July 16, 2011 by wcobserver
By Susan McCarthy
WEST FORK – More than 70 years ago, they were looking for a job and three square meals a day. At the time, they had no idea they were a part of something so big.
But today, their hard work is evident most everywhere you look at Devil’s Den State Park.
On Sunday, July 3, three former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) company men, reunited at Devil’s Den State Park. All are now in their 90s but their memories are still vivid of a life that pulled them from the rural hills of Arkansas and put them to work at a time when work was nearly impossible to find and families struggled to feed themselves.
Just three weeks after becoming President, Franklin D. Roosevelt started his first national recovery organization, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Its purpose was to put young men to work while building a national conservation program. About six months later, on October 20, 1933, the first company men arrived from North Dakota to Devil’s Den to set up the first of two camps.
As many as 200 men lived at the CCC camp at any one time, rotating in and out every six months between 1933 and when the camp closed in 1942. During those years, the men of the CCC built a road connecting West Fork to the park, built the park’s dam, the scenic overlook at Yellow Rock, 16 cabins, the café and bathhouses, rock culverts and, of course, an entire community of structures in which they lived and played. While very little exists of the CCC camp today, most of what the CCC built of native stone and logs for the park still remains today and is a big part of what makes Devil’s Den State Park so desirable.
Among the young men that passed through this camp and a sister camp near Zinnamon, were three rural Arkansas teens, Joe Copeland, Herman “Sparky” Edgin, and Orville Taylor. After more than 70 years, these men gathered at the Roadrunner Café at Devil’s Den to share a meal and talk about their days with the CCC. They’ve met many times over the years; the first reunion was organized in 1961, Taylor said.
“These are the gentlemen that helped build Devil’s Den and we are forever indebted to them,” said Tim Scott, Assistant Park Superintendent before the group ate a fried-chicken lunch provided by the Friends of Devil’s Den State Park.
While there is little left of the CCC buildings that formed the community at the camp at Devil’s Den State Park, the park does have a self-guided trail across from the park’s pavilion and playground. The trail is only a quarter of a mile long, but you can see where the barracks once stood. The foundation of the kitchen and bathhouse remain as well as the fruit cellar. Pick up a brochure at the park’s visitor center for an explanation of each of the markers along the trail.
Edgin is now 92 and drove himself to the reunion on Sunday after attending church. He said he lived at the camp from 1939-1942 and started by laying rock around the visitors’ center and later attended a cook’s and baker’s school and then became the company baker. Edgin said he got his nickname “Sparky” while at the camp after he tucked the label from a plug of chewing tobacco into his hat. The brand of chewing tobacco, he says, was called “Sparky” and featured a little red horse.
Taylor, 93, also worked in the camp’s kitchen. He attended the reunion this year with family members spanning several generations. “You didn’t have much choice what you did. The two jobs you didn’t want to do was skimming the grease trap and working the rock crusher,” he said.
The grease trap had a 60-foot trough that ran to a hole in the ground and Taylor says that about every three or four months, someone would have to skim the grease off the top to keep it running.
He said he liked the schedule of the kitchen because they worked 24 hours and then were off 24 hours.
“In the wintertime, it was warmer [in the kitchen] than it was outside,” Taylor said.
Copeland, 91, said he hauled rocks off the mountain to help build the dam and the building that now serves as the park’s café. He said he remembers hauling many of the large flat walks that surround the café and store area and lead to the park’s dam. “It was a job and there weren’t any otherwise,” said Copeland, who was the son of a school teacher. “I was hungry.”
Taylor said they earned $30 per month and $23 of their earnings was sent to their families. They got to keep the rest and said they shot dice and played poker on payday.
He also recalls swimming in the lake above the dam every evening and Copeland said he remembers a diving board on the dam and a beach along where the grassy bank between the dam and paddle boats are located today.
Taylor said the CCC had a baseball and basketball team and played teams from Winslow and Tonitown.
Edgin said the camp hosted a number of dances and that the officers sent trucks to pick up girls from the mountains to come to the dances. Copeland said he was fond of a girl he’d grown up with from Zinnamon and still saw her while he was at the CCC camp. Ironically, he’d be 80 before he’d marry that girl, Ethel Wright. He said he entered the army’s infantry and was worried he’d make her a widow and when he returned, she’d rightfully married someone else.
By day, the men worked under the supervision of the parks department and in their off hours were under army command. And while the work was hard, the camp had a recreation hall and they were free to travel in their time off.
But travel was not easy as there were no paved roads then and only officers were allowed to have cars. However, Taylor recalls he used his first earnings to buy a 1929 Model “A” pick-up. He said he “hid it out on the mountain” along with three to five other forbidden vehicles.
Edgin, who was from Ozark, said he walked to Winslow (13 miles) to catch a bus to travel home to see his family. And when the bus returned, he walked from Winslow, back to the camp.
All three men entered into one of the nation’s armed services after leaving the CCC camp. They each say their experiences prepared them for their lives that followed.
“I learned how to live an army life, that’s what I did,” Copeland said, adding that he didn’t have much of an adjustment entering the army.
Edgin, who had been the camp’s company baker, went on to cook in the army and then cooked at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville for 36 years.
Taylor said he, too, cooked for a living for a time after the war.
“I think it’s one of the projects our government started that did a lot of good and you can still see the results today,” said Taylor.
“It shows it wasn’t a wasted effort,” said Copeland.
These three life-long friends left the park hoping to return next summer and were even more hopeful they’d see several of their friends who didn’t attend this year including Roy and Grady Ferguson, Ted Davidson, who attended last year, and Addie Lister, a school teacher who married a kitchen buddy.