The New Deal in Vail
In 1935, little Shirley Temple was singing “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and cheering up a country devastated by the Great Depression. Meanwhile in the White House, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was busy crafting a restorative economic recipe of his own for the nation. It was a hearty bowl of Alphabet Soup, chock full of federally funded programs that would nourish economically stagnant communities across the country. It was known as FDR’s Alphabet Soup because of the 3 and 4-letter acronyms for the programs.
FDR had instituted many of the programs within the first 100 days of his administration, but there was always room for more in the soup with letter combinations like: CCC, WPA, PWPA, FERA, FDIC, NYA, SSA, NIRA, FHA, RA, and TVA. Each acronym represented a federal government program designed to reach every corner of the country, not with free cash, but with work. These programs turned talk of revolution into hope for the future, including right here in the Vail community.
In Vail, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are still shaping our landscape. CCC Camps sprang up across the nation including at Colossal Cave, what is now Corona de Tucson at the Beach Ranch, at St. David, Madera Canyon, and in Tucson. Frank ‘Pop’ Schmidt, who leased and operated Colossal Cave at that time, had dedicated his life and many skills to the preservation and enhancement of Colossal Cave since 1922. He understood the benefits that bringing a New Deal CCC Camp to Colossal Cave would bring, both to the Cave itself and to the young men ‘enrollees’ who would gain life changing skills.
In 1934 ‘Pop’ relinquished his lease so that a CCC Camp, SP-10-A, could be established to bring improvements to the Cave and build campgrounds. Enrollees worked on projects ranging from erosion control check dams to installing steps, lights, handrails, and constructing the massive hand-hewn limestone buildings at the entrance to Colossal Cave.
Many local young men including, Chico Bejarano, Ramon Figueroa, Henry Dojaquez, Ramon Romero, Clarence Lundquist, Angel Vindiola, and Everett Warner enrolled in the CCC and benefited from its military structure and training which included learning trade and technical skills like masonry, electrical, adobe making, blacksmithing, typing, and the opportunity to attend classes in the evening to complete high school or learn things like photography or silver smithing. This educational investment was extremely important both to the future of young enrollees and to our country.
Nationally, the average education level CCC enrollees had attained at enrollment was 3rd grade. One of the Vail School District’s guiding principles today is that ‘Education is a Community Effort’, and even during those dark days of the Depression the Vail School District was engaging with the community. In August of 1936, the Vail School hosted the first Tucson CCC Sub-District track and field meet. Young men from four different camps competed at wrestling, boxing, ping pong, horseshoes, tennis, and various track and field events. Vail’s own local Camp, SP-10-A from Colossal Cave was the very proud overall event winner.
Many enrollees from Colossal Cave’s Camp SP-10-A recalled how Frank ‘Pop’ Schmidt, Cave Manager and caretaker, was a mentor who made a lasting impression on their lives. Ben Hedges recalled his time in the CCC fondly, “I will never forget the wonderful treatment and association I had with Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt. They taught me many things – logic, persona interests and confidence as if I had been a member of the family. ‘Pop’s logic was an asset for me in my Army years and I think it helped me go from draftee PVT. to Lt. Col. in 17 years.”
The New Deal programs and their emphasis on working together to rebuild the country and to invest in people who faced economic hardships created a generation who refused to give up. Their physical legacy continues to benefit us today in the foundation of our local and national infrastructure, environmental restoration, and recreational amenities, like Colossal Cave and its campgrounds, La Selvilla and El Bosquecito here in Vail. Over 105 mud-stock tanks built for local ranchers still dot our landscape, miles of wire fencing still defines our rangeland, and tourists continue to come from around the world to visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The New Deal generation, whose work pulled the nation out of its economic collapse, went on to mobilize and win a two-front world war, continues to impact our community and the nation. Their legacy can be summed up in simple, but powerful words: the motto of the CCC. “We Can Take It.” Extremely few New Deal participants remain, but their stories may still be found in the memories of their children, now the elders in your family. Ask them to share those stories with you!
The New Deal in Arizona, a statewide map highlighting Arizona’s New Deal projects is available online, or a paper, folded map is available upon request for a $10.00 donation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By J.J. Lamb
J.J. Lamb is President & CEO of Vail Preservation Society. A U of A graduate, her family has lived in Vail since 1971. She was named an Arizona Culturekeeper in 2011 and an Arizona Friend of the Humanities in 2020.