In the new Jerry Apps book, “The Civilian Conservation Corps in Wisconsin: Nature’s Army at Work,” CCC critics are discussed. Opponents saw too much similarity to the Hitler Youth movement. Labor unions weren’t on-board with the CCC. Program critics couldn’t have predicted the lasting impact the CCC’s park renovations have had.
Apps tells how environmentalist Aldo Leopold was initially critical of the program, citing cases of reckless practices that resulted in unintended negative impacts. But Leopold changed his mind when he saw the program’s good works coming to fruition.
My farming career occurred about a mile as the crow flies from a county park that benefited from the efforts of CCC Company 3649. After reading the Apps book I developed a new appreciation for the park and thought I’d revisit it. It’s a place that has meant a great deal to our family through the years. The Dells of the Eau Claire is one of two county parks the CCC worked on in addition to the many state parks the crews developed. It’s located in northeastern Marathon County about 15 miles east of Wausau, Wisconsin.
In the Apps book he details how Company 3649 established its base in 1935 in Rib Mountain on the west bank of the Wisconsin River. The main effort was developing Rib Mountain State Park, including its ski hill and T-bar lift. But the workers were able to divert time and energy to the Dells of the Eau Claire County Park. The park includes a CCC built footbridge, stone steps that lead to an observation area and rail, and a combination shelter-kitchen available for rental. Trails are developed through the 190-acre park along both sides of the Eau Claire River. Numerous waterfalls and rapids add to the scenic beauty amidst rock formations left from ancient glaciers.
Throughout my farming career the Dells Park has called me to pay homage to it every spring when the ice relents to warmer temperatures. The sound of rushing water cascading over the Precambrian rock formations can be heard annually in the springtime. On a typical April day the sound of crashing water seems to build throughout the day. It reaches a crescendo by late afternoon after which it fades into an evening lull that accompanies the return of a menagerie of bird species and the welcome song of spring peeper frogs.
With camera in hand I visited the park for a Saturday afternoon, a gorgeous spring day. It was my intent to be observant of the lasting effect of CCC Company 1369’s efforts at the park. I was immediately made aware of their work by the full parking lot with overflow cars parked along the roadside. As I walked across the open park that leads to the river I came to a grand staircase made of the rock that surrounds the area, including granite and quartz. A large viewing area behind a protective rail overlooks an impressive falls where projecting rock formations rise from the cascading water. On the north side of the river the trail meanders beneath huge sugar maple, yellow birch and hemlock, some with a trunk diameter exceeding 3 feet. The southern trail is dominated by pines and an occasional Canada yew.
One of my family’s popular hiking routes is to take the north trail down to the CCC-built high bridge, cross over and follow the southern trail back to the main park. I recommend a walking stick. And be prepared to greet the folks you encounter along the way because there is an air of friendliness and appreciation for the natural beauty that is shared by visitors.
From the rustic style of the enclosed shelter to the rock taken from the gorge to create the pillars that support the high bridge, the lasting effect of CCC Company 1369’s work can be appreciated by visitors to one of the state’s hidden gems, The Dells of the Eau Claire County Park. I was fortunate to farm close enough to take advantage of it on a regular basis.
“The Civilian Conservation Corps in Wisconsin: Nature’s Army at Work” is a comprehensive look at the New Deal relief program. Visit jerryapps.com for more information.