Texas parks system a legacy of 'CCC boys'

Posted Saturday, Mar. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Celebrating the CCC

Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge

Members of the CCC Legacy "Cowtown" Chapter 123 will commemorate the work of CCC Company 118 and the 80th anniversary of the corps at a free event today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. For more information contact the center at 817-392-7410.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will honor the CCC's contribution to state parks on April 5-6 at Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Canyon.

For more information on the CCC and Texas parks visit www.texascccparks.org.

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FORT WORTH -- For $8 a month in spending money, Dan McGrew fought forest fires, Bill McKee pulled kitchen duty, James Garner assisted a camp doctor and Steve Wingo shaped rough rocks into masonry stone.

The "Greatest Generation" didn't just help win World War II. Before they sailed off to war, 3 million young men left home during the Great Depression to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps, where they crafted an enduring legacy of recreational infrastructure across Fort Worth, the state and the nation.

The $30-a-month labor battalions based in nearly 3,000 camps across the U.S. planted more than 3 billion trees, built thousands of miles of roads and trails, fought fires, battled floods, dug drainage ditches, constructed dams and curbed Dust Bowl erosion.

You might well have hiked on a trail they cut or eaten lunch on one of their rock picnic tables, climbed stairs they carved out of cliff sides, danced in one of their pavilions or slept in one of the cabins they built in parks across Texas from Big Bend National Park to Possum Kingdom State Park and the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge.

Born out of economic emergency, the New Deal program also delivered desperately needed cash across America, with $22 of the boys' pay sent home monthly to their folks.

"That money was very important for my family," said Dan McGrew, a Kaufman County farm boy who built fish ladders and fought fires in California before driving a truck and helping light up Longhorn Cavern in Central Texas.

"The CCC kind of developed my path in life," said McGrew, of Grand Prairie, who as a flight engineer flew 35 bombing missions in the war. He spent a career as a hydraulic mechanic and at 96 he went out dancing five nights this week.

The 'Tree Army'

Eighty years ago this month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Congress together in an emergency session to form the CCC to create jobs and salvage the country's Dust Bowl-ravaged landscape.

Just 37 days after Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, the first men in the "Tree Army" were enrolled. By July, 1933, 274,000 men had signed up.

In Texas, more than 50,000 men between ages 18 and 25 worked in dozens of "Three Cs" camps on a myriad of forestry and soil conservation projects from 1933 to 1942.

The "CCC boys" also literally laid the foundation for the Texas state park system, which before 1933 consisted of a small handful of historic sites on about 800 acres, according to a new book on the CCC in Texas. They built 56 parks in the state and 29 of them, including Garner and Palo Duro Canyon, still serve as linchpins of the system.

"The Three C's was what built America," said Rob Denkhouse, natural resource manager at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge which got its start as a CCC project.

"As you drive our roads, every time you go over a culvert you are going over one built by the Three Cs," he said. "They did tons of work all around Lake Worth."

"I've been in the parks business for 25 years and it amazes me that everywhere I go I see the influence of the Three Cs. It was just such a powerful concept of building the economy and giving theses guys jobs," he said.

Ceremony today

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the reserve, the CCC Legacy "Cowtown" Chapter 123, the city of Fort Worth, Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will commemorate the work of CCC Company 118 and the 80th anniversary of the corps.

"They built the nation. And that money they sent home saved a lot of families," said Mike Pixler, the president of the Cowtown chapter. His father, Willie Pixler, worked in a CCC camp based in Boyd.

The Cowtown chapter, with 72 members including 27 "CCC boys," is the largest in the U.S., he said.

"It was an educational experience for my father. Some of those boys never had a pair of shoes till they joined the CCC. It gave them work skills they used throughout their lives," Pixler said.

Originally known as State Park 31, the Fort Worth nature center was brought to life by Company 118, which built most of the roads and trails there as well as a stone outhouse, an elaborate outdoor banquet area, dozens of picnic tables and three lookouts over Lake Worth.

