SIOUX CITY | The rustic lodge with its brick fireplace and large windows offering a view of the surrounding woods stands as a testament to tough times weathered by vision and hard work.
Building Stone Lodge, one of a number of Civilian Conservation Corps projects in Stone State Park, helped millions of young men and their families escape the Great Depression and earn an honest living.
“Most of us were Depression babies and grew up in the Depression years,” said Elwood “Whitey” Iverson, who joined the CCC in 1938 and worked two years at Camp Lightning Creek about 10 miles west of Custer, S.D.
After growing up in Meckling, S.D., with no electricity or running water, Iverson, 93, now of Hawarden, Iowa, described the experience as an accelerated track into adulthood.
It was like being in the Army, but without the fighting, Iverson said. He and about 200 other boys at the camp would wake up by 6 a.m., raise the flag and eat breakfast together before going out to build roads, fire trails, fire lookout towers and lodges. Some of the state parks they helped construct are still in operation today.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt wasted little time introducing his New Deal for America, which included the CCC, after taking the oath of office in early 1933. The program was signed into law on March 31, just 27 days after Roosevelt’s inauguration, and would go on to employ more than 3 million men across every state.
The program, highly popular with the public, had enrolled more than 500,000 previously unemployed men in nearly 3,000 Army-operated camps across the country by the end of 1935. One of the camps was occupied by a group of about 200 veterans in Stone State Park.
The men in the camps, ranging in age from 18 to 25, were known as “dollar-a-day boys” because they earned $30 each month, sending a portion, usually $25, home to their families.
The single CCC camp near Sioux City was established in the summer of 1935 in the northwest portion of Stone State Park. For about four years, CCC men built the majority of the structures that still stand today, including Stone Lodge, the park ranger residence, shelters, dams, trails, roads and culverts.
Of the roughly 1,000 structures built by the CCC across Iowa, about 700 were still standing when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources did a statewide study in the late 1990s, said former Iowa Department of Natural Resources director Larry Wilson.
In 2002, Wilson spent a year interviewing about 40 former CCC members who had camped in Iowa, where about 46,000 men would work in 64 camps across the state by the time the program ended in 1942.
“They did good work," he said. "They didn’t have all the modern tools available today, and a lot of the work was done by hand.”
But the men wanted to be there, Wilson said. “Most importantly, they didn’t want to get kicked out of that camp,” he said. “That could be the only income that family could have.”
Similar circumstances landed Iverson among about 200 others in a CCC camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“I lived in the Depression era and there were no jobs available, basically,” Iverson said. “The (CCC) was about it."
From his interviews, during which he never heard a single complaint, Wilson easily concluded the men had a deep appreciation for the CCC and its creator.
"Every one of those men absolutely swore by the value of this program," Wilson said.
Roosevelt had been thinking on an even deeper level.
"More important, however, than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work," he had said when selling the idea to Congress.
Nearly 80 years later, long after prosperity returned, surviving CCC projects across the nation continue to add to the value of the land on which they were built and the surrounding communities.
And for poor young men like Iverson and their families, the work allowed them to prosper in tough times. He went on to save $85, enough for one year of college at Southern State Normal School in Springfield, S.D., before eventually finishing at the University of Nebraska.
"It's just one of those things that teaches kids a little discipline, and we need that today," he said. "It was a wonderful experience. It really was.”