Arkansas State Parks: The Legacy of the CCC
Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

(Editor's Note: The following is the second of a four-part series on the history of Arkansas's state parks. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1927 legislation that gave rise to The Natural State's parks system.)

Since there was no work in '34,
I went and joined the CC Corps...
The work was hard, I must agree,
But it sure made a man of me.
In four years I traveled far,
I owe it all to the great FDR...
He took many fellows off the street,
And put the country back on its feet...

                         (From a poem by Ed McCann, CCC veteran)

They were called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” and “Three-Cs Boys,” but almost everyone who lived through the Great Depression proclaimed the Civilian Conservation Corps the best of America’s recovery programs. Between 1933 and 1942, almost three million young men were employed across the nation. More than 200,000 Arkansas natives served in camps from coast to coast. Many also served in the 77 camps scattered throughout their home state.

The CCC legislation was President Roosevelt’s top priority after taking office in 1933. In less than three weeks the bill was introduced, passed and signed into law. Robert Fechner, a union official, was tapped to direct the program and the first enrollee was inducted on April 7.

Working under a unique co-op in which the Department of Labor handled applications, Agriculture and Interior Departments supplied work projects and the War Department directed the camps, CCC inductees were under the command of U.S. Army officers, issued military-type clothing and lived in Army tents and then hastily constructed barracks. The basic pay was $30 per month but $25 was mailed home to each enrollee’s relatives. Classroom education was compulsory for those who could not read or write.

CCC workers performed over 100 types of work, from planting trees (over three billion) to building parks (more than 800 nationwide) to developing over 28,000 miles of hiking trails. They also saved 20 million acres from soil erosion, built 47,000 bridges and installed over 5,000 miles of water supply lines. The accomplishments of the program seem endless.

Recalling CCC Service

At age 17, Anthel D. Marlin dropped out of his junior year at Sidney High School in Sharp County and signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was the spring of 1938, and the Great Depression was still bearing down on small farmers across the South.

“It was a family decision for me to join the CCC’s,” Marlin recalled. “My parents and brothers needed my help, and the program paid $25 a month to our folks back home.”

As a CCC worker, Marlin worked six or more hours each day, five days a week. Those in educational programs, attended classes before and/or after work duty. Days were long, but food was plentiful. Breakfast provided eggs and bacon, cereal, toast, fruit and coffee. A typical lunch might consist of fried meat, potatoes, buttered carrots, salad, bread and raisin pudding. Dinner often included meat and gravy, baked potatoes, peas or beans, salad, bread and pie.

His initial duty assignment was near Pierce, Idaho. “It was my first time away from home and I really missed my folks and Arkansas,” Marlin said. During the summer of 1938, Marlin worked planting trees and building roads in a Rocky Mountain wilderness some 30 miles from the nearest village.

After about six months, he was discharged, came home to Sidney, and finished high school in the spring of 1939.
In the fall of 1940, Marlin again signed up for the CCC program and was assigned to Camp Hedges (No. 743) in the Sylamore District of the Ozark National Forest. “I was just across the White River from my home county,” he said, “and I worked as a hospital orderly -- a job that I requested.”

Camp Hedges, located between Calico Rock and Mountain View, supplied the men who built roads, bridges, fire breaks and the original facilities at Blanchard Springs Caverns, including log cabins, campsites, recreation hall and handsome stone structures throughout the park. The boys of Camp 743 also fought forest fires and performed conservation work.

“The boys were up and on the job early, but they also were allowed time for sports, social activities and educational studies,” Marlin recalled. “The barracks were for basic living, military style. A roaring fire could keep them warm in the winter, but nothing could keep them cool in the summer.”

Wanting to resume his college education, Marlin received a transfer to Camp Shiloh (No. 3784) and entered Arkansas Tech in Russellville as a part-time student. He continued as a hospital aid, assisting civilian doctors who visited the camp daily. “Measles and mumps were our main medical complaints in the camps,” Marlin said. Camp Shiloh worked on forestry projects north of Russellville.

When the 21-year-old entered military service in September 1942, Marlin’s CCC experience helped land him in the Army Medical Corps. After additional training, he served in the South Pacific. After the war Marlin married, finished college and became a school teacher and coach. He later worked in public services and retired in North Little Rock.
Saving Soil with the CCC

Stone County native Lona Ackerman enrolled in the CCC program in July of 1935. He was assigned directly to Camp 3782, which had just been established on a mountain south of Heber Springs for soil conservation efforts. “I learned to drive a truck and hauled many, many loads of grass sod to farms in that region,” Ackerman said.

In addition to saving the soil, “the sodding projects helped many farmers establish cattle operations,” Ackerman noted. “That CCC grass is still producing, except the acreage covered by the construction of Greers Ferry Lake.” Other efforts included fencing and pond-bank stabilization.

Camp 3782 housed about 200 young men, and at one time, 70 of the boys in camp were from Stone County. “I guess that illustrates just how hard the times were in rural counties,” Ackerman said.

Entering the program at age 17, Ackerman remained in the CCC for three years. “Toward the end of my duty, the military overtones in camp became noticeably stronger,” he noted. “The CCC’s taught the boys teamwork, a good work ethic … and also prepared us for the war.” Ackerman became a soldier before the U.S. entered World War II and spent almost four years in military service.

