Friday, August 15, 2008

Remembering the "Gopher Gang"

Depression Era Vision, Determination and Hard Labor Made Florida Caverns a Success

By Dale Cox


Marianna – People by the thousands pass through Florida Caverns State Park each year, but few realize that perhaps as remarkable as the beautiful scenery is the fact that this major area tourist attraction became a reality during some of the darkest years of American history.

The Great Depression, brought on by the economic collapse of 1929, was felt from coast to coast and the already poor rural areas of the South were particularly hard hit. By the 1930s employment had all but vanished, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and hunger and misery stalked the land. It is sometimes in the midst of such hardship, however, that great ideas take root and it was during the Great Depression that Dr. J.C. Patterson of Malone gave Jackson County an unforgettable gift.

Dr. Patterson was fascinated with caves and during a visit to Luray Caverns in Virginia he began to ponder the possibility that a similar attraction might be developed in the beautiful caverns north of Marianna. The idea must have seemed farfetched during such a time of economic distress, but in 1935 the doctor invested his own funds to purchase 494 acres forming the heart of today’s state park.

Tom Yancy of the Marianna Chamber of Commerce quickly realized that Patterson was onto something and he soon joined the doctor, with support from other chamber members, in a drive to encourage the state to take over the project. Yancy and Patterson both realized that the creation of a state park at the site would mean construction jobs for local residents and tourism dollars for decades to come.

Florida’s governor and legislature agreed and Florida Caverns became the state’s seventh state park. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp Number SP-12 was established on the original Patterson parcel and construction work began on the park during the late 1930s.

It is remarkable to think today that the massive cavern now known as the “Tour Cave” at the park was completely unknown to Patterson and his fellow promoters. An opening was discovered beneath the roots of a fallen tree and exploration revealed the beautiful caves and formations that have delighted hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years.

Much of the work on developing the cave was done by a group of men known as the “Gopher Gang.” CCC workers, they moved tons of mud, ran electrical wiring, carved steps and passage ways.

Three different companies of CCC workers labored to build the park. One company was comprised of veterans from World War I, the second was comprised of African Americans from Florida and the third was made up of “junior members.”

Florida Caverns State Park today is one of the most beautiful public places in the South. The tourism it generates produces a major economic boost for Jackson County and the determination, inspiration and labors of the people that worked to create it more than 70 years ago stand today as a spectacular memorial to human endeavor during a time of great suffering.

To learn more about Florida Caverns State Park and its history and historic sites, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/floridacaverns.

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