This week marks the 83rd anniversary of the dedicatory ceremonies for Hungry Mother Park. On June 13 and June 14, 1936, Smyth County hosted what Mack Sturgill referred to as “one of the greatest events” in its history.
Many of us take this local treasure for granted, without understanding the events leading up to its construction. Thankfully, the details of Hungry Mother State Park’s history were compiled in Mack Sturgill’s book, “Hungry Mother: History and Legends.”
“Hungry Mother State Park” could have easily been named “Forest Lake State Park.” Lake Forest Inc. was granted a charter “for the purpose of engaging ‘in the business of furnishing amusement and recreation to the public,’ and other worthy objectives.” Lake Forest was built “on the waters of Hungry Mother Creek” and included a “recreational facility, a small lake, a bathhouse, a diving platform with diving board, a picnic area, and a dance pavilion over the waters of the lake.”
The opening of Lake Forest was reported in The Marion Democrat on June 3, 1930. It operated three years. The “ruins of Lake Forest lie under 20 feet of water near the middle of the lake. For many years, the Copenhaver log house, where meals were served for guests at Lake Forest, stood below Lake Shore Drive on the shore of Hungry Mother Lake, until it was demolished. Lake Forest, Inc., ceased to exist on December 29, 1933, when its corporate charter was revoked and annulled by order of the State Corporation Commission, thus making possible the construction of Forest Lake State Park at that location.”
So, how did “Forest Lake State Park” become “Hungry Mother State Park?” Apparently, the park only went by the name “Forest Lake” from September to October 1933. An article published in The Marion Democrat on Oct. 17, 1933, referred to the park as “Hungry Mother Park, at Marion.” Apparently, the name stirred up quite a controversy in our community. People wrote letters of objection.
After researching the debate over the naming of the park, Mack Sturgill noted the opinion of local attorney Ralph Repass. He maintained that the name “Hungry Mother State Park” was “a dang publicity stunt to attract attention.”
What we now affectionately know as Hungry Mother did not always exist. The construction of the park took considerable planning, sacrifice and manpower. The initial plans called for a 250-acre lake, 100 cabins, a camp for “youngsters and college groups,” a scenic roadway encircling the lake, a road that would lead to Mollie’s Knob, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and 40 miles of horseback trails.
“The 250-acre lake turned out to be only 108 acres; the 100 cabins were reduced to seven in 1936. The shoreline drive encircling the entire lake never became a reality, nor the road to the top of Molly’s Knob.”
“Three companies of Civilian Conservation Corps volunteers arrived in Marion on October 15, 1933, to begin work on Forest Lake State Park. The companies were not at full strength. There were only about 100 workers in all of them. After the long trip from Yellowstone National Park, those men from New York and New Jersey must have been exhausted when they went to pitch camp at Lake Forest, where they would locate temporarily until permanent barracks could be built. They had been engaged in building trails and retaining walls and planting trees and shrubs in their previous assignment at Yellowstone.
“Enrollees in the CCC program signed up for six months training, with the option to enlist again. Those young men were paid $1.00 a day. At the end of each month, $25.00 was sent home to help their parents who were on relief.”
“Each of the three CCC Camps would number 200 men, which meant that 600 young, unmarried men would be in the small mountain community of Southwest Virginia. The sociological effect of so many new residents in Smyth County — 600 at the Hungry Mother site, 200 already at Sugar Grove and 200 at Konnarock — probably occurred to only a few citizens of the town and county.”
An article in the Nov. 30, 1933 Smyth County News reported the impact of such a sudden increase in population. “Saturday night, Main Street in Marion looked like a scene from the days of ’49. Fights were plentiful and enthusiastic. However, in fairness to the CC boys, we must report that the best fist swinging of the evening was started not by the CC boys, but by the town boys. This considering there were some five or six hundred CC boys in town and possibly only 100 town boys, looked like very poor judgment.”
The living quarters (camps) at Hungry Mother each consisted of “five large barracks buildings; a kitchen/mess hall, administration building, a bath, a wash house, and quarters for the officers and park foremen. Recreation buildings for each company were built a few months later.
“The first important project at the Hungry Mother site of the new state park in Smyth County was the building of the dam. State hydraulic engineer, Lee Williamson, was placed in charge of its construction.
“By early April 1934, the big earthen dam was taking shape, under the direction of G.T. Walker, engineer in charge of the actual construction. When completed, the enormous terraced dam contained 100,000 cubic yards of packed clay. The dam was 600 feet in length, excluding the width of the spillway. It was 44 feet high, with a maximum thickness at the base, of 250 feet.
“The CCC camp which was built just below the dam was abandoned after the dam was completed in late 1934, or early 1935. On Thursday, August 8, 1935, Companies 1249 and 1252 were transferred from Hungry Mother State Park to camps in New York State.
“Speaking for the entire community, Robert Lane Anderson, editor of the Marion papers, in an article entitled, ‘Adieu, Kind Friends, Adieu,’ said goodbye to the departing officers and men, and paid tribute to them for the fine work they had done for the area.”
The work of these young men was praised by Major Arthur S. Bell at a monthly meeting of the Methodist Men’s Club on April 24, 1936. He said, “Hungry Mother is ready to open on time because for weeks last winter, when other camps were not working because of the extremely bad weather conditions, these boys braved temperatures of zero and below for eight hours a day, to build the new highway with picks and shovels, in order that it be completed on time to let the lake fill.”
“He also revealed that the CCC boys had voluntarily given up part of their milk and food allowance in order that a daily hot lunch could be sent to 60 underprivileged children at Sugar Grove High School.”
Additional details of life in the CCC Camps and the effects on Marion will be shared in the next String of Pearls column. If you have stories or photos that you would like to share, I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.