by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer
In December of 2017, South Cumberland State Park officials and volunteers were in the early stages of recreating a portion of a local Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) campsite.
The volunteer project, which was led by the Friends of South Cumberland State Park, was organized around the aim to honor the legacy of local Company 1475.
Work on the project was completed earlier this year, and last week, the site was unveiled. The CCC Interpretive Area consists of a new one-third mile trail connecting 13 graphic panels, which tell the story of Company 1475.
“We didn’t want to turn the site into an open field. We wanted to restore it to what it looked like about the time when the camp was established. They tucked their buildings into the woods, which you can see on some of the graphic panels. We wanted to give the people going through the site today an idea of what it was like when the CCC boys first set up camp there,” said Rick Dreves, who worked as the communications chair for the volunteer group. Dreves was responsible for constructing the graphic panels for the site.
Created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, the CCC was primarily made up of young men in their late teens and early 20s who performed work related to natural resources and infrastructure. The Corps was designed to get much needed work done and provide employment during the Great Depression and was vital to starting Tennessee’s state park system.
From 1935 to 1942, Company 1475’s camp was on 211-acres near Tracy City in Grundy Forest. Grundy County native Herman E. Baggenstoss, son of the founders of Dutch Maid Bakery and a Sewanee alumnus, worked with local businessmen to raise money to purchase the property, which was donated by the state for the camp.
The approximately 200 men of Company 1475 tackled a number of area projects, including building Grundy Lakes and constructing part of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. The legacy of Company 1475 also includes fighting a large fire in Tracy City on April 27, 1935. The fire destroyed a swath of downtown, causing about $100,000 in damages.
“Their primary job and reason for moving here was to reclaim the Lone Oak coal mines, which is where the coke ovens are at Grundy Lakes. They built the lakes and planted the trees,” said Rob Moreland, who served as the Team Leader for the Education Committee. “Along with making fire bricks for the forestry service and planting telephone poles, they did some road building and repair around the Tracy City area.”
Dreves said in addition to building infrastructure and recreation areas in the county, Company 1475 also fought fires and provided flood relief.
“Their mission was to restore the Grundy Lakes area, and if the EPA had been around, they would have declared it an environmental disaster. Company 1475 built the dam, the roadway and made it a recreational area,” he said. “It’s such a fascinating story because it’s both a local history story and a story of conservation and care for the land. These young men came in and made some major contributions to the area. I think that’s what makes that story compelling,” Dreves said.
Before reconstruction of the site began, all that was left was a few concrete slabs.
“The initial camps in 1933 in Palmer were tents, and after that, they changed to permanent buildings. They were bolted together and built in sections. When they moved to Sewanee, they took everything except a few concrete pads and all that had to do with water, such as the ice house, the well, the bathhouse, the laundry. In 1935, they had switched to portable buildings,” he said. “From what we can tell, they probably went to Camp Forest in Tullahoma from there.”
Dreves said without the help of the community, the reconstruction would not have been possible. Without the project, pieces of local history would have been lost.
“On Saturday, we had a family come from Central Alabama, two daughters and their husbands. They said, ‘We would not be here were it not for this CCC camp,’” Dreves said. “Their dad worked in that camp while it was in Tracy CIty, and apparently, the story was that the local girls would go over and sit on the hillside and enjoy looking at all the young men. That is how his mother met their father. She was from Tracy City, and he was from Central Alabama. They walked up to the first panel, which has a big group shot, and they said, ‘There’s dad!’”
To get to the CCC site, take the Grundy Trail, and when it splits, take the day loop and bear right. About three-tenths of a mile in is the first CCC camp tour sign. This is where the CCC campground used to be.
“The park is opening another campground within the month just a little bit further down the day loop,” he said. “But you’ve got to wonder how many people camped out there and didn’t know about the history.”