated great sections of farmland. In addition to this donation, the university along with Joseph W. Jackson acquired land in the surrounding area at very low cost during the Great Depression.

In Aldo Leopold’s dedication of  the UW-Madison Arboretum on June 17th, 1934 he said “An arboretum is ordinarily a place where the serious-minded citizen can learn, by looking at them, the difference between a white and a black spruce, or see in person a Russian olive, a tamarisk, or an Arizona cypress. That is, it is a collection of trees.” From there the Arboretum expanded to include extensive and unmolested prairies and savannas, wetlands, a world famous lilac collection, the most extensive horticultural collection in the state, educational tours, science and nature based classes, and an expansive variety of volunteer opportunities.

Throughout the years the Arboretum has persevered despite urban expansion and development, and stands as a pioneer in the management and restoration of natural ecological communities. The creation of this Arboretum was centered around the brand new concept of ecological restoration, the process of returning an ecosystem or piece of landscape to a previous, more pristine, condition.

Based on the vision of Leopold and the labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Arboretum stands as a testimony to the benefits of the restoration of damaged landscapes. At the 50 year anniversary of the Arboretum, Peter Shaw Ashton the director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum said, “It is our responsibility to bring to our children, as a right, a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world, and an intolerance for the shabbiness and ugliness of much of the world that we are creating.”

Building for the Birds

1938 Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge entrance

1938 Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge entrance
Sacramento, CA 1938

The Civilian Conservation Corps was envisioned as a peacetime army to put young men to work preserving the nation’s forests and wildlife. When Congress approved funding in 1934 to add eight million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System, the CCC spread out across the country to build it.  In May 1937, two hundred CCC enrollees arrived in California to start construction of the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

The goal was to provide habitat for migratory birds and wildlife on 10,700 acres of failed farmland in the Central Valley. The Bureau of Biological Survey—later renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—oversaw the work. As it was the Biological Survey’s second wildlife refuge, the CCC camp was named BS-2.

People Power

People Power
Men raise a telephone poll by hand.

Heavy equipment was in short supply that first summer and much of the work was done by pick and shovel. The men restored some ranch buildings for offices, and demolished others using the salvaged materials for camp repairs and project work. Mosquito bitten, sunburned, and dust-choked, the men worked year round constructing levees, dikes, and jetties; laying pipe; and clearing creeks, channels, and drains to create wetlands for the refuge. They planted rice and millet within the refuge in order to keep the waterfowl from feeding on nearby farmland.

In summer, CCC crews fought wildfires in the surrounding foothills and mountains. In bad winters, they helped sandbag against flooding in the small towns along the Sacramento River some ten miles east.

Snow Geese at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

Snow Geese at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge
at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

While few camp buildings survive, a 100-foot tower built as a fire lookout still stands today. Biologists likely used the tower when they tallied 36,000 ducks and 72,000 geese on the refuge in December 1937. In December 1938 more than a million birds were counted.

Today, the site of CCC camp BS-2 serves as the headquarters of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The present pond system and many dikes and roadways are products of the summer of 1937. The refuge welcomes some 250 species of birds, hundreds of thousands of wintering waterfowl, and 75,000 visitors annually.

The headquarters area is eligible for designation as a National Historic District, but there’s currently no funding to preserve the structures to Historic District guidelines.

What the CCC Build at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge:
–    52 water control and road structures
–    1 diversion dam
–    1 combined bridge and dam
–    16 miles of refuge roads
–    10 miles of fence
–    Manager’s residence and garage
–    Labor patrolman’s cabin
–    Equipment storage shed
–    Service Building
–    Water tank
–    Lookout tower
–    Refuge office
–    Barn
–    Duck hospital
–    Grain bins
–    Flag pole
–    Miles of dikes
–    Numerous nesting and resting islands
–    Farmland producing feed for wildlife
–    Entrance and location signs

With thanks to Lora Haller, Visitor Services Manager at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Minnehaha Park Development – Minneapolis MN

Throughout the 1930s, CCC and WPA crews made extensive improvements to the already popular Minnehaha Park, site of Minnehaha Falls. Federal workers built impressive stone retaining walls throughout the 170-acre park, staircases from the upper park down to the creek, and bridges, all from native limestone.

Improvements have since been made to the park, including a Pergola Garden and most recently a river overlook and playground area. The stonework has remained largely intact, and the park continues to draw a steady stream of both locals and tourists.

