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Camden love letters — VCC Company 2713’s first full year

We have been exploring the history of Camden State Park, our southwest Minnesota wilderness. We learned that after the Dale family sold their Redwood River Valley farm to the State of Minnesota in June 1934, the Federal government approved a State request for an Emergency Conservation Work camp there. The camp was staffed by a 205-man Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC) company from Rochester, Minnesota that arrived August 10th. VCC Company 2713 immediately began working on park projects designed by National Park Service (NPS) Engineers and Landscape Architects who lived on site as technical foremen.

The camp staff also included non-technical foremen, one of whom was Helmer Dale, the eldest of the Dale children. So, the Dale connection to Camden State Park, which pre-dated the Park’s existence, continued through construction of the park’s roads, buildings, trails, bridges, swimming pond, and other work VCC Company 2713 completed to preserve and make accessible the wooded valley’s natural beauty.

September brought a new superintendent to Camden, Mr. H.N. Pederson. September 1934 was also the first full month for VCC work crews in the new park and they were busy. The NPS staff prepared project plans; submitted them for approval and allocation of man-hours toward completion; and then assigned VCC work crews to the different projects. On any given day, crews might be working on as many as a dozen different projects in as many different parts of the park.

Mr. Pederson’s September report updated work on a number of early projects including reducing fire hazards, trailside clearing, working on roads and trails, and taking down or converting the Dale farm outbuildings for camp use.

The VCC program believed in getting the most bang for their buck. One way to accomplish that was to recycle materials. The VCC crews taking down the Dale barn salvaged wood and put it to good use building toolboxes and portable outhouses the crews hauled around to work sites in the park.

The Marshall Daily Messenger on September 10th, 1934 reported another significant development for the VCC camp. An Army officer from Fort Snelling inspected the VCC camp and delivered plans and approvals to begin work on the permanent camp of fifteen buildings. Workmen from local construction firms immediately began work on the mess hall and kitchen.

Mr. Pederson’s end of month report also addressed the construction of the permanent camp.

“The construction of the army buildings is rapidly nearing completion. All the barracks and the mess hall are roofed in and the foundations and floors have been laid in the hospital, the officers’ quarters, and the technical foremen’s quarters. . . . They should be completed in a week or ten days.”

He ended his report with an account of the park’s popularity.

“315 cars drove into the parking area today, September 30th. It is estimated that over 1,500 people availed themselves of our, as yet, scant picnic facilities and enjoyed the trails and vistas made accessible by this development.”

The permanent camp for the VCC Company came together quickly. The men moved from tents into permanent barracks in October. The remainder of the buildings were completed in November.

The men of VCC Company 2713 fell into a daily rhythm. They worked from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM (shifting an hour later during the winter months), five days a week, year-round on the park’s projects. After completing their daily work, the men attended classes in the mess hall; held weekly meetings with the commander and superintendent; and enjoyed activities like horseshoes, reading and cards in the recreation hall, weekend dances and softball games, and skiing and sledding in season on a slope they cleared west of their old tent camp.

Classes included Local History, Blueprint Reading, Mathematics, Surveying, and Mechanical Drawing taught by the NPS staff and Diesel/Electric Engineering taught by one of the VCC enrollees.

The VCC work crews began a series of major construction projects late in 1934. They included a Custodian’s Cabin (today’s Redwood Lodge); building a new entrance road from the north (an entrance that served the park until the 1970’s); and completing two bridges across the Redwood River, a four-pier beam bridge adjacent to the Custodian’s Cabin and a beautiful, stone arch bridge near the future site of the swimming pond. The new entrance road opened to the public in March 1935.

Additional new projects began taking shape in the spring of 1935. These included a bathroom building and picnic shelter for the north picnic area. But the big news involved work on the park’s signature feature; a manmade swimming pond and related dam and by-pass structures, cascades, and settling pools on the spring-fed stream feeding the pond.

The first twelve months of VCC work on Camden State Park had transformed the area in fundamental ways. Mr. Pederson explained the success of the Company in a June 1935 letter to the National Park Service.

“This company, No. 2713, is composed of veterans, in which I feel that we are fortunate. Much of the work here is construction, such as bridges, buildings, etc., and we find a larger percentage of trained men among veterans than among the boys (CCC enrollees). The morale of the men is excellent, which is due to a good mess, a well-rounded program of entertainment provided by the Army personnel, and opportunities for self-education in course conducted by the National Park /service personnel.

The VCC Company had another year to complete the park.

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

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