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Historic Cabins In Shelby Forest Falling Into Disrepair

Some want to save New Deal-era group campsite.

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It could be the perfect set for a horror film.

A rustic old lodge cabin is situated along a steep bluff deep in the woods. Its tan paint and natural wood is chipping away. Some of its windows are cracked or busted out. The lodge is surrounded by smaller cabins, which are also falling into disrepair. A few of them have literally crumbled into the autumn-leaf-covered earth, with only their roofs and parts of windows sticking out of the ground.

That's the scene at the Mississippi River Group Camp at Meeman-Shelby Forest. The group camp, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, has been closed to campers for about 12 years, and since then, no maintenance has been done to preserve the cabins.

But one local man is trying to raise awareness about the historical significance of the campsite, and he's hoping some environmental or preservation groups will step in and offer to help the state fund the campsite's repair.

"It's not just important because it's old or because Depression-era guys built it by hand. It's also the political and social history. It's from a time when politicians were bolder and had a vision of wanting to help people," said Lance Blevins, who has been speaking out about the site as of late, in the hopes of stirring up interest.

The Mississippi River Group Camp is one of many such campsites constructed by out-of-work men in the 1930s, thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's CCC program under the New Deal.

"They called it 'three hots and a flop' because they were out of work, and they got three hot meals and a place to sleep," Blevins said. "My granddad worked for them when he was out of work. He worked for $1 a day building roads, and they kept 75 cents of his dollar to send back to his family."

Each CCC camp ground across the country was built with a similar set-up — central dining hall, first aid cabin, lodge cabins, bunk cabins, and a swimming pool.

Above: People using the group camp in its heyday; Below: Lodge cabin in disrepair today - TENNESSEE STATE ARCHIVES/BIANCA PHILLIPS
  • Tennessee State Archives/Bianca Phillips
  • Above: People using the group camp in its heyday; Below: Lodge cabin in disrepair today
flyby_groupcamp_now.jpg

Because the campsite was constructed in the 1930s, the stones used for the dining hall and lodge cabin fireplaces were cut by hand. The bunk beds, which still sit in many of the abandoned cabins, are made of solid oak.

When contacted about the site, Eric Ward, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the state is currently exploring options to save some of the dilapidated structures, but he said no decisions had been made yet.

In St. Louis, a group of volunteers, including members of the local Sierra Club, convinced the state of Missouri to begin restoration on their CCC campsite in 2012.

"Tennessee State Parks is always open to conversations with people or groups who may be interested in preserving historical sites, especially those that exist on state park properties," Ward said.

Old black-and-white photos in the Tennessee State Archives show the campsite (and the pool, which was built a few years after the cabins) bustling with life. The cabins were grouped into separate areas for men and women and were often used by scouts and church groups. An old National Park Service newsletter from May 1939 said the Shelby Forest campsite was getting the most of use out of 12 camps that were compared at the time.

Allison Hancock, who helps organize an annual womens-only camping retreat called Daughters of the Moon, was among the last group of campers to use the site before it closed in the early 2000s.

"By the time we started having events there, the place was already run down," Hancock said. "The main hall was in good shape, but the cabins that were still standing had big holes in the screens and places where the floors were falling in."

Today, Hancock's group and many others that once held their events at the Mississippi River Group Camp use the cabins at nearby Piersol Group Camp, also in Shelby Forest. Those cabins were built in 1978, and Ward confirmed that the state performs regular maintenance on that site.

But Blevins is holding out hope that the Mississippi River Group Camp will see new life again someday.

"Bike riders want to extend a greenline from Memphis to Shelby Forest. I can envision a day when Shelby Forest is connected by a greenline to Shelby Farms," Blevins said. "It seems a shame to let the hard work of the CCCs rot away when it is sitting in such a great spot."

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