By Amber Gordon
It felt as though we would never reach our destination. We had been driving for about three hours, and the sun looked almost ready to set. Just as I was ready to heave another frustrated sigh, we pulled to a stop. The designated parking area was a small patch of grass that could probably fit four vehicles, and aside from an information sign, we were surrounded by trees. This was the site of the Cut Foot Sioux Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, a small, relatively forgotten part of northern Minnesota. It was completely unknown to me, and after the long drive I was more than ready to go exploring. My friend Roger and I jumped out of the vehicle and stretched. The air was cool and damp, but the sun was still out. I grabbed my camera, he pulled on a backpack full of typical hiking necessities, and we were on our way.
The information board displayed several black and white photos next to paragraphs describing the history of the CC camp. The first men to arrive here May 26, 1933, were expecting to find a place to temporarily call home, and were surprised to find that there was much work to be done first. Only a small area of brush had been cleared, and they had to remove tree stumps and level the land before they could even set up a tent. Eventually, they went on to build a permanent camp, all constructed with wood logged and milled on-site.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Conservation Corps not only to improve the conditions of our nation’s public lands, but also to help create jobs during the Great Depression. The first summer of this program at the Cut Foot Sioux was hard on the men. They were short on supplies, and until they built a well, the only way to get water was to haul it in cream cans from two miles away. The summer of 1933 was very hot and dry, so the men fought fires right up until the first snowfall. In addition to fighting fires, conducting lakeshore cleanups and wildlife surveys, and stocking almost nine thousand fish in surrounding lakes, the workers also constructed roads, surveyed property lines, built campgrounds, and installed telephone lines.
Camp F-14 continued as a CC camp until 1941. Later, the buildings were used to house German prisoners of war, who were taken to camps such as this one to use them for labor and keep them away from the war. After the war ended, the Army sold the buildings, and they were torn down. This happened about seventy years ago.
With a better understanding of the place I was about to enter, I began walking, anxious to see what remained.
Following dirt paths, I thought about how much work the men had done, and noticed that nature had reclaimed most of it. Decades ago the frames of these buildings had been dismantled, but their cement foundations were left behind, leaving architectural footprints in the ground. Large stones used as landscaping around the buildings now served as markers for each foundation. Each area was clearly marked with the name of the building on a wooden sign and most included a photo of that building from when it had been in use, as well as a brief description of what life in the camp was like.
The first place I came to was marked, “Power Plant.” Gasoline engines operated a huge generator that provided the men with all of their electricity. All that remained of the power house was a concrete slab and a few cement posts. The “Bakery” sign stood next to a square concrete pit that held several crumbled cement blocks, but the accompanying photo showed warming ovens and a large mixer. The mixer was considered “a source of pride” because during those days it was difficult to get such an appliance, let alone use it in the middle of the woods. There were a total of six barracks laid out in a semi-circle around the central courtyard, and Barrack Three had been converted from a sleep hut to an education building so that the men could learn technical trades such as mechanics and carpentry.
A few steps further, I arrived at a sign that read, “Mess Hall.” Pitted, rounded concrete stairs led to nowhere in front of a rectangular cement frame. I imagined what the building must have looked like decades ago, full of hungry men and the welcome smells of good, home-cooked food. Now almost all evidence of the men had disappeared, replaced by trees growing through what was once the mess hall floor. As far removed from society as these men were, they still enforced rank and regulations, and had a separate eating area called the “Officer’s Mess.” This was a formal dining room for Army officers and Forest Service officials. They also had an “Orderly Room,” which is where new recruits went to receive their first work orders and be assigned to a barrack, and a “Supply Room” for managing camp supplies and inventory.
In a location where several trails converged, a large polished rock bore a plaque, marking this place as a historical site and expressing gratitude for the men who had lived and served at the camp. Before this visit, I didn’t know of the dedication and hard work the men put in. I didn’t realize how important the work was, not only for the men of the Conservation Corps, but also for the people who lived in the area, and for those who currently live there. Roger’s family owned a cabin about ten miles away, and I wondered how his family’s land had been affected by the work of Company 707.
A small pile of stones with a sign that read, “Stone Chimney” rested next to the dedication plaque. From the black and white photo provided I could tell that this chimney had been part of a very large building. The paragraph on the sign stated that the chimney developed a lean after the wooden frame of the building was removed. Attempts had been made to make it stand straight again, but the foundation crumbled, so the chimney had to be torn down for safety reasons.
During those days a trip to the hospital was long and dangerous, so the camp also provided a “Dispensary” where the men could receive medical care. The “Medical Garage” housed an ambulance that could transport the seriously sick or injured to a hospital.
I next came upon a long, metal box with fourteen large holes on a raised platform. It was marked, “Toilet.” According to the sign, the latrines were shared by about two hundred people. Raised concrete marked the path to a connecting area marked, “Shower.” I was curious about a small square section, and then I read the sign, which stated it was a foot bath designed to prevent athlete’s foot. The sign also read, “One enrollee remarked he’d never had athlete’s foot until after stepping into this bath.” Located in the back of this shower/latrine building was the “Laundry Room,” where the men did their laundry and also peeled potatoes for the evening meals.
Being laborers, they needed and built a “Tool Shed” where they sharpened, repaired, and stored tools. It was amazing to see the cement structure, almost twice my height. The main work area was built to be the height of a truck bed so that work crews could load and unload tools more efficiently. Major repairs were completed in the “Blacksmith Shop,” where the men could forge and weld.
At times their trucks needed maintenance, which was done in the “Truck Grease Rack,” where men cleaned the undercarriages of the trucks and performed oil changes and other grease work. The cement of this spot was raised at an angle from the ground so that trucks could be parked on top, and the men had room to work underneath. I walked inside and stood where the men would have stood. Mismatched nuts and bolts still peeked out from thick green moss. A few oil containers had been left behind. They were almost completely rusted, but I could still make out the words, “Pennsylvania Motor Oil.”
The camp also had a “Truck Repair Shop.” Keeping their trucks in good repair with preventative maintenance was a source of pride. Engineers would park their trucks in a line for weekly inspection. All that was left of the shop were several pairs of cement blocks sprouting from the ground, covered in green moss, with long pieces of rusted metal twisting out like fingers.
The CC men obviously worked hard, but it wasn’t all work. In the “Recreation Hall” they could read, write letters, play pool, and just hang out with each other. There was also a “Theater” where they could watch plays, concerts, and home movies. All that is left of the theater now is a large half-circle of concrete, blanketed with pine needles in front of a rectangular depression where the building once stood.
The Cut Foot Sioux Camp was like a village. The men who lived here had shelter and a fresh water supply, generated their own electricity, made their own food, had amenities, and even received an education. But, just as the Civilian Conservation Corps program came to an end, so did my visit. Roger and I headed back to our vehicle.
Ready to leave, I turned to take one last look. With the tall trees and thick foliage it was hard to imagine that anything had been built here, let alone that the spot had housed two hundred men. Yet here I was, standing on moss and grass growing between cracks in bituminous asphalt, white paint still marking clearly the dividing line between halves of the abandoned tennis court. I felt no clear division between past and present, or between man and nature. This place contained both.
Amber Gordon is a student at Bemidji State University earning a BA in humanities, BFA in creative writing, BS in art and design, and an electronic writing minor.