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The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1941
Its Architectural Legacy in Illinois, Part 1

getaway-chicago logoWith each passing year their ranks grow smaller, and by the end of this decade few, if any, will survive. They were young men (18 to 25) in 1933 and it is fair to say, their employment options were near zero. They came from every corner of the U.S. and from varying walks of life, and within less than a decade they would help transform the American landscape we know and enjoy today. Many were poor and not just a few were barely literate, but they were willing to work and their labors are an incredible legacy. harmswoodspavilionThey were the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Despite their accomplishments, mention the C.C.C. today and not many are acquainted with this New Deal agency. Somehow the boys and the agency have become almost invisible.

starvedrocklodgeWhile exploring state and county parks in the Chicago area, the Getaway Guys frequently found distinctive structures of a particular vernacular. They weren’t of the mundane type built today and they bore a striking resemblance to the Adirondack style of New York State. They are lodges, cabins and shelters of superb craftsmanship; labor intensive, all natural materials, harmonious with their surroundings and meant to last. lockportshelterQuasi-familiar with the C.C.C., neither Neil nor Alan realized immediately how prevalent surviving C.C.C. structures are within the Chicago region and once they tuned into their distinctiveness, they seemed to be everywhere.

The Stock Market crashed in October-November 1929, and for the next 39 months the greatest economic disaster to afflict the United States grew in intensity. Nothing President Herbert Hoover and a Republican controlled Congress considered appropriate to do could stem the tide whitepineslodgeof a nation economically bleeding to death. On March 3, 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States and within a fortnight he and a Democratic Congress established a number of work programs to relieve an unprecedented unemployment situation (estimated to be 25% of the work force). The Emergency Conservation Service (later the Civilian Conservation Corps and derisively nicknamed Roosevelt’s Tree Army) was among the first. Similar agencies followed. New Deal legislation cost a bundle and it scared the pants off Democrats and mcdowellgroveshelterRepublicans alike, but with rising discontent and social upheaval a possibility, the necessary legislation was approved and put in place to almost immediately. The New Deal marked a turning point in government, because it spelled an end to more than a century of a “hands off” approach to the economic well being of the individual. Many feared Socialism and others Totalitarianism and not unlike today, carping about both saturated the airwaves of the 1930’s.

starvedrocklodge3From last September to May of 2010, the Getaway Guys visited fourteen Illinois C.C.C. sites within 150 miles of Chicago (an exception being Giant City State Park near Carbondale). With two omissions (Harm’s Woods and Lockport) each was identified as a C.C.C. site and has literature available at no cost. Despite evident public use, why too few know of the C.C.C. or care is a mystery. The dying off of generations fullersburgboqthouseand recollections may be a plausible reasons. A more politically nuanced explanation may stem from a contemporary belief that Government is the bad guy, thereby rendering Depression era accomplishments null and void (assuming naysayers know what the C.C.C. was).

Of the 5,000+ camps established between 1933 and 1941, some early camps were more focused than others. The C.C.C. was a vast operation involving multiple mckinleywoodspavilionfederal and state agencies with multiple agendas, which took time to sort out. Almost immediately, enrollees were deployed to fight forest fires while others planted trees (approximately 90,000,000) to fight soil erosion. Others cleared brush and built roads in State and National Forests. Planning and coordination of large scale projects needed more time and eventually required outside expertise. While America’s economic landscape lay in ruins, starvedrockcabinits agricultural life blood was blowing away. Dust storms of Biblical proportions blew away millions of tons of top soil. The drought of 1935 (the subject of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”) also led to massive forest fires. The C.C.C. wasn’t linear. Camps assigned to projects were abruptly dispatched elsewhere. At Giant City, members of Camps 1657 and 692 assisted with Ohio River flood relief in 1937 and later forest fires in northern Wisconsin and Isle Royale in Michigan.

Depression era drought, dust storms, flooding and forest fires addressed by the C.C.C. weren’t the primary focus of Neil andstarvedrocklodge2 Alan’s visits however. They wanted to investigate the architectural legacy. Not architectural historians, but not unfamiliar with architecture, the Getaway Guys decided (after some disagreement) that much of what was built by the C.C.C.’s in the Chicago region belonged to an established style and wasn’t a fluke.

The lodge-centered layouts of yorkwoodspavilionGiant City State Park, White Pines State Park and Starved Rock State Park are of a piece, yet different. They all consist of a central lodge for dining and leisurely gatherings, and cabins for overnight accommodations. Purportedly the most elaborate lodge of the three is Giant City’s with its attention to detail and fine craftsmanship. The hand-cut stone is remarkable and the supportive timbers mind-boggling, along with its hand-forged iron work for hinges and locks. Somewhat smaller than the lodge at Starved Rock, the Giant City lodge is designed around a two story open space surrounded by a generous second floor gallery on three sides. Four massive timbers support the gallery and roof. At the south end is a giant fireplace and just beyond a one-story extension originally designed for public bathing. This space now houses lodge restrooms. At the north end where the bar is currently located, a small restaurant once existed. mckinleywoodsshelterFlanking the bar area are two later additions devoted to dining. The smaller was added in the 1960’s and the larger in the 1980’s. Both mimic the original architecture. Close by twelve overnight cabins were built and, although modernized, remain essentially original. With some exceptions, the stones and timbers were harvested within the park or from quarries in nearby Makanda, with most of the cutting and shaping being done manually.

The larger Starved Rock lodge is a two-story structure without a second floor gallery. Unlike the reliance on stone as a primary structural element at Giant City, the prevalent building material at Starved Rock is wood with hand hewn timbers providing support. The focal point of the main room is a very impressive, massive two story stone fireplace. To the east the generously-proportioned, original restaurant continues to function, flanked on the north by a larger, later addition. Not far from the lodge, sixteen original log cabins continue to provide over night accommodations. Attached to the lodge on the west side are additional over night accommodations housed in a two-story structure, date unspecified.whitepinesshelter

At White Pines State Park, near Oregon, Illinois, the lodge design is noticeably different. Here the lodge centered concept was altered and instead of one central structure, there are two joined by a “breezeway.” One continues to serve as a restaurant-bar facility, with a large banquet-performance area (dated unspecified) attached. The other now serves as a reception-administration center and attractive gift shop. Predominantly wood and hand-hewn timber, the structural elements appear to be original. Large stone fireplaces (less grand and massive) provide a focal point in each structure. Again, a short distance from the central lodge structures, illinipavilionsixteen log cabins (some being double units) were built for over night stays. Each containing impressive stone fireplaces, the cabins are in pristine condition and appear to be faithful to their original C.C.C. design. The C.C.C. structures at Giant City, Starved Rock and White Pines have been modified to one degree or another to accommodate larger attendance and more contemporary amenities. Conceived in the 1930’s when times were extremely tough and getting away from it all in some isolated spot to commune with nature seemed to be an antidote to bad news, today visitors are less willing to leave home without a wi-fi connection to the universe. Despite these altered values, what a bunch of 18-25 year old boys accomplished between 1933 and 1941 remains astounding. October 2010

[Concluded in November 2010]


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