This year marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program that put young men from impoverished families and veterans in need to work on public projects from 1933-1942 during the depths of the Great Depression.
At CCC camps around the country, recruits learned skills on the job as they worked on soil conservation and forest management projects and developed public parks. In Texas alone, some 50,000 corpsmen built dams and lakes, and constructed cabins, lodges, picnic tables, roads, bridges, swimming pools and other facilities in 56 state and local parks.
Counties both assisted with and benefited from this federal public works program. County government welfare agencies helped enroll local residents in the corps. The young men earned $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to help support their families.
“Some young men had never been off the family farm and some had never owned a toothbrush,” said Cynthia Brandimarte, author of Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps and director of the historic sites and structures program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “In many ways, the CCC was a dream come true for both the worker and the family back home.”
In many cases, counties and municipalities dedicated parkland to serve their communities. Local officials lobbied state and federal governments for the CCC’s assistance to develop the lands.
“Most communities clamored for a park because they saw each one as an economic boon. Residents invoked the help of elected officials to help their cause,” Brandimarte said. “Even today, who doesn’t want a public space in which to enjoy pleasing landscapes, fresh air, and nature’s bounty of fish and wildlife in which to exercise body and mind?”
Today, park visitors across the state continue to enjoy the recreational opportunities and distinctive architectural legacy of the CCC’s endeavors. As Brandimarte details in her book, 29 of the original 56 parks that the CCC developed remain part of the state park system. Others from that original network became national parks, city parks and county parks, or the land reverted to private ownership over the years.
The two county parks developed by CCC companies — Ascarate County Park in El Paso County and Loy Park in Grayson County — embody their legacy while providing residents today with much-needed recreational resources.
Ascarate County Park – El Paso County
Today, Ascarate Park is the largest public-use recreational park in El Paso County. In addition to a 48-acre lake favored by boaters and anglers, it offers residents both 18-hole and nine-hole golf courses, a lakeside boardwalk, an aquatic center, playgrounds and picnic facilities. According to research by Michael Lewis, an El Paso County Historical Commission member, a CCC company of more than 200 helped develop the park and its lake.
The park exists today because of the cooperative efforts between the county and federal government. In 1937, more than two-thirds of El Paso County voters approved levying a tax to help develop the park along the Rio Grande on land deeded to the county by the Department of the Interior.
A company of CCC workers arrived the next year. They excavated more than 1 million cubic yards of sand and laid a six-inch layer of clay to line the lake’s bottom.
“As the division of the project funds between the county and the National Park Service indicates, El Paso County could not have constructed the lake on its own,” Michael Lewis said. “So without the CCC’s help, El Paso County would be without its largest body of water, which continues to be dedicated to recreational use some 75 years later.”
CCC workers also landscaped the grounds with more than 17,000 cottonwood trees, 40,000 Chinese elms and 4,000 pecans. They even half-finished a golf course by the time work was halted in 1942, when attention turned to WWII.
The county’s historical commission plans to commemorate the park’s significance with a county historical marker. “Helping El Pasoans recognize how the park came to be and the CCC’s involvement will, hopefully, connect them with the larger story of the CCC’s important heritage and lasting impact on our county and our nation,” Michael Lewis said.
County Commissioner Sergio Lewis, whose precinct includes the park, initiated efforts for the marker. “I believe that by achieving the historical site recognition, we can truly preserve this great park that offers amenities that are not found in any other park in El Paso County,” he said. “I believe it is time for Ascarate Park to receive the recognition it deserves to continue its legacy. A historical marker would be a great source of information for the thousands of visitors that use the park every year, many of whom probably do not know the origins of the park.”
Loy Park – Grayson County
The origins of Loy Park in Grayson County also intertwine with the CCC. Again, the park was the dream of county officials — in particular Grayson County Judge Jake Loy, who led the charge to get the park built.
Loy represented the region as both a state representative and state senator before becoming county judge. He served seven terms as judge, his last ending upon his death in 1945. As he presided over juvenile court, Loy realized the need for a local park to serve area youth. His ideas became reality with the help of the CCC’s manpower.
