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By Whitney Keith
Anyone who has taken a drive through the Mark Twain National Forest land in our area has probably noticed the fire towers sprinkled throughout the land.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was started as part of the New Deal in 1933. Between 1933 and 1942, 23 camps were established in the Mark Twain National Forest.
The CCC was a public work relief program for unemployed men age 18-24, providing unskilled manual labor related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural areas of the United States from 1933 to 1942.
As part of the New Deal legislation proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC was designed to provide relief for unemployed youth who had a hard time finding jobs during the Great Depression while implementing a general natural resource conservation program on public lands in every U.S. state.
The Mark Twain National Forest originally had 108 fire towers, some that were 100 feet tall and made of steel, while others were wooden or “crow’s nest” towers.
“The towers were strategically placed for interlocking view sheds,” said James Halpern, one of three shared service archaeologists for the MTNF.
Each 100-foot tower had a view of approximately 300 square miles.
Some of the remote towers had residences and outhouses that were built beside them so that the “towermen” and their families could stay there year-round.
“There were very specific site plans for these towers and residential sites, down to the landscaping around the residences,” Halpern noted.
Most of the steel towers came in kits and were installed by a small handful of companies,
“After the foundation was poured, it typically took 10 days to put up a tower,” Halpern said.
There are currently nine towers in the Mark Twain National Forest that are in use, and seven that could be used with some repairs, Halpern said.
“Five are used for mounting radio antennas,” he added.
Towers in this area include: Caney, Hercules, Blue Buck, Twin Knob, Lohmer, Pine View and Sugar Creek.
There were many side benefits to creating the MTNF and building the fire towers, including bringing telephone lines to many rural areas, building roads through many rural areas and many other local improvements.
The towers went out of regular use in the mid-1970s, when aircraft began being used to spot fires.
Aerial spotting is on the decline.
Most spotting is done by patrols. In some areas of the forest, fire towers are still used.
Some towers are loaned to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Halpern said the staff is currently developing an application to get the fire towers on the National Register of Historic Places.
Once the towers are accepted, they can be restored in a way that is true to their original design.
The fire season runs from fall to spring, and the staff at the Ava station stay busy thinning out brush, putting in fuel breaks, manning the towers and patrolling for fires.
Jess Register, the assistant fire management officer at the Ava station, said he was recently in a fire tower in the Ava area.
He said that when a officer is in the tower, they look for smoke in the area, locate where the fire is, and typically contact the land owner. They ensure that the fire is controlled and that necessary precautions have been taken to keep the fire from spreading.
The Ava-Cassville-Willow Springs station has five full-time fire control staff members and 20 others that help with fire control.
In the summer, they help the recreation staff, and some go on fire-fighting details in area of the country being his hard by wildfires.
A survey was done in the early days of the MTNF in Reynolds County about why people started fires in the forest around their property.
Some of the answers were humorous, including, “I don’t like to hear the leaves rustling under my feet when I’m walking in the woods.”
Halpern said other responses included the fact that letting brush grow up increases the fire hazard, which is a primary reason why the MTNF staff burn.
Interested parties are welcome to contact the Mark Twain National Forest for additional information.
Reflections is a weekly column exploring the history of Douglas County. Current topics include local festivals, school history and Douglas County residents who have a special talent. If you have an idea for an article, please call 417-683-4181 or e-mail email@example.com