Afterwards, Ackerman returned to his native county and eventually settled in Mountain View. During nearly 30 years in business, he also found time to serve 16 years as Mountain View’s mayor. First elected in 1970, Ackerman was part of the successful effort to build and open the Ozark Folk Center State Park, and he and his wife still reside in the town.

Arkansas’s Parks

In Arkansas, most CCC projects were built in national forests or on state-owned property. The fledging state parks system, established in 1927, benefited greatly as the work program created roads, trails, lodges and cabins, campgrounds, amphitheaters, bathhouses, picnic pavilions and beaches at six locations in four different regions of the state. Petit Jean, Mt. Nebo, Crowley’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, Lake Catherine and Buffalo Point were the “charter parks” of today’s system. When the Buffalo National River was created in 1972, the CCC-built state park at Buffalo Point was included in the federal preserve.

A seventh park was developed by workers of the Works Progress Administration, a later Depression-era jobs program, at Arkansas Post. In 1964, the park was transferred to the National Parks Service and is now the Arkansas Post National Memorial.

Petit Jean, the state’s first state park, was occupied by Company 1781-V in July 1933. The CCC camp was made up of Arkansas military veterans from World War I. Many had served their apprenticeship at Camp Pike, along with their commanding officer Capt. J. D. Treece, a native of Searcy County.

Because of the role National Park System Director Stephen T. Mather played in creating Arkansas’s first state parks, the impressive CCC-built lodge was named in his honor. In addition to the majestic lodge, the CCC built native stone and log cabins, hiking trails, bridges, overlooks and other structures that have been enjoyed by several generations and remain the focal point of the Petit Jean State Park.

Mt. Nebo State Park also welcomed its first CCC outfit, Company 1780-V, in July 1933. Capt. H.L. Eagan brought 20 tons of equipment and 186 enrollees up the mountain from the Dardanelle train station. Like the Petit Jean crew, Company 1780-V was initially composed of military veterans. Described as “gray about the temples,” and often 20 years older than the average CCC recruit, the men of Mt. Nebo and Petit Jean were two of only four veterans camps established in Arkansas. Their work continues to be admired today.

Crowley’s Ridge State Park, near Paragould, was the second assignment for CCC Camp 1729. Returning from duty in Oregon, the first detachment of workers arrived in October, 1933. By Nov. 16 the company had 207 youthful enrollees, mostly from northern Missouri. The park site had been the pioneer homestead of Benjamin Crowley, for whom the “ridge” was named, and local support for the park was great.

Companies 1729, 2746 and 4733 all participated in the building of the park. Facilities included a spring-fed lake, swimming beach, two-story bathhouse, pavilion, campgrounds, picnic sites, nature trails, roads, bridges, and restrooms. Also, soil conservation was a high priority and more than 11,000 trees and shrubs were added during 1935 alone. The park was dedicated June 4, 1938. Group lodging and cabins were added to the park, and its CCC facilities have been well preserved.

Company 797 occupied Devil’s Den State Park on Oct. 20, 1933. The unit, made up of men from North Dakota under the command of Lt. J.C. Bakken, made the journey to Arkansas via rail. “Our first impressions of Arkansas were very pleasant,” wrote CCC enlistee Levard C. Pepple in 1934. “Green grass and warm sunshine were a relief after the cold, blustery winds we had left behind in the North.”

Company 797’s main goal during its six-month stay was to construct a good gravel road from West Fork to Devil’s Den. “It is a scenic highway, composed of several hairpin curves, which will enable the motorist to obtain the best view possible,” Pepple added. They also built the first hiking trail in the park. Companies 757, 3777 and 3795 also worked at Devil’s Den, constructing the massive stone dam on Lee’s Creek, native stone and log cabins, campgrounds, offices and restaurant, plus additional trails.

Lake Catherine, which covers 2,600 acres between Hot Springs and Malvern, became a state park in 1937. Before designated a state park, Arkansas Power and Light Company had -- in 1924 -- created the lake by impounding the Ouachita River for electric generation. The company’s president, Harvey Couch, then donated to the state more than 2,000 acres surrounding the lake, which is named for Couch’s daughter.

Company 3777 arrived at Catherine in 1937. The company had been organized in 1935 at Devil’s Den, but later the same year moved to Boyle Park in Little Rock and worked until the project was finished before transferring to Lake Catherine. At Catherine, the young men built cabins, stone walls, bridges, a fishermen’s barracks, a lodge (that burned in 1948), and other park facilities.

World War II brought an end to most CCC projects, but the Lake Catherine project was not closed until 1942 to allow for the completion of the park. During the final months of the war, the park was used as a therapeutic retreat for soldiers undergoing treatment in Hot Springs.

Today’s “nature cabin,” located near the swimming beach, was originally built as a concession stand. It now houses exhibits relating to the park’s history and natural environment.

All five CCC state parks proudly display their heritage in the rustic charm the talented young men provided each facility and project through hard work and diligence. Time, though, would soon reveal the need for men of power to carry on the work necessary to sustain Arkansas’s new park system.