by Andrea LeVasseur, FS Archaeologist
Tucked away among the birches in the northern Minnesota woods is a precious relic of our Depression-era past. Built in 1935, Rabideau CCC Camp was one of 2,650 camps established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal program. Thirteen of the original 25 buildings at Rabideau remain standing: the mess hall, five barracks, three officers quarters, the recreation hall, the hospital, the laundry building, and the education building. Rabideau was listed in the NRHP in 1976. We believe it has the largest number of unaltered frame-constructed buildings in federal ownership. As you may imagine, restoration and maintenance of so many structures has been quite a challenge. With the help of cost-share grants and partnerships from federal sources, local businesses, and organizations such as the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, restoration of the education building has been completed, largely through the efforts of PIT volunteers.
Rabideau was home to about 300 young men aged 1721. In a joint effort, the U.S. Army was in charge of housing, feeding, clothing, and providing medical care for CCC enrollees, while the FS supervised daily work in the forests. Camp supervisory personnel included an army commanding officer, a forest superintendent, and several local experienced men (called LEMs) who taught and supervised skilled work. Enrollees engaged in road and facilities construction, roadside cleanup, lineal survey, rodent control, wildlife protection, tree planting, firefighting, and other forestry activities.
Enrollees in Company 708 at Rabideau came mostly from northern Minnesota. As Clair T. Rollings, educational advisor at the camp, described them,
They were hungry, broke, some were poorly clothed, some had dropped out of school and a few had gotten into mischief, largely because they had no gainful work to do. . . . But practically every Enrollee was willing and anxious to work, to accept and respect leadership and above all they were happy for the opportunity to improve their own financial status and to help their families back home.
Enrollees earned $30 per month, of which $25 was usually sent home to their family. Daily life at the camp was run in military style, with the men sleeping in barracks and eating in the mess hall. Weekdays were spent at work, with weekends reserved for personal chores, sports, social activities, and education.
Enrollees left the CCC with training and practical experiencebetter equipped to get and hold rewarding jobs for the rest of their lives. Those who became soldiers during World War II made the transition to military life much more easily as a result of their CCC experience. But the CCC contribution went much further than that. Local communities benefited economically in the short term from the employment and the supply of the camps and in the long term from the infrastructure the CCC built and enhancement of the natural resources. Much of what the CCC did provided the foundation for local economic prosperity today.
Most CCC camps were decommissioned around the beginning of World War II and were burned or otherwise removed sometime after that. Rabideau survived after its abandonment in 1941, primarily because the University of Illinois found it a perfect place to run their engineering and forestry field schools from 1946 to 1972.
Built to last only a few years, buildings at Rabideau were put together from partially prefabricated pieces and have no real foundations. Almost three-quarters of a century of Minnesota freeze-thaw have taken their toll. Over time, the buildings have shifted and twisted, sometimes causing structural damage such as sloping floors, tilted roofs, and openings, which let in moisture and rot. Although four of the buildings were designated for preservation in 1976 and have been maintained, others have continued to deteriorate. Renewed interest in and appreciation of the CCC era have sparked a desperate effort to save the remaining buildings.
The education building restoration was a 3-year project. The building was in deplorable (and hazardous) condition, having a partially rotted and collapsed roof and floor. It stood on piers set on the ground surface with no concrete footings. Fearing its collapse, the FS had stacked railroad ties under the building to provide temporary support. In 1999, the FS contracted with a private company to place a foundation under the building and replace the roof and parts of the floors and siding, which could not be saved. The contractor did a great job, and we were left with a sound and stable building for our PIT folks to work on.
During our first PIT project in 2000, we planned to get the buildings 4 doors and 38 windows installed and do some exterior painting. In addition to finishing those tasks, we completed the installation of window screens and exterior trim, painted the interior wainscot of the west wing, rebuilt some walls, and almost completed the interior wainscot. In 2001, we finished the interior work, which included insulating and caulking, installing plywood wallboard and plank wainscot, and restoring the original pine paneling; hanging screen doors and replacing window trim, latches, and electric fixtures; and, last (but certainly not least), endless painting and staining.
Twenty-six volunteers participated, donating almost 1,000 hours of work. PIT volunteers should be proud of their accomplishment. They have saved a piece of the past for the recreational and educational benefit of future generations. We expect to install a new interpretive display next year, and the education building will once again be put to use as the focal point of public education at the camp.
Each August, the FS hosts a reunion of CCC alumni and their families at Camp Rabideau. Because of the dedication and hard work of PIT volunteers, this years reunion will truly be a special celebration.