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December 21, 2014

Museums enhance Cheaha experience

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Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 9:36 am | Updated: 9:39 am, Wed Aug 27, 2014.

Those of us who live in Northeast Alabama are fortunate to have two great museums atop the lovely Mount Cheaha.

Recently, I visited the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum for the first time. Also, I checked on the Walter Farr Indian Museum that I had seen just before it was completed a year or so ago. Both museums are full of information that all local residents should see and know.

At the CCC museum, representative Jennifer Gay was on duty. She is a gracious, informative woman who was especially excited that I, a local person, had family members who were once members of both the Works Progress Administration (WPA, the CCC’s forerunner) and the CCC. She looked up names of family members for me in a database.

The museum is located in the lower part of what is called Bunker Tower, a building on the apex of Mt. Cheaha. Members of the CCC built the tower in the 1930s for the purposes of spotting forest fires and for observing the views from Alabama’s highest mountain. The museum was previously opened between the late 80s and early 90s, but funding problems shut it down, along with concern over the need to preserve the historical photographs. Now the photographs are protected against ultra-violet rays. Recently, many other improvements were made. The best part of the re-opening is that the CCC Museum is accessible to visitors on Friday through Tuesday of each week from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The staff at Mount Cheaha hopes that funding remains in place to keep the museum open year round.

I read with interest the fact-filled graphic displays telling the origin of the CCC, which is the only civilian-related organization in history whose members were trained by the military. The camp program, which was established throughout the United States, was started when President Franklin Roosevelt created it in 1933 to give jobless men work after the Great Depression. (The program ended in 1942.)

At Cheaha, the CCC built the road leading to the mountaintop, according to Gay. “They also built all of our cabins,” she said, “our stone pavilions, one of the staff houses, Bunker Tower, Bald Rock Group Lodge (the original restaurant and lodge), a stone reservoir to collect water for the park, the bathhouse at our lake, and the seven-acre lake.”

Gay, who works only part time, has a special interest in Cheaha. She grew up visiting the park. It was there that she met the man who would become her husband. He is Justin Howard and is now the park ranger and assistant superintendent. When Cheaha Park Superintendent Tammy Powers, whose idea it was to reopen the museum, needed help pulling together the final aspects of the museum, she turned to Gay who said she was delighted to help the staff see the results of all of their work. The museum reopened in June with the assistance and blessing of the Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein.

On Friday, as I entered the front door of the museum, I ran my hand across an old cot and nearby bed frame, both of which were used at the Cheaha campsite. I learned that the primitive campsite not far from the lake reopened at the same time as the museum. I viewed many tools used by CCC members, who were young men of about 17 years old. Also, I saw many items used by them, such as eating utensils, grooming items, and uniforms. Also, there are several photographs on display.

Gay said some of the young men were actually boys younger than 17 whose parents assured the CCC officials that their sons were of age. Gay said it made her sad to think of their desperation. The CCC program was the only chance their sons would have to obtain a square meal and learn a trade. Also, the workers were told they had to send the bulk of their earnings back to their families.

“It especially warms my heart,” said Gay, “when visitors tell me about their loved ones who were members of the CCC. A woman visited recently who was ninety years old. On the wall of the museum, she found a framed CCC enrollment form that had been filled out for her father.”

The staff encourages donations of other CCC items by anyone else that had family members who were in the CCC, and the staff is appreciative to all of those who have donated items. Call 1-800-252-7275.

Also, there are two books available for purchase telling more about the history of the CCC. Both are available at the Cheaha store.

Both museums further enhance the Cheaha experience, a place to hike, see lovely views, kayak, rappel, swim, fish, eat, and spend the night. The hospitality of the staff at Cheaha also makes a visit there worthwhile, evidenced by my experience in meeting and talking with Gay and meeting with Powers and other staff members earlier in the day. By the way, Cheaha’s Chili Cookoff is on Sept. 27, which would be a fine time to visit.

Email Sherry at sherrykug@hotmail.com

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