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Camden love letters – VCC Company 2713’s final year

We have been exploring the history of Camden State Park, our southwest Minnesota wilderness. We learned how the State purchased the Dale farm in the Redwood River valley in June 1934 and the Federal government approved an Emergency Conservation Work camp for the site. A 205-man Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC) company arrived Aug. 10 to work on projects designed by National Park Service Engineers and Landscape Architects who lived on site as technical foremen.

Early projects like road improvements and clearing temporary parking and picnic areas soon gave way to long-term park improvements like building trails; planting trees and shrubs; building bridges and iconic split stone and timber buildings; and working on the park’s signature feature, a manmade swimming pond.

The personnel strength of VCC Company 2713 varied as enrollees left upon expiration of their enrollment period; groups transferred from other VCC camps; and new enrollees reported. The company’s strength gradually dropped. By April 1936 the Company’s authorized strength was down to 157, when it had started at over 200.

But whether the VCC Company was short-staffed or at full strength, the men followed their daily routine, working from 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (shifting an hour later during the winter), five days a week, year-round. After work, they attended classes in the mess hall; held weekly meetings with the camp leadership; and enjoyed individual and group recreation activities in their recreation hall and outdoors.

Superintendent Pederson’s report for October-November 1936 commented on the impacts of the onset of cold weather.

“Sudden changes in temperature have been the cause of an unusually large number of hospital cases. The sick have been averaging around 10 daily. Occupational injuries have also been more numerous due to frozen, slippery ground, frosted materials and tools, and the clumsiness of the individual because of the cold and being bundled up with heavy clothing.”

Work crews began building the park’s bathhouse adjacent to the swimming pond in the fall of 1935. Superintendent Pederson’s December and January report updated progress on that project.

“The bath house is progressing in spite of the cold weather. Tentage borrowed from the Army covers this work and oil barrels converted into stoves provides heat. The footings of the shelter buildings will be poured within the next few days.”

His report also described a mid-winter diversion for the Company, courtesy of the National Park Service.

“Motion Picture Operator Fligg of the National Park Service showed some very interesting films here on Jan. 22. The show was educational as well as entertaining and the company is looking forward to another.”

A tool inventory from early January 1936 suggests the heavy work the men performed with hand tools. The inventory condemned 70 worn-out hand drills, used to split rock for stonework on park buildings and bridges; 47 sledge, shovel, and ax handles; and 28 shovels.

Superintendent Pederson’s April report included a light-hearted reference to the VCC enrollees’ hopes for the season ahead.

“The Vets are out early this season limbering up their creaky joints, determined to better their softball record of last year when Co. #2713 lost every game. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

His report also included a sobering account of an enrollee who drowned in the river, recorded in the April 1, 1936, edition of the Marshall Daily Messenger.

“The swollen waters of the Redwood River near Lynd this afternoon disclosed the body of A. L. Alm, 39, member of the Veterans Conservation Camp Company of Camden Park who had been missing since March 24. The body was discovered in the creek just on the outskirts of the park by searchers led by Sheriff George Rankin.”

Superintendent Pederson also reported the extent of non-construction work in the park.

“This area, being hilly and having been heavily grazed before acquisition, needed erosion control work and planting. Since the beginning of this operation approximately 9,000 man-days have been expended in bank sloping, sheet erosion planting, moving and planting trees and shrubs and seeding and sodding.”

Superintendent Floyd Tilden took over the Camden site in mid-June 1936, the same month the swimming pond and bathhouse opened for public use. Superintendent Tilden’s June report commented on the park’s popularity.

“There has been a very gratifying attendance of visitors at the park, especially on the weekends when the picnicking reaches its peak. The newly-constructed swimming pool and the new, modern bathhouse have been very popular at all times.”

Superintendent Tilden’s July report described how the men of VCC Company 2713 celebrated their second anniversary with a special dinner and a band concert.

The VCC enrollees completed their final projects in August and September of 1936. These last projects included a low-water crossing to the South Picnic Area; a fieldstone-setting for an artesian spring for the same picnic area; a fieldstone cascade for the swimming pool outflow; and completing the North Picnic Area shelter.

After completing all the designed park projects, the men of VCC Company 2713 departed on trucks Oct. 7, 1936, for Fort Ridgely State Park south of Fairfax, Minnesota.

The veterans of Company 2713 planted trees and built trails, roads, bridges, and buildings at Camden for a dollar a day. But they did more than work for that slim wage, important as it was to their families. They invested their work with a pride and an interest in creating beauty as well as function. They built for the future. They built a park for us.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com.

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