From Preservation Issues, Volume 6, Number 1

CCC Company 1743: The Thunderbirds

by John Cunning
"Idle through no fault of your own, you were enrolled from city and rural homes and offered an opportunity to engage in healthful, outdoor work on forest, park and soil conservation projects of definite practical value to al the people in the nation. The promptness with which you seized this opportunity to engage in honest work, the willingness with which you have performed your daily tasks and the fine spirit you have shown in winning the respect of the communities in which your camps have been located, merits the admiration of the entire country. You, and the men who have guided and supervised your efforts, have cause to be proud of the record the CCC has made in the development of sturdy manhood and in the initiation and prosecution of a conservation program of unprecedented proportions."
-- Excerpt from a message from Franklin D. Roosevelt to members of the CCC read over NBC network at 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 17, 1936
The Civilian Conservation Corps (better known as the CCC) was one of several relief programs developed during the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Under the administration of the U.S. Army and the National Park Service, the CCC developed state and national parks nationwide. Much of the construction done by these young men more than 60 years ago in many of Missouri's state parks and historic sites is still in use. Like most aspects of society at that time, the CCC was a segregated organization. Only one black CCC company, the 1743rd, worked in Missouri's state parks. (Two others, the 3748th and the 3760th, worked on non-park projects in Missouri.)

First organized on April 15, 1933, as Company 694 at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, the unit was initially sent to Pierre, S.D. where it was redesignated as Company 1743. The unit's first assignment in Missouri was at Lake Contrary, just outside of St. Joseph, in October 1933.

On June 4, 1934, the men and officers of the 1743rd were ordered to Washington State Park near DeSoto in Washington County. There they built Camp Thunderbird (named after the mythical creatures that appear frequently in the local petroglyphs), established the camp newspaper Thunderbird Rumblings, and began a five-year project to develop the state park. In nearby DeSoto, the inhabitants of Camp Thunderbird quickly developed a reputation of being polite, well-behaved and hard-working young men whose roads, trails and buildings showed a high level of craftsmanship.

Photo Nick Decker. Stone thunderbird detail on dining hall, built by CCC Company 1743 ca 1934, at Washington State Park near DeSoto, Missouri.
Company 1743 was next ordered to Mark Twain State Park just outside the village of Florida, in Monroe County. Before sending a black unit to a new assignment, the army allowed local residents to opportunity to formally object to the move through a petition process. Some residents in the Florida vicinity sent a petition that stated: "...we do not desire to have a colored Civilian Conservation Corps Camp established in Florida..."

Not everyone in the area was of the same opinion, however. With the assistance of local businessmen, the Missouri State Park Board arranged a bus tour of Washington State Park for 22 citizens from the Florida area. Those on the tour had an opportunity to see first hand the quality of the 1743rd's work and to speak with residents and businessmen from DeSoto. As a result of this trip, the Army received two new petitions, one was from the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion and the city council of DeSoto asking that Camp Thunderbird not be dissolved, and that company 1743 be allowed to remain at Washington State Park. The second began: "We, the undersigned citizens residing within three miles of Mark Twain State Park, hereby certify that we have no objections to the assignment of a Negro company of CCC boys to the CCC camp in Mark Twain State Park. We are extremely anxious for the park to be developed as rapidly as possible."

As a result of this petition, the men and officers of CCC Company 1743 were transferred to Mark Twain State Park on December 1, 1939.

The National Park Service and the Missouri State Park Board had developed an ambitious master plan for Mark Twain State Park. Over a projected six-year period, CCC Company 1743 was to be assigned the task of building a lodge or hotel with outlying cabins, campgrounds, several picnic areas, a basketball field, trails and roads throughout the 1200-acre park, fishing and boating facilities on the Salt River that flowed through the park, a museum dedicated to Mark Twain and removal of the author's birth cabin back to its original location in the village of Florida. One interesting feature of this early master plan was a large lake that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to build for flood control and to generate hydropower. 

[Photo, unattributed, of The Thunderbird Ramblers.]

Early phases of the master plan included clearing and razing a number of farm structures on the 1000-acre addition the park had recently acquired. The CCC workers also developed a water system that served not only their camp (Camp Tom Sawyer) but also the Buzzard's Roost picnic area. They built trails and roads throughout the facility, developed picnic areas, and constructed a park office and maintenance building.

When the United States became involved in World War II, CCC camps all across the country were disbanded and the men and officers transferred to active army unites. Camp Tom Sawyer and Company 1743 were disbanded in July 1942.

Reminders of the 1743rd can still be found in Mark Twain State Park. The most obvious, perhaps, are the stone and timber picnic shelter and entrance sign at Buzzard's Roost picnic area. The small lake and a few of the buildings used in Camp Tom Sawyer, the largest of which was the mess hall, were later used by thousands of 4-H members who attended Camp Clemens during the 1950s and 1960s. The park maintenance complex and the residences for the park superintendent and the historic site administrator are now located where these camps once stood. Behind the site administrator's residence is an old barn now used to store lumber; scrawled on one of the walls are the names and dates of a few of the young black men who helped to build the park. When the new maintenance area was completed, the original maintenance building was turned over to Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site.

To some extent, the original list of projects that the 1743rd was expected to complete in six years has continued to influence current development in the park and historic site. On June 5, 1960, a museum containing the small tow-room frame house in which Mark Twain was born was dedicated and opened to the public. In September 1984, an 18,000-acre lake named after Mark Twain was dedicated; the lake levels are remarkably similar to those depicted in the master plan drawn up in the 1930s.

The Men of the 1743rd

Records and information on CCC Company 1743 are sadly lacking. Photographs, letters, diaries, copies of the Thunderbird Rumblings and personal interviews with any surviving members of Co. 1743 would be very helpful in learning more about this important unit. Anyone willing to share information or artifacts on the unit can contact the Missouri State Museum at Room B-2, State Capitol Building, Jefferson City, MO 65101, or (314) 751-2854.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Cunning is the director of the Missouri State Museum and site administrator at Jefferson Landing State Historic Site.

The Men of the 1743rd:

Photos of the 1743rd from the Official Annual, Missouri-Kansas District Civilian Conservation Corps, 7th Corps Area, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 1937.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
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