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Hernando's landscape speaks to strength of New Deal

Decades later, this barn and other buildings on Chinsegut Hill still tell the story of FDR’s New Deal, when millions of men signed up for jobs clearing, 
building and planting. Part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, a “new” New Deal, calls for similar investment in workers and infrastructure.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Decades later, this barn and other buildings on Chinsegut Hill still tell the story of FDR’s New Deal, when millions of men signed up for jobs clearing, building and planting. Part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, a “new” New Deal, calls for similar investment in workers and infrastructure.

Considering he was a young man on Sept. 17, 1937, when he scrawled his name in a patch of fresh mortar on Chinsegut Hill, "Hayward" is probably dead by now.

In any case, I couldn't track him down. Nor could I find any letters or relatives who might have told me what he was thinking that day — or even whether Hayward was his first or last name.

But I can tell you, judging from the large, all-capital letters, that he was proud to sign this barn wall made of locally quarried limestone. Also, the imprint of a nail over his signature looks like it was meant as a symbol of construction, suggesting he was proud, specifically, of building such a solid structure.

"Think how many storms and hurricanes this has been through," said Kevin Cummings, a U.S. Department of Agriculture mechanic at Chinsegut, whose recently deceased grandfather, Albert Pabst, served on the same Civilian Conservation Corps crew as Hayward.

"They just built it well."

Since our country has circled back to a similar point in history as the first month of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency — when the CCC was created — it seemed like a good time to visit the collection of buildings the corps put up at Chinsegut, north of Brooksville.

We've been beaten down by an economic collapse. A president who couldn't or wouldn't help ordinary Americans has departed. A new one, advocating collective action to bolster the nation's infrastructure and spirit, has just taken office.

Nobody can say at this point how President Obama and Congress will use the billions of dollars allocated to what some people are calling the "new" New Deal.

But we can hope it works out as well as the first one did.

In 1933, with unemployment at 25 percent, many men between 18 and 25 had never held a job. The 2.5-million of them who signed up with the CCC learned marketable skills and sent home $25 per month to their families.

Working hard and eating three meals a day, previously underfed recruits packed on an average of 12 pounds of muscle in their first six weeks in the camps, according to a 2008 dissertation by Florida State University graduate student David Nelson.

Said one worker he quoted, Malcolm Oliver: "I was hard as that wall there, just like a brick."

They took pride in cutting fire breaks, planting trees to control erosion, building roads and bridges.

"We had a sense of accomplishment and enjoyed our work," Jake Keene, 89, of Brooker, one of the few remaining CCC alumni in Florida, said last week. In more than two years in the corps, he said, "I met at least 1,000 boys coming and going, and I never heard one of them say a bad thing about what they were doing.''

In Florida, the CCC's lasting contributions include the trails, cabins and picnic pavilions that created the foundation for the state park system. In Hernando, the corps and other New Deal agencies basically remade the landscape, said Sid Taylor, a Division of Forestry employee who has researched the local history of the CCC.

Chinsegut Hill's owner, Raymond Robins, was a friend of several Roosevelt Cabinet members, Taylor said. He persuaded them to buy up and replant trees on the vast, deforested expanse that now is the Withlacoochee State Forest. Works Progress Administration crews, formed of local residents, built limestone-and-timber schools now used as the Spring Lake Community Center and the county-run Rock Cannery.

CCC workers, probably with the help of the WPA, erected what is now the Division of Forestry headquarters on U.S. 41 and developed nearby McKethan Lake Park.

"I think you can say that if it wasn't for Raymond Robins' affiliation with people in power in Washington, none of this would be here," Taylor said.

After five years of studying often conflicting documents and personal histories, Taylor hasn't been able to establish for sure which of the so-called alphabet-soup agencies were responsible for which projects.

"You end up getting more questions than answers," she said.

It is pretty clear, though, that a CCC crew was devoted to what is now the USDA's cattle research station, the land for which Robins had donated in 1932.

These workers were responsible for the roads leading to Chinsegut Manor House and the research center, and for retention walls, drainage ditches and bridges; for a lodge on Lake Lindsey, office buildings near the top of the hill, and a cluster of stone barns and utility sheds at its base.

They also probably helped build the massive barn, now used for storage, that was once at the center of the research operation. One of the operation's early projects was testing breeds suitable for both beef and dairy production, said Myra Rooks, a USDA technician and unofficial historian.

The milking stalls, formed of steel pipes that no irritated cow could ever dent, are now filled with spare machine parts and empty feed buckets. Narrow steps lead up to an empty hayloft the size of a school gymnasium with wide doors on either end that let sunlight pour in and allow expansive views of the pastures.

Rooks pointed out the resin-rich heart pine beams, the hay chutes that lead to the stalls below, and the pulley for stacking hay bales that runs on a rail under the peak of the roof.

"You just don't see barns like this in Florida," Rooks said.

That it is no longer used much barely diminishes the utilitarian beauty of the place. You could imagine that anyone who had lived through a long spell of unemployment, the plague of that time and this one, could only be thrilled to have a hand in building it.

Hernando's landscape speaks to strength of New Deal 01/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 1:00pm]
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