2012 Trek – South Dakota, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park & WPA art

Heading west on Route 90 we crossed over into South Dakota and came upon the infamous roadside attraction “Porter Sculpture Park”. Visible from the road was the huge 60 foot tall, 25 ton sculpture of a bulls head (said to be equal in size to the heads at Mount Rushmore) it was only ½ mile off the highway, in Montrose, so we paid for a visit and met the artist/sculptor/poet Ron Porter.

The sun was high in the sky and cast a shadow on the “American Gothic” sculpture that depicts the hand of drought “grasping for anything”. Considering the recent news reports of widespread drought affecting so much of the United States, this light and shadow was unsettling.

Temperatures were approaching 101 degrees so we booked a 50 amp camping spot in the famous town/tourist trap of Wall, South Dakota.  Although we didn’t partake of the free ice water at the Wall Drug Store we were able to tour the Badlands early the next morning when temperatures were tolerable.

To our surprise, we discovered that there was a first come-first serve campground within the
Badlands National Park and in checking the power supply we found that we would have had more than enough electricity to run our air conditioners and saw that a previous camper had left behind their Canon camera battery and charger.

Next stop was the Black Hills National Forest, which borders Custer State Park and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.  There were several CCC camps in the beautiful South Dakota Black Hills and until recently the original structures of one – Camp Lodge, SP-4 in Custer State Park, was still in use by the Black Hills Playhouse.

Unfortunately, only two buildings now remain and the one used as the “Costume Building” will be torn down next year for safety concerns. These CCC camp buildings were never meant to be permanent and it is remarkable that they not only survived but their four walls continued to be protective and productive for almost eight decades.

Two CCC artists were assigned to Custer State Park – the first state park in South Dakota. Camp Pine Lake, SP-1, Company #1793 was located one mile north and one mile west of Mount Rushmore. One of their many work projects was building a dam that would eventually form Horsethief Lake, a public camping and recreation area.

 Sculptor Vaclav (James, Jim) Klimo in 1934 and wildlife artist, Morris (Moe) Gollub in 1935 spent a few productive months while at this Rushmore camp.

Klimo found it: “a perfect, marvelous place…I wander out into the hills, which are filled with huge monsters, weird faces stare out at you from great grey corrugated masses of granite that push out of the rolling hills, sometimes they remind one of growing things. There is something deeply religious about this place. The Gods of eternity seem to brood over the landscape…”  One of the pieces Klimo was inspired to make was a four-headed sculpture. (1)  When Rowan, in DC, received the sculpture he commented that it “is too extreme in expression for most people” but he would put it in a place where he could look at it from time to time; to try and capture the spirit in which it was made .(2)

Klimo not only met Mount Rushmore master sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his daughter but, he procured the hard to find plaster for his CCC sculptures from his Rushmore studio.  Klimo described the “murmur of drills at Rushmore” as pleasant, even if the “destroying hand of man had only defaced slightly” what was once a fine mountain” (2)

Unfortunately, no art has been found from these artists but we did discover what might very well be 1937 original WPA art at the Custer State Park.

When the Custer State Park Museum was under construction letters requesting designs for the relief models and museum displays were sent to the National Park Service,  Western Museum Laboratories, located at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

“General public is keenly interested in the activities of the CCC enrollees working in the National Park Service Museum laboratories. This photo shows entrance to one of the several laboratories at Berkeley…”

This was a special spur camp, a separate CCC unit of men “chosen from various national park camps in the state and were given special training to fit them for the unusual work”. They designed and constructed numerous relief models, signage and other museum exhibits used in many national parks and monuments. (3)

CCC artist, Morris Gollub hoped the wildlife art he was creating would be used for exhibits in the newly constructed Custer State Park Museum. It is unknown what was displayed in the earlier years of the museum, which is now known as the Peter Norbeck Visitors Center.  After the building, by the CCC was completed, there were funding issues and discussions as to what would be of educational value in the museum, should it be habitat groups, conservation, preservation…it seems what was ultimately decided was displays on western history and earlier settlers. (3)

By June of 1937 arrangements and funding had been found to “appoint a technical service staff for the summer months”.  Student engineers, three artists, a geologist, architect, forester, draftsmen and a historian would soon arrive…and “most of these student Technicians will work on the exhibits for the Custer State Park Museum”. (4)

In 2000 there was a complete redesign of the museum displays, we were told that the old exhibit pieces were possibly in storage. Walking around the current exhibits, which are now habitat groups native to the Black Hills, conservation and history we spied several pieces of art, partially hidden in the back corner of the small CCC display. Hoping it was Morris Gollub’s work we asked Park Naturalist, Julie Brazell for access to it and their archives.

