Legacy of the CCC at Myakka

The Log Pavilion in the shade of a Live Oak
The logo of the Civilian Conservation Corps

The Civilian Conservation Corps, or "CCC boys" as they were nicknamed, were an integral part of creating many of the state parks throughout Florida. At Myakka, these hardworking men blazed trails, built bridges, dug the boat basin, erected the dam and constructed many buildings still in use today.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt instated the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of his New Deal, a group of economic-oriented legislation enacted in the height of the Great Depression. FDR used the

Army’s organization and materials to provide camps for CCC enrollees, giving them the nickname "Roosevelt's Tree Army." 

Desperate for economic relief, communities all across the nation petitioned to have land made into national and state parks by the CCC. Sarasota and the Myakka River Valley were approved for a CCC camp thanks to the work of Arthur Britton Edwards. 

A. B. Edwards, an orphan who raised his six siblings, was a brilliant real estate marketer and the first mayor of Sarasota. He took a small town of less than 300 people and incentivized developers and urban socialites seeking pastoral beauty to move. He worked with developer Bertha Palmer to build a railroad and irrigation systems.

As a result, Sarasota flourished.

Edwards also appreciated the innate natural value of the Myakka River Valley. He described the land as “priceless heritage” and sought to preserve it. It had been Bertha Palmer’s cattle and swine ranch, but fell into near abandonment after her passing. The inception of the CCC provided the perfect opportunity to protect this land.

First, he petitioned the National Park Service to create a national park. However, they were so inundated with requests, this one fell to the side. Unwilling to give up, he petitioned Florida State Forester Henry Lee Baker to make this land a state park. Baker obliged under one condition: Edwards needed to guarantee enough land in just two weeks.

Edwards’ first land acquisition was remnants of Bertha Palmer’s ranch. He struck a tax deal and acquired 17,000 acres for just 37.5 cents per acre from Palmer's heir. Then, he promised the Curry lands. This was farmland under foreclosure, and was the most controversial undertaking. Governments were very hesitant to seize foreclosed farmlands in the Great Depression. However, because of the foreclosed status, Edwards promised about 6,000 acres for Myakka River State Park.

Finally, just at the deadline, Edwards pursued one more area of land. Following a hushed rumor, he approached two of Bertha Palmer’s sons, Potter Palmer and Honoré Palmer. They were considering a land donation in honor of their mother.

The discussed acreage was exceptional — higher elevation makes it ideal for an ecosystem that is under water during the summer. Finally, after multiple meetings and much pressure from Edwards, less than two days before the deadline, the sons agreed to the 960-acre donation. Edwards had now accumulated 25,000 acres (39 square miles), which was plenty for establishing Myakka River State Park.

In October 1934, the first CCC enrollees from South Carolina arrived in the wild Myakka River Valley to begin work.

Some of the first CCC enrollees put to work at MRSP

CCC enrollees were typically impoverished, unmarried men, 18 to 25 years old.

Once recruited, they had their Army-run physical examination and signed up for a six-month term. If no alternate employment was available, an enrollee could renew three more times (a total period of two years). The Army provided housing, clothing, food and organization, while the Department of the Interior (and related interested parties) created the projects.

Men of the CCC hold killed rattlesnakes

The first CCC enrollees at Myakka River State Park faced extremely tough conditions. There were no barracks, so they were sleeping in tents. Sometimes, they would find rattlesnakes slithering through them. Additionally, mosquitoes love Myakka's swamplands, and some of the men fell ill with malaria. Sanitation and food also posed problems.

There were no plumbing facilities in the Myakka Valley. In the first few months, about 50 men were labeled “ineffective,” mostly due to malaria and abandonment.

While these conditions seem terrible for those of us accustomed to beds, air conditioning and bug spray, there was an allure in joining the CCC.

At home, young men couldn’t find work, were forced to share food and cramped living conditions with parents and siblings, and were unable to access resources necessary for educational and job advancement. Although it took a few weeks, basic needs like housing and food were met at Myakka.

The enrollees earned salaries and also had educational and recreational opportunities. They worked for $30 per month, with $25 going to their families and keeping $5 for themselves. 

The army determined the schedule for enrollees. A typical day would go as follows:

  • 6 a.m. - Wake up.
  • 6:30 a.m. - Roll call and raising of American flag.
  • 7 a.m. - Breakfast.
  • 7:45 a.m. - Inspection of barracks.
  • 8 a.m. - Report to work assignment.
  • Noon - Lunch.
  • 4 p.m. - End of work, return to camp.
  • 6 p.m. - Lowering of American flag, dinner.
  • Afterwards, job training, recreation time (sports, hikes, hunting, dances, etc.) and bedtime.

