Conservation Corps brought rustic style to park

  • Article by: ANN WESSEL
  • Associated Press
  • August 17, 2013 - 12:12 AM

NEW LONDON, Minn. — The Veterans Conservation Corps camp that once stood on the oak-shaded rise overlooking Lake Andrew housed, fed and put to work the World War I veterans — up to 200 at a time — who built the granite-and-timber structures that transformed Sibley State Park from public property to regional destination.

Some details of the Army-run camp are sketchy. But the $750,000 in projects they completed from May 1935 to October 1938 are solid, the St. Cloud Times reports ( ).

As park naturalist Dick Clayton pointed out during a walk through the Lakeview Campground shelter, one of 11 VCC-constructed buildings in the park, 7-foot-tall granite walls withstand storms nicely.

Modern-day campers who seek shelter in the building might notice how the pieces of granite used to construct the massive fireplaces are balanced by shape and color, each piece cut to match.

"These guys were getting $30 a month, but the pride — I think the main thing was to keep their spirits up," said Clayton, who leads interpretive programs about the VCC and has compiled original documents and photographs from the camp.

The camp was a New Deal project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era relief program that put men to work. They kept $5 and sent the rest home.

Four-man teams might spend hours splitting a piece of granite with 12-pound sledgehammers and bits. If the rock split the wrong way, Clayton said they would discard it and start again.

The pink and gray granite, which came from Cold Spring and Rockville quarries, was difficult to split. About 75 percent of the split rock had to be discarded, according to the 1988 National Register of Historic Places form. (A historic district within the park encompasses 41 acres.)

Fine craftsmanship was the result of experience. Members of the VCC were in their 40s. Their counterparts in the Civilian Conservation Corps were 18 to 24 years old and learning on the job.

Veterans Conservation Corps Company No. 1785 moved from Sibley to Itasca State Park, where its crowning achievement was Forest Inn. That building, with its gift shop on one side and meeting room on the other, further refined the symmetry and detail found at Sibley.

"These were people that had a lot of skills already," Clayton said of the VCC.

In addition to 11 buildings, the VCC in Sibley State Park built nine structures, the granite steps from the beach at Lake Andrew to the picnic area atop Cedar Hill among them. The VCC built roads and trails. Laid water and sewer lines. Planted thousands of trees. All under the direction of the National Park Service.

"After the federal government did the work, it became a very favorable place for people to come because they could now stay overnight. There was infrastructure," Clayton said.

Even the first project the VCC completed within Sibley, a men's and women's restroom on Cedar Hill, features architectural embellishment in the form of arched shelters before each door. Clayton ponders that such details weren't necessary but added to the ambiance.

The Cedar Hill picnic shelter was packed with a spirited group from a nearby church camp on a Thursday afternoon in early August.

Clayton said the idea was for structures, built in the rustic style using locally available materials, to blend in rather than overshadow the natural environment.

"They would go out and find the choicest white oak, whether from inside or outside the park," Clayton said.

The buildings blend in so well that unless you're staying in the campground or going for a stroll on Cedar Hill, some of them may go unnoticed.

Possibly the most-visited and most altered of the VCC structures, the camp store, stands on the Lake Andrew shore.

Inside, state park T-shirts, souvenirs and ice cream tempt visitors. The store always sold concessions, but the open breezeways on either side were converted to bathrooms and the men's and women's changing rooms that flanked them were torn down.

Another change, the proliferation of water bottles, may mean the stone drinking fountains scattered throughout the park might not get as much use as they once did. But they still work.

Just up the hill in Lakeview Campground, a shower and restroom building is largely unchanged. One end originally built as a laundry was converted to a handicap accessible shower and restroom.

On the edge of the campground, a building used to store firewood and ice cut from the lake serves as storage space and a restroom. So does the lower portion of the water tower that once supplied the campground from a 5,000-gallon tank.

Before it was Lakeview Campground, the spot that shades sleek campers and dome tents was the VCC's Three Bear Camp.

"They brought some bear cubs with them from the North Shore. They had a little zoo in the camp," Clayton said. That was just one connection to the local community.

Workers' canvas tents were soon replaced by 20-by-60-foot barracks, a mess hall, recreation hall, infirmary, National Park Service headquarters building, garage and education building.

The VCC camp buildings are long gone — it was standard to disassemble or raze them once work was complete. Early park maps mark the site. Black-and-white photographs from government reports provide some insight into camp life.

In one photograph, a pile of chickens awaits plucking for Sunday dinner. Another shows a man with a stringer of fish.

Whist occupied much of their free time. The men also snowshoed and swam in the lake.

At one point, Clayton said drought expanded the beach by a couple of hundred yards. The men planted corn there.

Men generally enrolled for a six-month stint with the option to sign on for two years.

According to a Minnesota state park interpretive leaflet, this VCC camp started its work at Scenic State Park in 1933. From Sibley, it moved to Itasca State Park.

Constructing those stone-and-timber buildings at Sibley prepared the crew to work on Forest Inn at Itasca State Park in 1939 and 1940. That project required 200 members of the VCC, including 30 for the stonework alone.

The result is described in some state park literature as "perhaps the number one building of the state park system."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Cloud Times

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