In 1933, the Grayson County Commissioners Court purchased land southwest of Denison for the park. Corpsmen, the first batch of 200 arriving in fall 1933, constructed a dam for a lake, a recreation center, a roadway, 13 culvert bridges, six “battleship” picnic units, a baseball diamond and a central water tower from native stone, according to the site’s Texas Historical Marker.
CCC workers also removed rocks from the lake bed and used them to construct a superintendent’s house, concession area and dressing rooms, sidewalks and a stairway leading up the hill from the lake’s swimming area. According to research by Donna Hunt, local history buff and former editor of The Denison Herald, the county appropriated $12,826 toward the project, which was initially called Grayson County Park.
Today, Loy Park includes Frontier Village, a collection of historic Texas homes and the county’s history museum. Mary Crawford, Frontier Village co-chair, remembers visiting the park in the early 1940s. “There was a pavilion,” she said. “I can remember when I was a teenager, we came over here and danced to a juke box. It (the building) had a back and one side. It was outdoors and it had just had a canopy (over the dance floor).”
A fire eventually destroyed the recreation center/pavilion and its adjacent pier. Some of the CCC-constructed concrete picnic tables remain, as does the stone water tower, known locally as “the castle.” “The water tank and pump equipment were removed years ago, but the distinctive castle-like structure still attracts the interests of visitors to the park,” wrote Hunt in a column on local history for the Nov. 13, 2011, issue of the Herald.
Goliad State Park and Historic Site – Goliad County
A third park owes its existence to the determined efforts of yet another county judge, this time in Goliad County with the creation of Goliad State Park and Historic Site.
In 1928, Goliad County Judge James Arthur White began requesting help from state and federal agencies to preserve the area’s historic sites, including the 18th century Mission Nuestra Señor del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga and its fort, Presidio La Bahia, as well as the burial site of Colonel James Walker Fannin and his 342 men, who were massacred by Mexican troops in 1836 during the Texas Revolution.
“He wrote everybody in the world to get the park going,” said independent scholar Patsy Light. “He was so diligent.” Light and Anne Bode researched and wrote the application for the Texas Historical Marker that honors White and the CCC’s role in helping to preserve these relics of Texas’ past. In addition to writing hundreds of letters to local, state and national officials urging the creation of the state park and drafting the proposed legislation for its creation, he applied two times to the state parks board seeking a CCC camp for its development. The third time, he applied directly to the National Park Service. His request was approved in 1935, and the first corpsmen arrived later that year.
According to the Texas Historical Marker, “Historians and architects traveled the U.S. and Mexico researching Spanish Colonial Mission architecture. Supervised by National Park Service Architects and local craftsman, the CCC workers ultimately reconstructed a school-workshop, church and granary at Mission Espíritu Santo and also erected … museum and administration buildings and developed a state park road and picnic facilities.”
Today, travelers can camp, hike and fish at the park, as well as see the historic sites and enjoy a guided interpretive tour of the mission.
Learn More, Plan to Visit
Find out more about the CCC-developed county parks — Ascarate Park and Lake Loy Park — as well as Goliad State Park and Historic Site and learn about other parks developed through this New Deal program:
• Ascarate Park, El Paso County;
• Frontier Village and Museum at Loy Park, Grayson County;
• Goliad State Park and Historic Site;
• Texas Parks and Wildlife Department online exhibit about Texas State Parks and the CCC;
• Big Bend National Park and the CCC;
• Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps by Cynthia Brandimarte with Angela Reed, Texas A&M University Press, 2013; and
• Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal by James Wright Steely, University of Texas Press, 1999. ✯
Author’s note: According to Steely’s book, early CCC records mention “CP-2 Eagle Mountain Lake County Park” as a Texas county park developed by CCC Company 1801(C)2. Steely and Tarrant County history buffs have been unable to find further details connecting the CCC to the origins of what is today Eagle Mountain Park. If you have any information that can help solve this mystery, please share it with County magazine by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.