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(An Architectural Legacy, Part 3)
This is the final in a three-part series describing some of the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Illinois from 1933 until World War II. The first two appeared in the Oct. 13 and 27 issues of the RoundTable and are available online at evanstonroundtable.com.
Perched above the Illinois River with stunning views, Starved Rock is hilly and densely wooded, while at White Pines the terrain is rolling and the park is buried in majestic white pines (hence the name). With towering sandstone escarpments and deep gorges, Giant City is more topographically distinctive. All three parks exhibit an understanding of local terrain, allowing their man-made structures to blend in comfortably.
Built at the same time, but less grandiose, are the scattered picnic pavilions, built of three basic designs. The more interesting were built using stone and timbers and are distinguished by the incorporation of one stone fireplace-Type A-or two-Type B. The all-timber-and-wood pavilions without a fireplace are the larger, Type C. Using the same basic materials and almost identical floor plans, these appear to be of a pattern widely used.
The picnic pavilions in the state parks are used frequently and are often well maintained. Strategically located within easy reach of Chicago are a number of smaller state and county parks containing C.C.C. picnic pavilions of these types. At these, the level of maintenance appeared to be less even, but overall good. Like their larger state park brethren, usage appears to be frequent. Neil and Alan investigated about 14 such sites in Cook, DuPage, Will and Grundy Counties. Once they started, the Guys found C.C.C. structures almost everywhere. These pavilions were located at the Chicago Botanic Garden (a replica), Hubbard Woods (Skokie), Lockport, Channahon State Park and McKinley Woods-Frederick’s Grove (Channahon), Gebhard Woods (Morris), Illini State Park (Marseilles), York and Fullersburg Woods (Oak Brook) and McDowell Grove (Naperville). At all but Hubbard Woods and Lockport literature about their C.C.C. origins is available free of charge.
Varying in size and, despite some needed restoration here and there, all are well-built and in surprisingly good condition after almost 80 years of constant use.
Not unlike any federal agency hurriedly assembled and thrown into the breach, early C.C.C. efforts were sometimes rudderless and lacking direction. But as the Depression deepened and the lives of architects and landscape architects worsened, these professionals joined federal agencies engaged in infrastructure improvements, including the C.C.C.
In the C.C.C., their employment now provided much-needed direction and focus, sound structural judgments, and an historical knowledge of the Adirondack style.
Technically the Adirondack style was an imposition on nature. Philosophically it adopted nature as its backdrop and raison d’être.
Although the C.C.C. boys were a raw, voluntary group (half a million by 1941 and supervised by the U.S. military), they were prone to the foibles and pranks of their age group. Some deserted or were disciplined for going AWOL. Others dropped out because they could not take the isolation or the rigors of inhospitable places and primitive conditions. They were paid $1 a day ($30 a month, with $25 sent home), received three hearty squares per day, medical care, remedial education and opportunities to learn a trade. What they accomplished at bargain-basement prices, was a miracle. A standard enlistment was six months, but many re-enlisted and remained C.C.C. enrollees much longer.
While touring C.C.C. sites within reach of Chicago, the Getaway Guys were: (A) Agreed in their opinions, (B) dumbfounded by the accomplishments of a bunch of boys and (C) discouraged by the lack of funds to maintain those historic sites. Benign neglect appears to be the modus operandi. Between the 1930s and 2010 the U.S. has grown from 127 million (1935) to 308 million (2009) and it may be safe to say that America’s parks have not kept up, that facilities are overburdened physically and budgets continue to be squeezed.
Neil and Alan have spoken with acquaintances about the C.C.C., and the inevitable question is “Why not today?” This has been a perennial query since the Corps demise in 1941-42. The question seeks an answer, but the Getaway Guys can only speculate: (A) too expensive (B) too much government (C) primitive living conditions (D) too dangerous (E) too much work (F) no cell phones, rock concerts, dance clubs or fast food (G) no girls (H) all of the above.
Many enrollees were rural kids accustomed to small-town life and being out-of-doors. Today the 18-25 set is predominately urban and suburban, a demographic more at home in a mall than the wilderness.
The story of the Civilian Conservation Corps is simultaneously inspirational and heartbreaking. Applauded in its heyday, but probably destined for memory’s dust- bin, the Corps embodied all that was good in Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” Many who served in America’s wilderness and built its parks also served in the armed services during World War II.
The following books are highly recommended reading:
“Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition,” by Craig Gilborn.
“Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” by R.G. Bluemer.
“Giant City State Park and the Civilian Conservation Corps,” by Kay Rippelmeyer.
“The Public Landscape of the New Deal,” by Phoebe Cutler.
“The Soldiers of Poverty,” by Mary Schueller.
“Starved Rock State Park: the Work of the C.C.C. Along the I&M Canal,” by Dennis H. Cremin and Charlene Giardina.
“The Worst Hard Times,” by Timothy Egan.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.