The older I get, the more I realize the importance of documenting local histories before time and memory fade all the colorful details. This is my motivation in telling my father’s (Mike Kerkes’) story of nearly four years of service while in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. I want to provide the next generation with a human face to remember the builders of the rustic log cabin-styled treasures that are still in service over 80 years later at Copper Falls State Park. Using nothing but hand tools and muscle-power, they transformed a raw wilderness into one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful state parks. What a tragedy it would be to use what they gave us without appreciating their story.
After obtaining my father’s CCC records (www.CCClegacy.org), I learned that he enrolled in 1933 when he was 21 years old. He was forced to leave his work/study program in 1932 at Henry Ford Trade School due to the cutbacks of the Great Depression. He went home to Virden, IL, where he competed with all the others his age to find any odd jobs just to put food on the table for himself and his dad. Had it not been for Roosevelt’s CCC program, the suffering would’ve been prolonged without hope for an entire generation of young men in similar circumstances.
Due to my dad’s blue print reading and machine shop schooling at Henry Ford, he was encouraged to take leadership classes once he entered the CCC. His first job was in the hewing yard for Company 696 where he was stationed at Giant City Park, Makanda, IL. This is where he and the others turned the native timber and stone into usable building materials for the main lodge, shelters, and bridge supports. In 1988, the state of Illinois chose six of its CCC and WPA (Works Progress Administration) park structures for a thematic nomination and placed all six on the National Register of Historic Places. Giant City Park was one of the parks chosen. (This is when I had a tug in my heart to have the buildings at Copper Falls raised to same level of prominence by getting them placed on the National Register.)
In 1935, my dad was offered a promotion as a Carpentry Field Supervisor if he would transfer to Company D-692 that was being groomed for transfer to Mellen, WI, to develop Copper Falls State Park. They barely got started on their park work when the horrid drought of 1936 enlisted the help of these men to fight out-of-control wildfires that ravaged the tinder dry forests of northern Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands, and Isle Royale, MI. What I learned in my research from the National Archives was that this company was separated from all the others for three days without food and were surrounded by fire with their only safe zone being Lake Superior. Due to a storm, the high seas prevented any rescue attempts or shipment of food supplies. The men who fought the fire were the ones allowed to eat the remaining rations that were left.
When I look at the lodge at Copper Falls, I see an important character trait
of the men who built it--- the durability of the human spirit to survive by
constructing something of value for the future. We are that future!
Picture: Mike Kerkes, Carpentry Field Supervisor, in middle. Names of other men unknown.
Copper Falls State Park, Mellen, WI; November 1935. Schueller family collection.
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Exploring the Rich History of the CCC & Copper Falls State Park