By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
CASSVILLE, Mo. —
Whenever Carson McMurtrey returned to his hometown of Stella to visit friends and family, he tried to include a trip to Roaring River State Park.
The park is famous for its trout fishing, but McMurtrey didn’t care about that.
“I always looked for my building blocks,” he said.
McMurtrey, now a resident of Bakersfield, Calif., is believed to be one of the last living members of Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1713, which spent 1933 to 1939 improving the park that had just been acquired by the state of Missouri a few years earlier.
In fact, McMurtrey and Noman Nichols, who lives near Jane, may be all that’s left of the company that built the cabins, lodge, roads, trails, hatchery and more.
‘The greatest thing’
Both men said the CCC was a lifesaver during a tough time.
“The future was not too bright: no job, no money, no home, no father, no experience. Just a farm boy with no farm,” McMurtrey, now 93, wrote in a recent letter, describing conditions during the Great Depression. “God bless President (Franklin) Roosevelt who saw the need and did something about it.”
In a phone interview, McMurtrey shared more details about a life that started on a 120-acre farm on the line between McDonald and Newton counties.
Born Feb. 14, 1919, he was the last of eight children; his father had died the previous November in the world’s worst flu epidemic on record.
Despite living through the Dust Bowl years and having a tough time with crops and the family’s 15 milk cows, McMurtrey remembers his childhood as a good one.
But when graduation came around for his high school class of 12, jobs were scarce. His mother had, like many from the area, headed west to California.
“My time in the CCC was the greatest thing that could have happened,” he said.
His company’s duty, he said, “was to prepare Roaring River State Park for the future as a landmark for Missouri to be proud of. The area was beautiful. We were to construct some buildings, pathways, etc.”
Good pay, good food
Nichols also was born in 1919, and he turned 93 on Jan. 2. The first of 12 children, he attended school through the eighth grade near Jane, and he worked on the family’s strawberry farm.
“There weren’t any other choices,” said Nichols, who joined the CCC at Roaring River in 1936. “No jobs to speak of. We were glad to have the work.”
He later was joined at the park by his brother, Norman; another brother, Leonard, worked for the CCC at Shell Knob.
The pay was good, Nichols said: $30 per month. He sent $25 home to his parents and kept $5 for personal needs.
“The food was outstanding; although some would complain, not me,” McMurtrey said.
Dressed in leftover U.S. Army clothing from World War I, the company was issued pants for large men with 40- to 42-inch waists.
“I was a 29-inch waist, so ropes kept everything hanging in place,” McMurtrey said. “The length was all the same, so you rolled up or down to suit.”
Nichols, too, was of slight frame.
“You had to be 110 pounds to work there, but I was 105,” he said. “The guy who signed me up fudged a little and said I was 110.”
Nichols’ job was to drive a 1935 Chevrolet dump truck loaded with freshly harvested stone from the quarry to the chipping yard, then take the chipped stone blocks to the buildings.
CCC members weren’t allowed to have cars of their own in the camp. Nichols recalled walking with his brother and another camp member up Dry Hollow to Washburn Prairie and then on to Pineville one weekend in 1938 to watch the filming of the Jesse James movie.
“By gosh, we were young and we were tough, so to speak,” he said.
McMurtrey, meanwhile, recalled walking to Cassville and back — about 16 miles round trip — on several occasions for dances at the Hounditch Inn. Otherwise, time was spent in camp.
“At the camp we had card games, pool tables. There were things to do,” he said. “Once in a while, people would come in from the school; there’d be girls and dancing. All good clean fun.”
Mondays through Fridays, McMurtrey was tasked with harvesting stone building blocks for construction projects.
“The area was perfect: huge slabs of rock in the hillsides of a perfect size for making blocks that were similar to our cinder blocks we use today for building,” he said.
One man worked a sledgehammer and one man held a heavy-duty chisel as they cut the stone for the buildings.
“I became a real muscleman,” McMurtrey said.
‘My name on it’
Labor by the CCC paid off. The park now lures nearly three-quarters of a million anglers, hikers and campers each year. Many of the buildings the crews helped build have been put on the National Register of Historic Places.
McMurtrey, who was eager to join his family in California when his work at Roaring River ended in 1937, wasn’t through building.
He launched a successful automotive parts business called Southern Auto Supply, with 50 locations throughout California. It eventually would merge with CarQuest. Bakersfield now includes a road named McMurtrey Avenue, and the city’s McMurtrey Aquatic Center, which opened in 2004, was funded by a sizable contribution from the family.
Nichols, meanwhile, worked at Roaring River until the CCC left there. He then worked a year with the CCC helping build Pershing State Park in northern Missouri before returning home.
He settled on the family strawberry farm and ran the Sims general store for 30 years.
At some point — Nichols doesn’t recall when — he took his family to see what the crews had accomplished at Roaring River State Park. “I was proud of it,” he said.
Through the years, McMurtrey also has returned to Roaring River with his family.
“Whenever I see a building, I say, ‘I’m not too sure, but maybe some of those have got my name on it.’”
Building state parks
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT signed an executive order that formed the Civilian Conservation Corps on April 5, 1933. By June 1933, the first CCC camps were established in three Missouri state parks: Sam A. Baker, Meramec and Roaring River. Within a year, 4,000 men would be employed on 40,000 acres of Missouri park lands.