Thank you Julie for accomodating us during your busiest season, you are such an asset to Custer State Park.  And our appreciation extends to the staff and volunteers at the park, without your insight and park memories we would not have made the connection to the parks probable WPA art.

It was explained that this “hidden “art had been part of the previous exhibit which remained on display for 60 years.

While comparing one of the pieces, to the photo of the 1937 student technicians at work, there was a heart stopping moment…“This watercolor appears to be the same painting displayed in the 1937 photo… this is the the original art with good color, little wear…has it really be in this room, displayed for the last 75 years ?…is this Works Progress Administration (WPA) art?”.


Thank you to Peggy Sanders, author of “The Civilian Conservation Corps In and Around the Black Hills” for finding the CCC camp newspaper that documents the student technicians who arrived at Custer State Park, during the summer of 1937, to make the displays for the new museum. Other park photos seem to suggest that they were housed and worked in CCC type barracks.

Could they have been funded through the WPA National Youth Administration (NYA), as many college students were back then?  This is plausible because the NYA was a massive and popular New Deal work program designed to keep students in school. Did they stay in a nearby CCC camp, like Camp Lodge?

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland there are South Dakota WPA microfilm records. Perhaps the definitive answer may lie within these source documents and this rediscovery of the “student technicians” art is the foundation for future research.

We also visited the South Dakota CCC Museum, which is conveniently located in the Hill City Visitors Center  , 23935 Hwy 385. Unknown to us but, the timing of our arrival coincided with a presentation that former CCC boy Jay Henderson was giving for local park personnel.

What luck.

Connecting the dots, meeting those with the same interests and learning more about the CCC and the New Deal era…well, that’s what this research and trek is all about.



(1) James Klimo to Edward Rowan in Washington DC describing his experiences, inspirations and creations made at the Rushmore Pine Creek CCC camp during the summer of 1934.

(2) November 17, 1934 letter from Edward rowan to James Klimon in Mount Vernon Iowa, acknowledging the shipment of four sculptures. ( Authors note: Two of these sculptors would be included in the 1935 CCC National Exhibit)

(3) Letter June 29, 1934 , Herbert Mair, District Officer ECW to Harold Norbeck c/o Hon. Peter Norbeck, U.S. Senate Washington, D.C.

(4) CCC camp Lodge newspaper, “The Lodge Scalper” June 9, 1937, page 5 “Flashes From the Field

2012 Trek – St. Louis, Eldora & Mason City

The new location for the National Archives and Personnel Administration records center , 1 Archives Drive, St.Louis, Missouri is conveniently located off Interstate 270…if you are using a navagational system like the Garmin 460T (for trucks) or Microsoft Streets and Trips…enter Dunn Road. The visitor parking lot has a large spot that was perfect for parking “16 Tons”. To all the “Archive Specialists” who researched our multiple requests for CCC, WPA and WW I & II military records, we appreciate your efforts and enjoy working with you.  Within those source files we found several gems  that will support and better explain the “Idle Artists of the Great Depression” research. Thank you.

As luck would have it our route north was very near Eldora, Iowa. We were able to connect with Becky Rose from the CCC/POW Recreational Hall & Museum located on  the Harden County Fairgrounds during the annual county fair. What started out as her daughters 4-H project has turned into a major restoration labor of love for Becky; starting with a new foundation, windows and removing crumbling corn wallboard on the former Recreation Hall for the Pine Lake CCC camp.

The boys of the Pine Lake Co # 1752, called themselves the “Erosioners”, this was the Dust Bowl era and theirs was a soil conservation project. They planted trees and worked until 1941 making Pine Lake State Park a recreational area .

The original camp was not dismantled in 1942 because it became a German POW camp. During WW2 the “United States began taking prisioners… they decided to bring them to the Midwest for the following reasons:

* Ships were going over full, but coming back empty.

*Brought men to the food source.

*Provided a work force to harvest crops and work in factories.

*Prisoners saw how a Democratic Republic government worked.” (1)

Becky we applaud your hard work and wish you well with future efforts that will be required to save this CCC/POW structure from further erosion. It is so important that it be preserved for future generations, it is a gem, a part of our American history and an Iowa treasure.

Among the exciting stops on this trek are the ones where we find original CCC art. In Mason City, Iowa we found a fabulous collection. Thank you to Terry Harrison, Historian and Archivist at the Mason City Public Library for providing us access to the CCC art of Francis Robert White (1907-1986) and Tom Rost.

Although Edward Rowan, Assistant Director in the Treasury Department of Painting and Sculpture was not born in Iowa he lived, worked, married and had children in this “Fields of Opportunity”, “Life Changing” state. He became the hard working Director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids…his efforts in bringing art to Iowa was noticed…in 1933 he was invited to DC for a
temporary a position in the Treasury Department that would administer the newly created Public Works of Art Project (PWAP).