In their free time, many enrollees enjoyed the park through hiking, fishing and playing team sports. The enrollees could attend free, optional job training classes where they could learn skills such as welding and carpentry. Literacy and arithmetic was a main concern of CCC administrators, and literacy levels for enrollees soared thanks to the program. The men had access to books, and many at Myakka participated in writing a newsletter. On most Saturday nights, they would have a dance, inviting young Sarasota women to join.

The work remained laborious at Myakka River State Park even after basic amenities were met. By hand, the men paved the road, built bridges, strung telephone lines and blazed trails. Myakka's CCC constructed the South Pavilion and the Log Pavilion. The current visitor center is a refurbished CCC-built horse barn. The CCC also built one manager’s residence (which is still occupied by a staff member) and five rental cabins. The boat basin was hand-dug with iron shovels, and the weir on the Upper Myakka Lake was made by the CCC. About one mile down the main road (originally paved by the CCC), you will come to a bridge. The original bridge here was hand-built by the CCC out of wood that they had chopped down themselves.

Men of the CCC build the main park bridge from wood

After working for the CCC, men could be hired in skilled trades. Many of them also found a long-term career in the armed forces. Already adapted to the military schedule and fitness level, enrollees were quick to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The CCC was part of the reason that the United States was so able to quickly and successfully mobilize into World War II.

The CCC is inspirational. Young men worked hard, fed their families, became educated, learned skilled trades and made a nationwide impact protecting the environment. There is ample memory to celebrate. It is important, however, to not just remember the positive impacts. 

A comprehensive understanding of the CCC at Myakka River State Park is barren without a discussion of the negative repercussions of their work. While the work in making this area accessible to humans is laudable, the CCC knowingly and unknowingly damaged the environment and aggravated racial tensions.

Knowingly, they seined the entire Upper Myakka Lake. Seining is basically taking a giant net through it. They wanted to make Myakka River State Park a pristine hunting and fishing area, so they wanted to kill the natural predators of fish. Water snakes, turtles, otters and other native species were all lost in the seining. This created lasting damage in Myakka’s aquatic ecosystems. Knowingly or unknowingly damaging, the CCC also killed species to please their own desires. They killed every rattlesnake and alligator they saw, which had a heavy impact on the food chain of the Florida dry prairie and freshwater wetlands.

Other species’ populations became significantly unbalanced, and the whole ecosystem felt the devastating impacts.

Three CCC members stand around an ensnared, dead alligator

Unknowingly damaging, and actually trying to protect the environment, the CCC instituted a strict no-burn system. They even had a parade through Sarasota celebrating the end of fires. 

Ranchers in this area frequently burned their land to promote the growth of grazing grasses. The CCC believed that all fires were bad, and they fire-deprived the dry prairie.

Nowadays, scientists know that the dry prairie naturally burns every two to three years, and these burns are essential to the proliferation of diverse, native wildlife. Partly because of this fire deprivation, the Florida dry prairie is now one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. It is also the second-most biodiverse. The loss of a healthy dry prairie is the loss of incredible natural resources.

The CCC also has a complicated history of race relations. In the very beginning of the program, before it came to Myakka, the corps was integrated. However, that was quickly overturned and segregation within the CCC was enforced. Some historians applaud the CCC for extending employment to men of color, including a dedicated American Indian division. However, even this was too progressive for some communities.

Sarasota was one such community. In 1935, it was announced that the all-white corps at Myakka was going to be replaced by an all-black corps. Black corps were required to stay within their own state, while white corps were permitted to work anywhere across the country. The problem? Most of the people were on the East Coast and most of the work was in the West. Therefore, Florida was in the position where it needed to send white corps across the country and replace white corps with black corps within the state. The Fourth Corps Area (an Army-designed organizational unit that encompassed most of the Southeastern United States) was very aware of the backlash it would receive because of these policies. They mandated that if a city voted against a black corps, they would lose the entire CCC operation.

At a town hall meeting in July 1935, Sarasota voted against the implementation of the black corps. Within three days of Sarasota’s vote, the Army shut down all operations at Myakka River State Park.

This halted the improvement of the lands, and Sarasota’s economy was shell-shocked and began to feel the effects of the Great Depression again. Because of this economic necessity, Sarasota came to accept a black corps. 

Starting in late 1935, Myakka's corps were primarily men of color. They toiled extremely hard and provided much of the park we all enjoy today.

Through the hardships and controversies, the men of the CCC prevailed over their enormous tasks. Myakka River State Park officially opened in February 1941.

Thousands of people every year picnic, hike, bike trails, fish and experience protected wildlife.

The South and Log pavilions are frequently used for family reunions, weddings and baby showers. This is all thanks to those who made the Myakka River Valley into Myakka River State Park.

The Florida Conservation Corps continues the legacy of the CCC, encouraging young members to do conservation work and get valuable job training.