New mission for Depression-era camp

Vegetable garden
Samantha Sellon, 15, of Bemidji, waters plants in a vegetable garden created by young people during an eight-week pilot program at Camp Rabideau.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

An old Civilian Conservation Corps work camp in the Chippewa National Forest is getting a facelift. The Corps, also known as the CCC, was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, designed to put people to work during the Great Depression.

From 1935 to 1942, Camp Rabideau near Blackduck was home to hundreds of young men. Now, the camp is being refurbished for a new mission. It's being turned into a year-round learning center for kids and young adults.

The idea first started to take hold in 2005, when a group of people on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation got together to try to find solutions to a wave of crime and violence that had swept the region.

Dan Evans, the coordinator of the Camp Rabideau project, says the effort was born out of the tragedy of the 2005 shooting at Red Lake High School, which left 10 people dead, as well as other troubles.

"They had five or six homicides on the Leech Lake reservation. It was a different world in 2005 than it is nowadays," said Evans.

Those early meetings resulted in partnerships between the tribe, government agencies, school districts and nonprofit groups. Several foundations provided more than $100,000 to develop a strategy.

During the Great Depression, hundreds of CCC workers lived in Army-style barracks at Camp Rabideau. Crews worked on a number of public works projects, including road building, tree planting and cleaning up damaged forests in northern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service was looking for new uses for the deteriorating Civilian Conservation Corps buildings at Camp Rabideau.

The result of all those discussions is the newly formed nonprofit Rabideau Conservation Academy and Learning Center, and the first dozen or so teenagers from the area are spending part of their summer working at the old CCC camp.

Not far from the camp barracks, the teens tend to an impressive garden they planted themselves. Samantha Sellon, 15, is watering cabbage plants. There are also rows of cauliflower, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, squash and cantaloupe. Sellon says she's learned a lot from the experience.

"A garden teaches you how to grow things, to learn about fertilizer and learning ... not to water the plants too much," said Sellon. "To teach you that you can make your own food or pollinate your own plants."

Refurbished classroom
This refurbished building was used as a classroom for hundreds of young men in the 1930s and '40s during the Great Depression. Today it's an interpretive center showing the history of the camp.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The teens get paid for their work as part of the eight-week pilot program at Camp Rabideau. It's designed to build confidence and create pathways to jobs and higher education. Participants come from low-income households in Cass and Beltrami counties.

The kids have been working hard this summer. They surrounded their garden with a fence they made out of tree saplings. They built a 50-foot-long greenhouse.

They did a lot of painting and refurbishing work on the Depression-era buildings nearby. And they transplanted hundreds of ladys slippers for the U.S. Forest Service, to protect the flowers from planned road construction.

Samantha Sellon says the work made her stronger, and revealed talents she didn't know she had.

"Actually, it's made me change what I want to go to college for. I now want to go to college for forestry," said Sellon. "I like being outside rather than being cooped up in an office."

Coordinator Dan Evans
Dan Evans is coordinator at Camp Rabideau. Evans says the goal is to turn the camp into a year-round center that would offer a variety of programs focusing on kids and young adults.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Randy Finn, deputy director of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, chairs the academy board. He says it's all a work in progress, but the dream is to turn Rabideau back into the sort of place it was during the Great Depression --- a place where young people learn to work hard and gain new skills.

"I see it as maybe a base for Job Corps, AmeriCorps. I see it as maybe a base for Minnesota Conservation Corps programs, our own language immersion for our own tribal people," said Finn. "I see it as an outdoor learning center, and perhaps even at some point in time having it be an alternative learning center, and functioning ... almost as a charter type school."

Right now, the old CCC barracks aren't in any shape to house young people overnight. But that's going to change. The U.S. Forest Service recently received $1.5 million to complete weatherization and other renovations at Rabideau.

That's good news for Mary Nipp, a historian for the U.S. Forest Service. Nipp's grandfather was a CCC worker in the 1930s, and she thinks he might have worked at this very camp. Nipp says it's exciting to see Rabideau come to life again after so many idle years.

"It's kind of like watching a cocoon open up and a butterfly emerging," said Nipp. "We're not quite open completely yet, or we're not flying yet. But it's getting there, and to see kids here again -- it's been silent for so long."

A new group of young workers will arrive at Camp Rabideau next month. Full restoration of the old buildings will be completed by 2011.

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