If Indian Lodge—inside Davis Mountains State Park north of Big Bend National Park—seems remote today, imagine what it was like in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt dispatched two companies of Depression-era youths to carve a park and retreat out of donated acreage, including land in Keesey and Limpia canyons.
Skilled labor and materials shortages were endemic. What’s more, bad planning soon earned Indian Lodge, just outside Fort Davis, a reputation as the white elephant of all the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects across the United States. Seventy-six years later, however, Indian Lodge is considered the crown jewel of the Texas parks system. It just goes to show that some great projects take a long time to prove themselves.
Indian Lodge, originally called Indian Village, is a romanticized adaptation of a pueblo village with Arts and Crafts architectural detailing by architects J.B. Roberts, Arthur Fehr and William Calhoun Caldwell. It has rounded, whitewashed adobe walls, flat roofs, myriad stair-stepped levels turning this way and that and small, shaded, semi-private terraces. The rooms are by no means luxurious, but Indian Lodge has the feel of a lost world in a valley at 5,200 feet elevation surrounded by foothills and desert flora and fauna.
The lodge was officially completed in 1935, not counting such major oversights as the lack of hot water and electricity and 17 leaking roofs that required closures and additional construction. These sobering details come from historian Lonn Taylor of Fort Davis, who delved into National Park Service (NPS) papers and issues of the Alpine Avalanche for details. A letter from NPS Inspector George Nason to his superior on March 23, 1935, confessed, “I am writing this letter so that you will know that this white elephant is practically ready for burial.”
Nonetheless, Davis Mountains State Park and Indian Lodge were dedicated on July 4, 1935, with state legislators and other dignitaries in attendance. The less-than-reverential Alpine Avalanche quoted local resident Al Kensey as saying, “You sure ought to see that Indian Village just as quick as you can. It’s liable to fall down if you wait too long.”
The 400 minimally paid CCC workers (ages 17 to 25), who each earned $30 a month, were largely country boys with little construction experience. The primary purpose of the project was to stimulate the economy and put people to work. The workers lived in tents as they built fireplaces and picnic tables and strenuously carved out a 5-mile scenic loop that parkgoers still relish today.
The youths no doubt had the muscle to supply hewn pine timbers and roof supports for the lodge, but the finer points of building were not their strong suit. As for the lack of a hot water system, the architects must be blamed. They simply had not designed one. According to a paper Taylor delivered to the Texas State Historical Association, “The first manager tried to explain the defect away by telling visitors that Indians did not take hot baths.” Visitors did not find the answer satisfactory, so hot water pipes were installed in 1936.
Part of the problem was that the federal grant for the Indian Lodge project (which eventually swelled to more than $50,000 because of cost overruns) was one of the first CCC grants, and the money arrived before a decent governing structure could be set up. It didn’t help any that Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson was governor (serving after her husband, James “Pa” Ferguson, was impeached for misapplication of public funds). The Fergusons were known more for political favoritism than for bureaucratic finesse.
Some of the more successful concepts of the Indian Lodge still grace the buildings today, such as the wooden doors and distinctive furniture made at a mill established by the CCC at Bastrop State Park in Central Texas. After a first round of early American-style furniture was rejected, architect Caldwell personally designed a second set with a Spanish Colonial Revival theme and hand-carved designs that may have been derived from Navajo rugs. Almost 200 pieces of the original furniture can be found in the 15 original rooms and the lobby area, both of which are now supplemented by 24 newer rooms, a swimming pool, a restaurant and a large assembly room.
For more information about Indian Lodge, call (432) 426-3254 or go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
Kaye Northcott is retired editor of Texas Co-op Power.