There’s something so special about pulling into a state park that was crafted by the hands of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s. We have to do a bit of due diligence of course and make sure the winding roads in these older parks and the camping areas will accommodate our 35′ rolling roof, but how we love to stumble upon these preserved places just overflowing with history. It’s a living history book with a campfire ring just waiting to light. As we pull across the largest hand built bridge built by CCC boys, now holding back Byrd Creek, we glance off to the right at the beautiful lake, the family of Canadian geese that also arrived with us today and the majestic stonework of the lodge overlooking the lake and can already feel a beckoning for us to come back for exploration.
We’ve written a time or two already about the CCC and that great program created after the depression to help young families, stimulate the economy while all the while preserving natural resources for the future. How genius! It was a win – win – win! Franklin D Roosevelt didn’t just hand out money to those in the most need. He didn’t just suggest lowering interest rates so more would borrow again. He didn’t just write an order to protect a piece of land. He created a wheel where the spokes, the rim and the rubber would all rely equally on each other. It was a long term investment. It gave each young man room, board, structure, education and a skill. In return they would receive $30 a month and $25 of that would be sent home to their families. Forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers would be protected as green spaces and for future sustainable timber production, which would trickle to the local economies and boost tourism. There is no doubt that this idea was crazy for the day and if it were presented in the roaring 20’s it probably wouldn’t have ever flown. It took desperate times and a great depression to allow the people of our nation to open their mind and to think this big. Within his first 100 days in office through executive orders and working with congress not only was the CCC established, but many other great programs we still value today, like the Social Security Administration, the FDC, the FDIC, the federal securities act, and more than 20 others were put into action.
Last summer when we were traveling in southern Colorado we spent a day exploring Mesa Verde. Yes, the cliff dwellings were astonishing and will take your breath away as you ponder the life of the Paleo-Indians that once inhabited these homes back in the late 1200’s. What puzzled me was knowing that the families all first lived on the plateau surrounding the cliffs for 600+ years before then. They built round pueblos dug down into the earth and covered them with sticks and hides to protect themselves from the harsh elements. They gardened, hunted and endured the extreme Rocky Mountain winters, and the endless autumn winds. But one day change began. Perhaps it went something like this…… The young Frank Lloyd Wright of his time left his family’s garden patch and sat on the bluff. He would watch the sparrows fly in and out of the caves below making nests, raising their young. He admired how these birds built their homes all clinging to the stones and all safe from weather. One sunny day he climbed down and built a playhouse for his kids. He used mud from the rivers and the stone that was everywhere. His neighbors thought he was crazy. Then one winter storm he convinced his family to retreat to the protection and warmth of his cave house and from that day forward he changed his community forever. Villages would soon be built, the economy of its people would grow and within a hundred years all the pueblos on the mesa were abandoned and the entire society had moved below the mesa into the cliff dwellings that the sparrows shared with young Frank Lloyd Wright.
Today while exploring the Cumberland plateau of middle Tennessee we found two more communities envisioned and created by thinking outside of the box. On the southern edge of the Big South Fork National Recreation area we discovered the hamlet called Rugby. This colony was started in 1880 by British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes, who was famous for his classic novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He dreamed of a new community, built on strong agriculture, cooperative enterprise, and free of the class distinctions that prevailed in Britain.
His idea grew out of the concern for the younger sons of British families. Under the customs of the day, the oldest son inherited everything, leaving the younger sons with just a few accepted occupations in England. Hughes believed that in America these young men’s energies and talents could be given new direction without social limitation.
During the 1880′s, Rugby flourished, attracting wide-spread attention on two continents and hundreds of hopeful settlers from both Britain and other parts of America. By 1884 some 65-70 beautiful Victorian buildings had been constructed and over 300 residents enjoyed the rustic and culturally refined life of this “New Jerusalem.” In its hey-day there were literary societies and drama clubs, a grand hotel was built and filled nightly, a public library with thousands of volumes was the pride of the colony. Rugby had its own newspaper and the town filled with general stores, stables, sawmills, boarding houses, a drug store, dairy and a butcher shop.
Though the colony did eventually dwindle due to disease and war, many of the charming homes and buildings have been preserved. We enjoyed a walking tour and could feel the old and the new energy still flowing here. New life is still bubbling in Rugby. We wave to a couple sitting on their porch and admire the new homes and businesses, all with the same unique Victorian design popping up along with the spring flowers.
On our way back to Cumberland Mountain State Park we began noticing that many of the homes that lined the rural farmland roads were all built of the same colored sand stone. A quick google search and we learned that we were driving through another FDR great idea, part of his New Deal called the Cumberland Homesteads. Actually it was part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 that purchased land for the creation of small farming communities for the nation’s displaced workers. This was one of over a hundred government sponsored communities built across America in the 30’s. An idea that helped our country learn a new trade, become more sustainable farmers, live cooperatively with our neighbors and rekindle the ethic of working hard.
We pull back into the campground as I flip off the radio trying to forget that I heard about another school shooting, the white house tweet, and the discourse that divides us…..and I wonder are we getting any closer to those times of desperation when we soften just a little and start gathering a little tighter to each other. Is the day near when we can see one another with a bit less indifference and start remembering what makes us all the same? Who will be the next FDR, Frank Lloyd Wright or Tom Hughes to sit on the edge, watch a sparrow fly by and then quietly lead us to the outside of the box?