The wise philosopher and baseball player, Yogi Berra, said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Likewise, when a chance comes to hike a trail with a park ranger or interpreter, jump on it.
Legions of hikers did just that during First Day Hikes held New Year’s Day at the area’s Arkansas state parks. That included the dozen who took a stroll along the Civilian Conservation Corps trail at Devil’s Den State Park, with interpreter Mystina Swaim leading the way.
She brought the CCC era at Devil’s Den to life with her wonderful and informative talk while the group visited foundations, stone work and other reminders of the young men who built this popular state park.
Swaim has done her research and had a wealth of stories and facts to share during the one-half mile mosey. A brochure is available at the visitor center for a self-guide tour, but Swaim knows volumes more.
We could imagine the 400 or so men, age 18 to 24, working hard to create a lovely park in this hardscrabble valley. The Civilian Conservation Corps was started by President Franklin Roosevelt to create jobs during The Great Depression. Devil’s Den was started in 1933 and finished in 1942.
“They got paid one dollar per day and got free lodging, a work uniform and good meals, so this was a good deal for them during the Depression,” Swaim said at the hike’s start.
The men kept $5 per month for themselves and sent the rest home to their families. Now and then they could use one of the CCC trucks for a getaway into Winslow, West Fork or maybe Fayetteville.
Each day started with a flag ceremony at dawn, breakfast and some exercise. Then the guys got to work building the cabins, trails and the stone dam that wows visitors today.
“It’s amazing to think they did all this work by hand,” Swaim said. Big rocks and logs were set into place with little equipment. All the rocks at the dam were stacked by hand, Swaim said.
The work was hard and dangerous. There was one fatality in nearly 10 years of construction.
Work ended at 4 p.m., so the men could clean up and have some fun. The chimney of a recreation hall stands today near the park’s picnic pavilion and swinging bridge. They played baseball. Lots of baseball, Swaim said.
They had a team, the Devil’s Den Angels, and they’d challenge teams from Northwest Arkansas to come down and play a game.
The valley was called Devil’s Den by the locals before the park was built, Swaim explained, and workers embraced the name. Lots of the CCC units in Arkansas and elsewhere published newsletters that were mailed to other camps. Title of the Devil’s Den newsletter was “The Voice of Satan.” You don’t learn this kind of stuff in the brochure.
There were two work camps at Devil’s Den. The main camp was in the park proper and another was to the north of the park. Each had about 200 men. Swaim led us to a foundation that was once a kitchen. A concrete shelter built into the ground was the root cellar. Another foundation was the shower house. The park had electricity and plumbing back then, Swaim said. Gasoline powered generators produced the electricity.
Cabins that are rented today were built by CCC men from native stone and oak and hickory. All the cabins are numbered, but there’s never been a cabin No. 13, Swaim said.
On trips to town, the guys often met up with some of the local gals who had chaperones.
“Well, one of the chaperones ended up falling in love with one of the guys and they eventually got married,” Swaim told us.
Devil’s Den State Park and some other Arkansas State Park may not have been built without the CCC. Conservation Corps workers built Petit Jean, Lake Catherine, Mount Nebo and Crowley’s Ridge state parks, Swaim said. They also built Buffalo Point, which was a state park before Buffalo River became a national river.
What a way to start a new year. Good fresh air, exercise and a wealth of new knowledge about this great park with the quirky name, Devil’s Den.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAFlip
Sports on 01/10/2017