Civilian Conservation Corps History
Creation of Florida Park Service
The CCC Museum at Highlands Hammock State Park honors the work of the young men of the CCC. Highlands Hammock was one of Florida's first state parks.
Although the Florida legislature authorized creation of a state park system in 1925, it took the Depression of the 1930s and the development of federal New Deal programs to create the impetus for the formation of the Florida State Park system. Not until then was a long dormant effort to acquire lands for preservation and recreation finally given the chance to succeed. Several disconnected efforts in Florida had been under way, including the development of Royal Palm Hammock State Park by the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs, Highlands Hammock by the Highlands Hammock, Inc. and lobbying for acquisition of Tomoka State Park. The legislature did not devote funding for acquisition.
As the Depression worsened after the 1929 stock market crash, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration secured the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the spring of 1933. The program was intended to put unemployed men to work undertaking conservation work, including the restoration and recreational development of federal and state public lands. The Office of Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) (later to become the Civilian Conservation Corps), in cooperation with the U.S. Army, was charged with establishing work camps to pursue these goals. The National Park Service established an Office of State Parks to provide direct assistance to the states for the planning and development of state park facilities.
In May 1933, Robert Fechner, Director of the ECW, wrote Florida Governor David Schultz encouraging him to take advantage of this program by establishing relief programs in the state, including the development of state parks and state forests. By February 1934 District Inspector J. H. Gadsby was assigned by the National Park Service to supervise the development of state parks in Florida and to coordinate with state officials. Gadsby's early contact about state parks was with Mae Mann Jennings, a member of the State Board of Forests and an early advocate for state parks and forests. Gadsby, along with State Forester Henry Lee Baker, began traveling the state in the spring of 1934 to examine possible lands to be acquired for parks. In July 1934, Baker authorized Assistant State Forester C. H. Schaeffer to begin acquisition of lands for the development of state parks. Since no state funds were available for acquisition, the early parks were acquired by donation or forfeiture for unpaid taxes. To formalize the existence of the state park system, the legislature passed a law in 1935 creating the Florida Park Service and renaming the Board of Forestry to the Board of Forests and Parks. Florida was one of the last of the southeastern states to officially being the process of state park development.
First Four Parks Established
This bridge over the Santa Fe River at O'Leno State Park stands proudly today, as a testament to the work of the young men of the CCC.
By June 1935, four state parks were established - Myakka River State Park, Hillsborough River State Park, Torreya State Park and Gold Head Branch State Park. Four others were under consideration but not yet acquired, including Highlands Hammock State Park, Suwannee River State Park, Tomoka State Park and Santa Rosa Island. By 1942, when the CCC stopped operations and turned all management of the parks over to the Florida Park Service, 11 parks had been acquired consisting of 25,527 acres. As of June 1940, three of these parks were officially opened to the public: Highlands Hammock, Hillsborough River and Gold Head Branch. From 1938 to 1940, these three parks had more than 100,000 visitors. Tomoka State Park and Pan-American State Park (in Davie, Broward County) remained undeveloped, while the rest of the parks were in various stages of completion. Pan-American was transferred to Broward County in 1975. Ravine Gardens, which eventually became a state park in 1970, was developed by the City of Palatka with funding from the Federal Economic Recovery Administration. Efforts were also underway to locate a coastal beach park in southeast Florida (which was not successful until Hugh Taylor Birch State Park was acquired in 1942), and to acquire land in the Florida Keys for parks.
This birdwalk, circa 1947, at Myakka River State Park was damaged by a storm but has been rebuilt. Visitors today marvel at the bird species seen at Lake Myakka.
The first CCC camp was established in June 1934 at what is now Highlands Hammock State Park (Camp SP-3). By 1938, five camps were operating for work in seven state parks and a forestry camp was established at O'Leno, which eventually became a state park. In October 1935, the only African-American CCC camp was established at Myakka River State Park. The early superintendents, landscape architects and construction managers were employed by the National Park Service, since the state did not have funding to support the operations. This continued until after World War II. Emmett Hill, a landscape architect, was hired by the National Park Service to develop and approve development plans for the parks in Florida. Hill became the state park director in 1953.
The CCC constructed nearly all the facilities in the eight state parks. These included recreational facilities such as cabins, picnic shelters, entrance stations, support buildings, one trailer camp and recreation equipment such as rental boats. Materials for the construction projects mostly came from the individual parks and included rock, lumber, fill-dirt and even the palm logs used in the construction of picnic shelters and cabins at Myakka River State Park. Other work projects included land management activities such as construction of dams and weirs for flood control, reforestation and landscaping. At Torreya State Park, the Gregory House, an antebellum plantation house was dismantled, relocated across the Apalachicola River to the park and reconstructed on the high bluff. At Florida Caverns, CCC "enrollees" excavated sediment from the main cave to establish a tour route for visitors. The CCC also developed Ft. Clinch State Park, including extensive removal of sand from the fort and renovation of the storehouse to serve as a museum and library. The CCC camps were also involved in fighting wildfires and in creating fire breaks. By 1941, 99 buildings had been constructed in the eight parks. By 1942, all of the CCC camps in Florida were closed because of World War II. State park development came to a halt and did not significantly advance for a decade.
Had it not been for the CCC camps, federal leadership from the National Park Service and funds from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the state park system would have been delayed many more years, and would never have achieved the architectural quality that those early parks showcase. The Florida Park Service recognizes the debt it owes to the men who contributed their labor and lives to the construction of Florida's first state parks. To that end, the State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum was established and opened at Highlands Hammock State Park in 1994 and upgraded in 2003.