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Group unearths history at Gooseberry

Most people who visit Gooseberry Falls State Park appreciate the work done by Civilian Conservation Corps members, even if they aren't aware of it.

Nearly all of the popular North Shore park's most impressive stone structures were built in the 1930s and early '40s by corps members. The structures have remained solid and much-used to this day, though the camp that these volunteers lived in was nearly lost to history.

The federal program was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to benefit unemployed families during the Depression. Young men lived in military-style camps and worked physical jobs for $1 a day, with most of the money sent home to the men's families.

This week, a new group of young men and women from around the country is working to bring some of the park's history to light. A crew from the Minnesota Conservation Corps, which was created in the service tradition of the CCC, is unearthing the remains of the original CCC encampment at Gooseberry.

The park was home to the longest-functioning CCC camp in the state. The camp operated from 1934 to 1941, and, without it, Gooseberry would look a lot different today.

Corps workers built more than 80 buildings and other structures in the park, and they built most of them to last. The great stone concourse, the Lakeview Shelter, the Lady Slipper Lodge -- those were all built by the corps. The original camp buildings that corps members lived in, however, were mostly destroyed when the camp was closed in 1941.

Of the large encampment, only stone foundations from the shower house, latrine and two camp officials' cabins remain, as does a stone-walled pump house that's still used to supply water in the park. A winding stone staircase had been covered with eroding soil over the years, with trees rooting themselves among the stones and moss creeping over everything until they were nearly forgotten. Vintage photographs of the camp were about all that were left to show where the steps were.

The task of uncovering the old stonework is being done by Minnesota Conservation Corps youths such as Jessie Muenker, 15, from Ham Lake, a slender girl with a mass of braided hair. Like Jessie, several members of the crew are deaf or hard of hearing. Corps crew leaders who are fluent in sign language provide the bridge that helps integrate hard-of-hearing members into the rest of the crew.

"I like to find old things. I think it's cool," Jessie signed. She had helped to uncover the stone steps, and had dug up an old car headlight in the process. "It's hard, because it's dirty, but you have fun."

Neal Matthews, 15, from Maryland, had spent much of Monday scratching those stone steps free from the forest floor. Neal signed that the MCC experience was "awesome," but that he hadn't heard of the CCC before staying in a corps camp in the Chippewa National Forest this year.

That's not uncommon, said Park Manager Paul Sundberg. As the country's collective memory of the Great Depression fades, and as the numbers of CCC members are dwindling, fewer and fewer young people, particularly, know about the project.

Perhaps that will change once the MCC crews complete their work, Sundberg said. He is planning to add a "CCC legacy tour" trail that will meander past the remaining foundations, down the stone steps, and near the pump house, complete with interpretive signs about the corps.

The first of the signs may be in place next summer, Sundberg said.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at