The State We’re In: Highlands Hammock and the CCC Boys

Highlands Hammock
A trail at Highlands Hammock State Park.
SEBRING (2010-3-18) -

As we endure what's being called "The Great Recession," it may be heartening to remember the good things that came out of The Great Depression. One of Florida's oldest state parks near Sebring is a living monument to the men who toiled for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

At Highlands Hammock State Park, on most days it seems the armadillos outnumber the people. The only sound you hear most days is the wind rippling through the trees.

Past the park's sole paved loop, the sound of the motorized world receeds. A walk down a dirt trail reveals an oak that was a sapling a thousand years ago.

It would take six people to wrap their arms around the 36-foot-wide leviathan.

The park was born in the worst economic upheaval this country has ever faced. With the help of a millionaire philanthropist - and the sweat of thousands of fresh-faced youngsters - Highlands Hammock became one of the first state parks in Florida.

Retired park ranger Darrell Smith has become something of an authority on the Civilian Conservation Corps. Smith's a genial sort who, with his white grizzly beard and folksy demeanor, could pass for an extra on a western movie set.

Every few months, Smith dons his old khaki-colored wool uniform and gives a re-enactment for the dozen or so campers gathered in the park's recreation hall.

“Most of us joined because they told us there was food,” he said at a recent re-enactment. “I could join the CCC and I could earn thirty dollars a month! I got to keep five. Momma would get twenty-five dollars.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps Act was one of the first programs signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, becoming an underpinning of his New Deal.

Roosevelt said government should put “idle money and idle men to work to increase our public wealth, and to build up the health and strength of the people.”

Highlands Hammock was actually two parks, Smith explains, which merged in 1935, when Florida's park system was established.

The other park, which is what the CCC was here to build, was Florida Botanical Gardens and Arboretum. They were next door to each other.

“The irony of the situation was that Highlands Hammock is a natural park, discovered and paid for by a naturalist, CCC was building a botanical gardens next door. There was nothing but a fence separating them,” he said.

Smith gives tours of the Florida CCC Museum, housed in a sturdy wooden building dating from 1939. Out front is a bronzed statue of one of the CCC "enrollees," as they called them, his shirt doffed to reveal rippling muscles.

In audio recording, a CCC enrollee called Arch welcomes visitors to the museum:

“When I was a young man of 18, I came here, compliments of Uncle Sam. That's right, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed a work program back there in the Great Depression I'm proud to say I'm a part of,” Arch says.

Smith points out several artifacts from the era: a CCC medical box, an instruction book, yearbooks, and a Coke bottle Smith dug from the sand dated by Coca-Cola between 1932 and 1936.

Smith takes particular pleasure in helping organize the annual CCC reunion day, held the first weekend in November.

But like a faded page in an old book, those men too are receding into history. The year he started, 112 men showed up. Last year, there were 46.

“They're in their 90's. Like the World War II vets, every day we lose one,” he said.

Twenty-seven structures they built are in use today. It's a legacy that people like Smith say is still relevant, in an age when state lawmakers are debating whether to cut all funding to buy environmentally-sensitive lands.

In this WUSF series, "The State We’re In," we bring you interesting stories from parts of Florida that are off the beaten path.


The Florida CCC Museum
Highlands Hammock State Park
Take an audio and visual tour through Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring, which was built through the sweat of thousands of volunteers from the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
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