NEW LONDON - The men who built Sibley State Park had survived the trenches of World War I, but fell victim to the Great Depression. They lost their jobs, their farms and businesses, and found themselves standing in soup lines and wondering how they would care for their families.
It's only fitting that the contributions of these veterans be remembered at a time when the country annually celebrates its independence, according to Kelsey Olson, park naturalist, as she led a tour to tell about their accomplishments at Sibley State Park on July 3.
Olson has a special link to the story she told of the members of Company 1785 of the Veterans Conservation Corps. Her 96-year-old grandfather, Wally Newstrom, was a young boy growing up on a farm near the park when the World War I veterans arrived in 1933. Olson said her grandfather remembers going up Cedar Hill and crawling on his belly to hide behind the cedars for the chance to take in the sights and sounds as the men set up their camp. "I still get goosebumps thinking about my 96-year-old kid grampa up there,'' said Olson.
Eight decades later, the legacy of the VCC continues to make Sibley State Park a special place. The workers constructed 11 buildings and structures in the park, including the Mount Tom observatory.
They did it all by hand, said Olson. They relied on broad axes to hew the white oaks they harvested for building timbers. They swung 12-pound sledge hammers to break pink and gray granite quarried near Rockville into the stones they hand-placed in each of the structures and buildings.
Today those buildings remain in use largely for the purposes they were originally intended. The buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and for many, are the very image of the park.
"If a placement of a certain stone did not suit them they would go to any any length to rectify the error,'' reads an account of their work in the camp newsletter, Sibley Speaks. Olson said the account tells how the men would gather at the end of each day to look over their work with a critical eye. "If not up to expectations they would hold a regular council of war and do something about it,'' she read from the account.
The Veterans Conservation Corps was an offshoot of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. Since the VCC was comprised of World War I veterans, its workforce was older than the unemployed men who were part of the CCC. The VCC workers were men in their 30's and 40's. Many possessed skills in carpentry and masonry and other occupations. All took great pride in their work, said Olson.
The VCC'ers earned $30 a week, stayed in barracks and were well fed, she said. They kept $5 of their weekly earnings and sent $25 home to their families.
New London was abuzz with excitement when news arrived that a Civilian Conservation Corps was coming to build the park, said Olson, Many women were expecting to see young, single men, not realizing that older, World War I veterans were on their way.
Despite that initial disappointment, the town came to embrace the workers, she said.
They arrived in New London on May 1, 1933, after having built the infrastructure for Gooseberry Park on the North Shore near Two Harbors. A blizzard greeted them in New London. They stayed for two weeks in the high school auditorium before moving on to the park, where they initially erected canvas tents. They built their barracks and a stone water tower in what today is the Lakeview campground.
What we know as Sibley State Park had been created in 1919. It was essentially a wildlife sanctuary and lacked any sort of infrastructure.
The VCC crew at Sibley was known as "The Three Bears Camp.'' They had adopted three, orphaned bear cubs while working on Gooseberry Park. Olson said they had been forbidden from bringing the cubs with them to their prairie and oak savannah destination, but a few snuck back under the cover of darkness at one point to retrieve one of the cubs.
They worked at Sibley State Park from 1933 to 1938 before moving on to build Itasca State Park. They built the roads and buildings, and laid the water and sewer lines to make Sibley State Park one of the state's most popular state parks.
One of the projects they took special pride in is the beach on Lake Andrew. They'd often gather at the end of summer work days to rake and clean the sand with the goal of making it "as soft as a fox's fur,'' according to accounts from the time.
While there are many accounts and photographs of the men during their time at Sibley, not much is known beyond that. "We don't know much about what happened to those men. We don't even know their names but I have their pictures and their smiles, and I enjoy that today,'' said Olson.
And by all measures, thousands of visitors continue to enjoy the infrastructure they developed. An account of the VCC on its 75th anniversary in 2008 estimated that the VCC invested $750,000 to develop Sibley State Park, an investment than in today's dollars would total well over $11 million.
Along with the lasting legacy of their work, Olson said there might just be one other reminder of their presence here so many years ago. Every spring there seems to be a report or two of a rogue bear roaming the countryside in northern Kandiyohi County. She likes to think it might just be a descendant of that orphaned cub that had been adopted by the men of VCC Company 1785.