In the summer of 1934, writing from his DC office, Rowan counseled the next Little Gallery Director, Francis Robert White.   Prior to White assuming the arduous duties at the gallery Rowan arranged for White to enroll and spend a month with CCC Co #841 in the Shoshone National Forest. White had requested to be sent somewhere remote, a rustic, out west location and found the routine at the forestry camp in Cody, Wyoming, rigorous and enjoyed the “natural hardships” he described the mountains as the most beautiful he had ever seen.(2)

White created outstanding watercolors, pen and ink pieces while there and Rowan was extremely impressed with his work, some of which would be included in the 1935 CCC National Exhibit in DC “Life in the CCC” which was opened by Eleanor Roosevelt.“who had a vision for what the arts could mean in a democracy.”(3)

When White completed his months time in Cody he returned to Iowa and wrote to Rowan in DC “I was kept very busy indeed. In order to get to the various points from which I made drawings it was sometimes necessary to make a full day’s journey, by car, foot, or horse back. I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to view the country for anything. It has soaked into me deeply and makes me wish to return some time.” (4)

Tom Rost  (1909-2004) was a young Wisconsin art student who caught the attention of Charlotte Partridge, Director and co-founder of the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Partridge was greatly respected by Rowan for her “influence and teachings” which resulted in the “fine showing of Wisconsin artists”(4)

Rosts’ career began when he enrolled in the West Allis, Wisconsin – Honey Creek Parkway CCC camp in November 1935. He remained there for a little over  5 months and depicted, in colorful watercolors and woodcuts, the day-to-day life and work of  CCC Co #656.  In a letter to Partridge Rowan mentioned the CCC work of Tom Rost was very popular and his work would be included in the 1935 CCC National Exhibit in DC, the 1935-1936 San Diego Expo and one of his paintings was selected to hang in the White House, at Eleanors’ request. (5)

Rost found little or no work as an artist once he left the CCC and was one of the few CCC artists that Rowan kept a professional connection with.   In January 1936 Rowan writes “I should very much like to hear from you as to what you are doing at the present time…remembering the fine work you did in the CCC. I am anxious to help you continue your art work”(6)

Rost would remain associated with the Treasury Department art projects, he received the commission for three post office murals and would find work, as an illustrator, with Field and Stream magazine.   Some of Rosts’ CCC art can be found in the Smithsonian collection of American Art.


(1) Civilian Conservation Corps/Prisoner of War Recreational Hall & Museum, Eldora, Iowa brochure
(2) September 1934 – Robert Francis White writes to Edward Rowan that he has arrived at the camp and describes his surroundings.
(4) October 2, 1934 letter from Robert Francis White to Edward Rowan…sending in all the work he created while at the Cody, Wyoming camp and remarking on his personal experience.
(3) http://www.whitehousehistory.org/whha_shows/eleanor_roosevelt/theme_my-day-causes.html The White House Historical Association
(4) February 19, 1935 letter from Edward Rowan to Tom Rost at the Honey Creek Parkway CCC camp.
(5 & 6)  May 15, 1935 Letter from Edward Rowan to Charlotte Partridge


2012 Trek – Washington, D.C.

When researching the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) one of the better sources for information can be found at the National Archives Records Administration (NARA II) in College Park, Maryland. The best and closest place to camp is at the Greenbelt National Park in Greenbelt, Maryland, it’s less than 5 miles away from the archives.   The park entrance is located off the 495 DC beltway and, although it may not have the amenities of a resort type campground, it has “the location”.  The park is an urban oasis in a conjested capitol city with the added bonus of being within two miles of the Metro station; appropiately the Green Line will take you right into the heart of D.C.

Over their busiest season, July 4th, we were able to snag one of our favorite spots in the campground.

The day before we arrived, we followed the news and weather reports and were aware of the violent storm that had swept in from Ohio and created massive power outages in and around DC.

The NARA II was not effected but Greenbelt National Park had been right in the path of the storm.  We were shocked when we drove in and amazed that no one was hurt or killed by the sudden storm that roared up over the hill at around 10:30 pm, when all was dark, hot and quiet. The Park Service came around and warned all campers that a bad storm was approaching, little did they know how bad.

Days later power was still out in many communities in and around Greenbelt.

Our time at the NARA II was very productive; found original CCC art and lots of documents to support the research.  So it was not too disheartening that we had to leave earlier than expected. Our trusted generator quit, the temperature was 104 degrees, and we had no AC …  we headed to Hershey, Pa to the safety net of another Wanderlodge owner who just happened to have the part we needed and also the gift of some Hershey chocolates.

Thank you Shane and Kelly for the “new motor”, we are cool and contented as we continue on our way.