But SP-31 became a CCC orphan.

The park idea was abandoned and the structures fell into neglect. The roofs of the lookouts have collapsed and the views have been obscured by trees growing right up to their lips. Many of the picnic tables and benches have been toppled and the outdoor privy never really had a chance to take care of business.

"Nobody knows why it didn't become a state park. I have a feeling it was politics," Denkhouse said.

Another possibility is that the nearby Jacksboro Highway, a haven for gamblers and gangsters in the 1930s, was considered no place for a family picnic.

The structures were left unattended until the refuge was created by the city in 1964, Denkhouse said. An architect is now working on a renovation plan and once the plan is complete, the center plans to seek funds to restore the structures, he said.

State park legacy

But the CCC's handiwork remains a signature component at 29 Texas state parks, parks spokesman Bryan Frazier said.

An eye-pleasing example is Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, which was made of hand-formed adobe bricks.

"Indian Lodge has endured to this day as a prime destination in Texas. You can stay there today and still be impressed by the landscape and integrity of the building," Frazier said.

Guided by local craftsmen, the CCC built Texas parks from scratch, constructing roads, trails, lodges, footbridges, cabins, pavilions, concession buildings and bathhouses, said Jannelle Taylor, a CCC liaison for the state parks.

They also built swimming holes such as the grand 77,000-square-foot spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park.

The camps did it all with blacksmith shops fabricating ornamental ironwork and woodworking shops crafting furnishings.

From the beginning, National Park Service experts guided CCC park plans with a uniform design that utilized local materials and produced buildings that appear to have grown right out of the landscape.

The nature-hugging design known as "National Park rustic" has come to symbolize what a park looks like, Taylor said.

"It speaks to all of us," said Taylor, who grew up visiting Garner State Park, where the graceful arches of the pavilion have welcomed generations of Texans at summer dances on its stone patio.

"When we were kids we only wanted to go to parks that looked like Garner. We didn't know until decades later that they were CCC buildings," she said.

Maintaining the unique structures requires an ongoing commitment, Taylor said.

"It's a challenge. It's astronomically expensive. We have our own dedicated crew working on CCC structures," she said. "It's a constant struggle. You have to have a real hard commitment to succeed."

Texas parks will also be commemorating the 80th anniversary of the CCC on April 5-6 at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

"Our goal is to thank these CCC boys for their service. And to raise awareness about this unique program and how we are still benefitting from it today," Taylor said.

Boys, then warriors

The CCC boys, who are now in their 90s, look upon their six-month to two-year stints in the program as highlights of their very eventful lives.

James Garner, 93, of San Antonio, who grew up on a farm in Hamilton County, said the military-style CCC camps prepared him for the rigors of war as a Marine in the Pacific.

He worked two years at Garner State Park where he drove a truck and assisted military doctors in the camp infirmary.

"The money was a big help for my family. My mother used my allotment to go to beauty school. She opened a shop and ran it for years," he said.

"I made friends for life in the CCC. Several of the boys even married rancher's daughters and there are four of those girls still living in Texas," he said

Steve Wingo, 92, of Colleyville grew up in Weatherford and was pushing a broom in a Fort Worth grocery when he joined at age 17.

He was stationed at the camp at Lake Worth, where he cut rocks for a bathhouse, and then at Springtown, where he chipped in on a stone community center.

He then spent six years in the Navy and was on a ship that was sunk by torpedoes at Guadalcanal. Then he served on the Battleship Iowa.

He came back home and ran a remodeling business in Colleyville, where he's lived in the same house for 54 years.

Bill McKee, 93, of Abilene was living near Waxahachie and raising hogs when he signed up in October 1940.

"I worked in a camp kitchen. I liked it, I knew I could eat good in there," he said.

McKee worked in the aircraft industry until March 1944 before serving as a gunner in an Army anti-tank unit in Europe.

"The CCC was what gave me my start."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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