The unique – And beautiful stone wall built by the CCC/WPA encloses the Villisca Cemetery, Villisca, Iowa.

By Beverly Clinkingbeard

In a previous article, Paul Ohrt remembered how the Bluffs, often described as “Sugar Dirt” [Loess Hills] were once covered in tall grass and commented that now the hills [Bluffs] are covered with trees. The hills had always had a few trees growing in the wetter areas between the bulges and ridges, especially cottonwood and willow, but old photos and remembrances show and speak of tall grasses.
A letter to the Public Pulse in the Omaha World Herald lamented the disappearance of grass on the hills. The letter mentioned the sprouting of Red Cedar trees, and warned other property owners if they didn’t remove the trees the area would soon be covered. Another observer commented the period for the hills covered in prairie grasses is over.
Through the efforts of REAP [Resource Enhancement and Protection, an Iowa organization) and others, a reserve has been set aside to protect a portion of the hills from urban encroachment, new roads, etc. These organizations hope to protect unusual flora and fauna and keep a segment of the hills as ‘natural’ prairie grasses, and to historically keep the hills as they once appeared. The hills are also rich with buried artifacts (found and unfound) from early-day people who roamed the area.
Pioneers wrote and spoke of prairie grasses as tall as a horse’s nose, or a wagon wheel. The joke was if a dog chased a cat there wasn’t a tree or post in the country for the cat to climb, and would run up the only post available – a man’s pant leg. There were groves of cottonwood and willow and the settlers used that wood supply for domestic use, they would buy wood for home and outbuildings, but prairie sod was the cheapest choice, hence, the “soddy.”
Pioneer farmers also planted hedge rows of Osage Orange trees along their property lines. Annie Nuckolls (deceased; she lived her final days in Elmo, Missouri, and posted on her door the latest number of grandchildren – it changed often) described when she was a child how a farmer would use a horse-drawn plow to open a furrow (usually down a property line) and the children would follow planting the Osage Orange/hedge seeds. Today the old trees are no match for bulldozers, but for years they offered visible property lines, helped keep the cattle at home and provided natural windbreaks, posts and other building materials. They even offered a signal for planting corn – the leaf was to be the size of a squirrel’s ear.
In the life of a nation and family there are happenings that change the course of life. October 29, 1929, was one of those days. It became known as “Black Tuesday” or “The Great Crash.” The stock market plunged with a $14 billion loss; people who awoke as millionaires were paupers by nightfall. Luxury hotels became ghost hotels and joblessness eventually reached 25% unemployed with 54% being young men between the ages of 17 and 25 years (they didn’t count women in the work force).
Enter a political season, years of drought on the Plains, low prices for crops, abandoned farms, and a new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a promise to put young men to work. The CCC [Civilian Conservation Corp] was formed. It was not without critics or populace concern at the growth of government. Young men could enlist for a six month period. The U.S. Army would provide transport and training. The Dept. of Agriculture planned projects. The enrollees lived army camp style, received a change of clothes, plenty to eat and earned $30 a month; $25 was sent home to their needy families.
An article in the Atchison County Mail, 1934, reported, “CCC Enlistment Monday. Atchison County quota of eleven men for the CCC camps will be chosen at a meeting of the committee at the office of the Chairman in Rock Port, Friday evening of this week, and those designated will report to CCC Company 1742, Tarkio, at 7:30 a.m. the next Monday, July 2. Eleven regular candidates and three alternates will be selected. The local committee does not know which camp these men will be sent…”
In Northwest Missouri/Southwest Iowa towns were camps and processing offices. Possibly for the purpose of transportation, they were listed beneath the heading of Railroad. Shenandoah was listed as Project SCS-1 and PE-55, their Company #’s 3723, 10/3/1938, located 1 mile east; #3725, 6/1/1935, located 1 mile west, and #775, 5/18/1935, located 5 miles east. Clarinda project was SP-18, Company #779, 5/18/1935, located 1 mile west; Maryville Projects E-56 and SCS-24; with Company #’s 737 6/15/1933 and #1726 10/24/1935, located 1 mile west (Burlington Junction wasn’t noted as an official CCC camp, however, The Burlington Post reported the CCC boys had arrived and were camped nearby.); Rock Port Project was D-6, with Company #3759, 6/24/1935, located 1 mile SW; Tarkio was Project SCS-15, Company # 1742, 4/30/1934, located Crystal .25 mile SE.
With the nation in social and political turmoil there was distrust of the CCC camps. Some were fearful of crime, others distrusted strangers coming and going, thus the camps were established outside the towns, however, the men were free to make their way into town over the weekend. One woman said, “I remember as a young girl when they were west of town [Shenandoah]. You know, nice girls didn’t go with a CCC boy.” However, many CCC’ers, after completing their term of service, stayed in the town where they had camped and worked… and Cupid, undaunted, scored many hits. Camp leadership looked for ways to help residents. Mary Klute’s diary mentioned being snow bound and a truck load of CCC boys “were out and scooped snow to clear the roads.” The next day entry noted, “…it blew shut last night.”
There was also the [WPA] Work Progress Administration. It offered work to family men. There were many infrastructure projects that both CCC and WPA worked. For instance, in Elmo, MO, the streets were graded for drainage. Local men were hired and if they furnished their team and/or equipment, they received a per diem as well. In Villisca, IA, there is a stone wall surrounding the cemetery. It is a work of art and the rock used is the local pink-hued glacier rock.
Tarkio was included under a WPA project for a new athletic field to be built south of the Tarkio College gymnasium. It called for 150 man-months of labor. “The term man-months means work for one man for one month, and a month consists of 128 hours.” Other work in the county was, “Completion of a road project near Watson, on which work was suspended last fall when it was 38 per cent completed because no rock was available.”
There are fountains, landscaping, recreational/sports facilities, gates and other things that are still standing and were the effort of the CCC/WPA. Other projects were park improvements, as for instance, Waubansie Park, where they carved roads, paths, built picnic tables, made a swinging bridge (it’s been replaced with a wooden bridge) and planted trees.
Across the nation, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” planted 3 billion trees! Little sprouts and saplings arrived by the truck load and were off-loaded into wheelbarrows. One man carried a shovel and dug the hole. The next planted the sapling in the hole and the third came along and closed the dirt around the roots. They planted all varieties of trees, but fast growing trees were preferred, such as Red Cedar, Mulberry and Black Locust – local varieties that don’t give up and will grow anywhere (as any landkeeper and the Loess Hills affirm today). New conservation practices and projects were introduced to change poor farming methods and cope with the worst drought in remembrance.
The Tarkio CCC camp served as a test for a vaccine against Meningitis. “Boys in the camp were human ‘test tubes’ for the first attempt ever made at immunization against the disease during an epidemic.” The practical assistance rendered and the order in the camps helped alleviate citizenry’s initial fears. If there were rules broken on the part of a CCC enrollee, the culprit was expelled. Records show the young men were grateful for a clean set of clothes, all they could eat, shelter and money to help their families.
Then there was “The CCC Vote Problem.” It was noted that the CCC boys didn’t pay any local taxes, didn’t know the candidates and local issues, and yet they were voting. “The Avalanche is not for one moment suggesting that CCC boys lose their right [of vote, but]… take advantage of the three-day furlough granted at election times for the purpose of voting, or to cast absentee ballots the same as any other United States citizen.” There is no mention of whether candidates courted the CCC men’s vote.
But that’s a bit of what was goin’ on once upon a time in our corner of the world. Next, is a CCC conservation project near Westboro.