Lake resident seeks to honor those who built it

At the sound of reveille echoing from a bugle every morning, 250 men rose to toil as workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps stationed in Marion in the 1930s.

They excavated, landscaped and built structures on what would become Marion County Park and Lake.

These men were part of Company 4755 under command of Lt. Robert S. Horsley. Their mission, from 1936 to 1939, was to build the lake from pasture and crop land, thereby providing a refuge for people and wildlife in Marion County.

Today, lake resident Helen Beckham is spearheading a campaign to erect a six-foot bronze statue in memory of those men of the 4755 and all Kansas CCC veterans.

“It’s important that we show the youth of today what happened here,” Beckham said. “We can’t go any place in the United States without seeing their work. This group of men built the lake that we’re all enjoying today.”

About five days after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated, Congress authorized the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 to provide jobs for young men on relief. It was during the Great Depression, and the call went out to men ages 17 to 23 to work and conserve the nation’s natural resources.

Roosevelt’s intentions were to put young men who needed jobs to work.

“But then he modified it somewhat,” Beckham said. “He decided the veterans of World War I and the Spanish-American War also needed jobs. And so that’s how we ended up with veterans here at this lake.”

Surrounding communities vied for the opportunity to have a lake and park built near them, but land 41/2 miles southeast of Marion was deemed ideal for the CCC project.

Prior to arriving in the area, the men were trained by U.S. Army personnel and issued surplus World War I uniforms.

“So the groups of the CCC boys were sent to Army camps where they were trained and got their shots and clothing,” Beckham said.

They answered to the Army, but when they were assigned work building dams or applying soil conservation, they worked under the Kansas Soil Conservation Service.

Arriving by train on what was one of the coldest days of the year in February 1936, the men were driven to barracks erected in the potential-lake area and settled in to begin Project SCS-27.

For the first eight months, juniors and veterans worked side by side until the junior workers were sent to another camp, and the veterans remained for the duration of the project.

The group of men stood out from the others who served from 1933 to 1942 because they were an all-black group. Only their officers were white.

“There were so few blacks in the CCC that when I contacted the National Archives in Maryland, they said they had no record of how many companies were black and veterans,” Beckham said.

“They said it would have been a small percentage of the 3 1/2 million men in the CCC nationwide. So that made these men unique.”

The county engineer at the time was James Meisner.

“This was his dream,” Beckham said. “He was basically in charge of everything-every structure out here, he planned for it. It was such a love of his, and he did such a great job.”

The project was to construct an earthen dam 1,200 feet in length and 44 feet high with a park area of 652 acres and a lake-surface area of 160 acres. It included plans for bathing beaches, ball park, groves, picnic ovens, tennis courts, a golf course and shooting traps.

The government required that the city purchase the land for the project and donate it.

“The leaders in Marion had foresight and vision,” Beckham said. “They said we had to have a bond issue to get the $15,000 to get this land. They kept telling people this is going to be a great deal, because they would be giving more than that to the unemployed men on relief.”

The CCC workers received room, board and $30 a month. They were required to send $25 of that monthly total back to their families. The remaining spending money was pooled back into the local economy during difficult economic times.

“In the communities close to the CCC camps, local purchases averaged about $5,000 a month,” Beckham said. “The people who were living in Marion during the Depression and had businesses, they really had to appreciate them.”

The three years that CCC workers spent in the area were filled with more than just hard work. They ate well and entertained each other, in addition to providing entertainment for the surrounding communities.

“They were constantly giving programs and performing,” Beckham said. “It was a big deal. People came out here to eat and have their meetings at the barracks. And, they played a lot of baseball in this area.”

One story tells of a CCC baseball team without uniforms because they were not issued by the government.

“So the local people charged 10 cents to get into a game,” Beckham said. “And that money went toward their uniforms.”

And yet another story details a group of men, under officer Horsley, who were told to get into clean uniforms, grab their musical instruments and prepare to meet President Roosevelt during a train-station stop-over in Florence.

“So they did,” Beckham said. “They played their instruments, and Eleanor (Roosevelt) sent them a thank-you card.”

The basic Marion County Park and Lake project was finished in 1939, and the CCC was abolished in 1942.

Today, the national Association of the Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni have a nationwide campaign to encourage the placement of a life-size bronze statue of a CCC worker in every state of the country.

The first statue was commissioned by five alumni from Michigan. They raised $30,000 for the statue and currently offer the cast to be reused by other groups at a cost of $18,000, not including shipping and installation charges.

To date, 26 statues have been erected in 23 states.

Beckham extensively researched the CCC project when she worked to place the county park and lake on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Joining the CCC alumni association, she discovered the opportunity to purchase a statue for the local county lake and park. The original sculpture was designed by a studio artist in New York.

What started as a personal project last October has turned into a community-wide endeavor.

Donations have come from lake residents, former CCC alumni, county residents and backers from six other states.

McPherson sculptor Larry Hamler, a lake-property owner, donated a $1,500 western bronze called “Plains Drifter” for a future drawing. For a $10 donation, people will have the opportunity to win this piece and help raise money.

Plans are underway for a cooperative garage sale in May and even the sales of recylable aluminum cans have contributed to the funds raised for the statue.

As of mid-March, about $9,000 of the proposed $20,000 needed had been raised. Beckham said she hopes the total figure will be raised in the next six months. With a six-month-lead ordering time, that would place the statue at the lake in one year.

The proposed location for the statue is near Kingfisher’s Inn restaurant on the north shore.

Beckham hopes to erect the six-foot-bronze figure of a CCC worker on a native-rock base. After asking permission from county commissioners, she was told Marion County would be willing to supply some of the equipment necessary to erect it.

“I understand the statue will be brought here by truck,” Beckham said. “They will only lift it up and put it on the ground. So, we will have the base and the foundation ready to go. And we’re planning to landscape around it.”

The statue will have a plaque listing any donors who contribute $500 or more.

“The other plaque will probably say something very simple just to say this statue honors the 38,000 Kansas men who served in the CCC from 1933 to 1942,” Beckham said.

For the present, Beckham and her supporters are working to raise the remaining money necessary to honor those in the CCC.

The project is something dear to her heart, she said.

“I’ve met some of these people. They worked hard and are part of a great generation of men.”

(For more information or to donate, contact Beckham at 620-382-2671, e-mail at dwighthelen or send contributions to CCC Statue Project in care of Central National Bank, 231 E. Main, Marion, KS 66861.)

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