Latino Heritage in South Dakota and the Civilian Conservation Corps

I am having a blast at my internship at Jewel Cave right now. I love leading tours and informing people about all the beautiful formations we have at Jewel Cave. However, as I looked for inspiration for my art project, I conducted historical research to find a Latino heritage connection to Jewel Cave or its surrounding area. If there’s one thing I learned in grad school, there’s always a story out there. Even near the closest town, Custer, with a population of about 2,000 people, I felt the folds of the historical records hid those with Latino heritage. I know our park has a log cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and that Latino Americans benefited from programs like the CCC, so I started there.

In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt started programs like the CCC and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to employ young Americans during the Great Depression. These jobs were primarily manual labor and supported the National Park Service and its conservation efforts. Across the country, the CCC program targeted young men, including Latino Americans.
Entering the 1930s, Mexican immigrants began to move further North in search of jobs, finding steady work along railroad companies, such as the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railways (ATSF). The railroad companies’ consistent work led to a rise in Kansas’ Mexican American population when the Great Depression began. During this economic struggle, these Mexican Americans took advantage of the CCC program and enrolled, grateful for an opportunity to support their families.

While research failed to find anybody with Latino heritage at Jewel Cave’s Camp (NP-1), I was successful with Camp Custer (F-12), about 8 miles northwest of Custer and 13 miles north of Jewel Cave. Through my research, I found five separate enrollees who were Mexican, all coming from eastern Kansas to work at Camp Custer. Mexican Americans (like Cruz Sanchez, Manuel A. Vargas, Leo R. Gonzales, Escolastico Gutierrez, and Julian Gutierrez) were willing to travel across state lines to secure work with the CCC.
There isn’t much remaining of Camp Custer today. There are at least two cabins present, the Sky View Cabin and the Pine Crest Cabin, which now serve as private rentals. Besides that, the only remains from the other camp buildings are their foundations. Nevertheless, based on photos from the CCC Museum in South Dakota, I know Camp Custer will be the focus of my art project. I also hope to share my research with those at the museum, allowing them to share information about these Latino enrollees. Without this internship, its art project, or Jewel Cave’s connection to the CCC, I doubt I would have ever encountered this hidden story of Mexican Americans in South Dakota.

Jewel Cave National Monument’s Historic Cabin, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, photo credit to Gregory Sosnicki


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