The Moral Equivalent: Redefining the Warrior Spirit

CCC Men

CCC Men
Fighting Fires

Our National Forests, no less than their infrastructure, are a mess after decades of neglect. The Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park last summer made that abundantly clear as it burned over 400 square miles of the Sierra Nevada flank — the largest wildfire in California history — after similar monster wildfires decimated Colorado’s Front Range.

During this fiery summer, Columbia University professor Mark Mazower published an essay in the Financial Times titled “The West Needs A Replacement of the Warrior Spirit“. Mazower seemed to rue the loss of the civic virtue and egalitarian camaraderie that, he asserts, linked warfare in the 20th century to the kind of welfare typified by Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The problem of how a nation sustains political unity in the absence of an external enemy also vexed the American psychologist and philosopher William James, especially once advanced weaponry made it possible for war to erase entire cities, nations, and ultimately the planet. James’s answer was more definitive than Mazower’s rhetorical question “where is the heroism, or the warrior spirit, in wielding a joystick?”

CCC Men
in front of barracks, 1933

In his influential 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” based on a talk he delivered at Stanford University, James recommended that in place of military conscription the U.S. should adopt a “conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”

Many feel that James’s essay played a role in FDR’s advocacy for and creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Less adversarial in its approach to nature than James, the C’s were known as Roosevelt’s Tree Army, not only for the forests and wind breaks they planted but for the extent to which three million young men manually managed existing stands of trees; repaired and stocked streams; countered flooding and erosion; constructed fire look outs, and served on fire crews.

Roosevelt and others in his administration often likened the New Deal to a war against want, a battle that constructed rather than destroyed communities and land while it built the self respect of the men and women it employed.

CCC Worker Statue
photo: Creative Commons

 

When I read the accounts of CCC vets, I am as struck by the pride and gratitude they carried throughout their lives as a result of their service as I am by their superb craftsmanship in our national and state parks.

That was the constructive surrogate for the warrior spirit of the past that our forests — and our youth — cry out for today.

A CCC Jewel Restored on Lake Michigan

Exterior (Restored)

Lake Michigan Beach House
Exterior (Restored)

When the state of Michigan was given 3,500 acres of logged-over land on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1926, it was hoped that the nearby Big Sable Point Lighthouse might become a beacon not only for ships but for tourists as well. Back then, the land was reachable only by foot or boat, and the state lacked money to develop it as a park. That changed in 1933 with the advent of the New Deal.

The Pere-Marquette S-2 CCC Camp quickly went up on the state’s land and the young men of the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps began shaping the sand dunes, beaches, and skid trails into the Ludington State Park.

Under the direction of the National Park Service, they built roads, retaining walls, campgrounds, hiking trails, the park’s headquarters, and the Lake Michigan Beach House. Designed by renowned NPS architect Ralph B. Herrick, the one-of-a-kind, arts-and-crafts-style Beach House is regarded as the crown jewel of Michigan’s park system.

Lake Michigan Beach House
Veranda

The CCC Boys hand dug the foundation, water system, and septic field for the 116-foot building. A deal struck with the Morton Salt Company in the nearby town of Ludington had the CCC tear down a derelict salt mill in exchange for salvaged materials. The Corps carefully reclaimed the rust- colored bricks and massive, rough-sawn, white pine beams to build the two-story Beach House.

Time and weather took their toll on the 1935 landmark. In 1999 the state undertook a $1.6 million restoration of the iconic building. Reconstruction began in 2012. The interior was gutted and a new wood shingle roof was installed. The exterior— sandblasted over decades by the fierce Lake Michigan winds—was refurbished with new bricks and mortar carefully chosen to match the original.

Lake Michigan Beach House
Interior (Restored)

The upper floor, which had been subdivided, was restored to one large room. The original stone fireplace still occupies the south end. Doors on three sides lead to a veranda and patio. In place of the original changing rooms, there’s now a café and gift shop. New signage along the beach walk interprets the geology of Lake Michigan and some of the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world.

CCC Men
in front of the newly constructed Beach House, 1935

 

Ludington State Park has grown to 5,300 acres and receives nearly a million visitors annually. The Lake Michigan Beach House was added to the National Register of Historic Places this year. A display honoring the men of the CCC who built the state park soon will be installed in the beautiful Beach House they constructed.

With thanks to Alan Wernette, State Park Interpreter,
Ludington State Park