CCC workers' legacy seen in nation's parks

Pokagon workers

Pokagon workers
The shelter house, seen here from the east, is one of the familiar structures at Pokagon State Park by CCC men.

The Civilian Conservation Corps put young men to work.

By Faith J. Van Gilder of The News-Sentinel

The Great Depression led to desperate financial times across America. Businesses closed, unemployment climbed and families struggled to put food on the table.

Young people needed work.

The Civilian Conservation Corps would give it to them.

In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a plan to mobilize a vast army of young men, mostly urban, to work in the nation's parks and forests. Soldiers in this "Tree Army" would plant trees and fight fires; they would build dams and bridges, trails and picnic grounds, sewers and water systems; they would be the greatest peacetime work force ever created.

By June 29, 270,000 men had enrolled, including Francis Wellman and Carl Bredemeyer. The two Fort Wayne men first were stationed at CCC Camp 516, north of Bloomington at Morgan-Monroe State Forest.

"I enjoyed the outdoors — always have," said Wellman, now 84. Then 18 and a recent North Side High School graduate, he learned to cut down dead and diseased trees, draw maps and manage a canteen. The men even built their own barracks.

Wellman fondly recalls the camaraderie among co-workers, despite their varied backgrounds and cultures.

"Everybody got along," he said. "We learned to work."

After about a year, Wellman and Bredemeyer were sent to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

Bredemeyer, now 85, spent three years in the CCC, first as a cook at Morgan-Monroe, then as a cook and part-time mess sergeant at Mammoth Cave.

In his spare time, Bredemeyer took night classes in German and in taxidermy, a hobby he still enjoys. He and his buddies took hikes, discovered caves and hunted (illegally) in the national park, occasionally bagging squirrel or rabbit for the soup pot.

"It was the three greatest years of my life," Bredemeyer said. Years later, he returned to Mammoth Cave, only to discover all that remained of the CCC camp was a plaque.

He broke down and cried.

CCC-built structures most familiar to people in northeast Indiana may be those at Pokagon State Park on Lake James near Angola. CCC Company 556 arrived from the Indiana Dunes to begin work at Pokagon in 1934.

During the next seven years, CCC men built the park's infrastructure, including the water supply system; the entrance gatehouse and entrance road from Highway 27; a saddle barn; a beach shelter; and a maintenance building of hand-cut stone that now houses the park offices.

CCC men also constructed the park's first toboggan slide, expanded the campgrounds and picnic areas, hauled tons of sand to create the beach, and planted the trees that would transform the landscape into a heavily wooded haven.

By the time the CCC program ended in 1942, some 3 million men – including more than 63,000 Hoosiers – had worked in more than 2,000 camps throughout the 48 states and the U.S. possessions of Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Many alumni would serve in the military during World War II, well prepared by the discipline, training and work ethic they'd learned in the CCC camps.

Fewer CCC alumni remain each year to tell their stories firsthand. But their labor provided a lasting legacy for the millions of visitors to the nation's parks and forests.

The CCC in Fort Wayne

* The local alumni group, which numbers about 20, meets the first Wednesday of each month. Call Francis Wellman at 483-8620 for information.

* Photos and literature of the Fort Wayne CCC camp are on display at the Meijer stores on Lima and Maysville roads. The collections were organized by Gerry Bredemeyer, Carl's brother, who worked at the Fort Wayne camp from 1937 to 1939.

* Stone pillars, a drinking fountain and concrete foundations mark the site of CCC Camp D-2, north of Fort Wayne at what is now 5642 Huguenard Road. In 1993, the Three Rivers chapter of the local CCC alumni group installed a commemorative plaque there.

Why men joined

Men who enrolled in the CCC had to be 18 to 25 years old, physically fit, unemployed, unmarried and willing to send money to their families. Once assigned to a camp, workers received $30 a month, of which $25 was sent home. Skilled men received $35 or $40.

The men received work clothes, bedding and three nourishing meals a day — a luxury in those times. CCC camps also offered recreation, religious services, and academic and vocational training.

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