Monday, January 4, 2016

CCC Camp Gegoka

CCC camps were scattered widely across America in the 1930s.  I try to visit sites when they are convenient but many are in remote places far from my usual haunts.  But sometimes you can "visit" them from afar.

My brother recently gave me a copy of the newsletter from CCC Company 701.  Their camp was near Finland Minnesota and was called Camp Gegoka.  The name appears to have Ojibwa origins. In common with many camps of the time their newsletter was thoughtfully composed and this one has survived well despite being printed on paper with high acidity.

The contents of course are the usual stuff of camp life.  Sports teams, fishing reports, classes.  There were ads for businesses in Ely Minnesota.  Included in same were three taverns, a brewery, a liquor store, a clothier, a laundry, a movie theater, two cafes and a newspaper/tobacconist shop.

Some matters of greater import were brought up.  An essay on Memorial Day extols the virtues of raising "...the rights of the weakest and humblest to a higher place in society."

There were some fun cartoons.

This second one is a bit political.  In 1933 the public is cheering for Organized Crime, who have run up a pretty impressive score over the "US" team.  In the 1936 image "crime" is breaking a sweat because the ball - labeled Easy Money- is clearly something they can't handle.  And the score has been reversed.  It is not often you see monetary policy as the subject matter of cartoons these days.

Minnesota CCC camps have some excellent photographic records.  When perusing these I of course encountered the typical images of rustic barracks and of lined up recruits and staff.  On close scrutiny of one of these I noticed a detail I had not encountered before:

Yep, up in the back row we clearly have African American CCC men at Camp Gegoka.

The history of the CCC with respect to racial equality is mixed.  At its inception a provision was entered into law (by a black Republican congressman from Illinois!) that there would be no racial discrimination in the ranks.  Supposedly 10% of the CCC was to be made up of African Americans although in reality this was not always the case.

With most recruitment being local it came to pass that in the South there were all black CCC companies.  In the North were the ethnic mix was much different, the companies were least at first.

The CCC is remembered with such fondness today that it is often forgotten that at the time the presence of a bunch of young men in a barracks type environment was regarded with suspicion and alarm by many rural communities.  This was true generally and perhaps the black CCC recruits felt it more acutely.  A few echos of this suspicion even carry through on the pages of the Pioneer News where an ad for the Mary L Eat House specifies "CCC Boys Invited".  Maybe with Depression era unemployment on the Iron range approaching 70% the wisdom of welcoming any customer with money in his pocket overcame local suspicions.

But elsewhere all black CCC companies were sometimes moved to areas where local complaints were not an issue; federal lands for instance.

Finally in 1936, soon after this newsletter came out, integration of CCC companies officially ended. So much perhaps for the "rights of the weakest and humblest".  But being based on a military model from a then still segregated US Army perhaps this is not surprising.

The site of Camp Gegoka is on the western side of Lake McDougal.  The land was purchased by the Federal Government from its original owners, the St. Croix Lumber Company.  With the onset of the Second World War the "CCC boys" put on different uniforms and marched off, still of course in their segregated formations.

The property apparently was purchased by a group of (First War) veterans who tried to keep it up as a holiday retreat.  They, as well as a later group of investors from St. Louis, were unable to make a go of it and the property lay idle.

Idle that is until 1959 which was the beginning of a new era.  It is now a place called Camp Buckskin and has been serving children with autism, attention deficit disorder and related conditions for 55 years and counting.

It seems a fitting tribute to the spirit of the place.  With the exception of a somewhat vintage looking water tower I am unable in the images I have found to see anything that looks old enough to be from the CCC era.


wynne said...

I always learn something interesting from your historical posts Tim. I knew nothing about this place or the fact that a small town grew up around the CCC camp and its mixed racial workforce.

Anonymous said...

Great find with the newsletter! I worked at Camp Buckskin for 14 years, I assure you that there are several buildings still standing and being used from the Camp Gegoka days.