|Cedars of Lebanon celebrates its roots|
|Wednesday, September 22, 2010|
By KEN BECK
When the park opened in April 1937, it was celebrated with great fanfare that included a big parade and beauty contest, and why not, the park was the largest employee in the county. In fact, the name of the park at that time was Wilson County Cedar Forest.
Today, some half a million visitors come annually to camp in the park, hike its trails and observe the largest remaining stand of red cedars in the U.S. The forest is not of true cedar trees but junipers. The original cedar forest had been logged out for the pencil industry.
Created during the Great Depression as a federal reclamation project to 9,000 acres of land in Wilson County, the park promised to bring jobs and money to an area plagued with barren land previously deforested and unsuitable for crops. The land was purchased from more than 60 local farm families, some of whom were resettled, and jobs were given to 300 employees to replant and develop the park for recreation and conservation.
“The resettlement program did not fare so well, but the reforestation efforts succeeded. When the forestry workers began the project of getting cedars to grow here, nobody had done that before,” said Ranger and Park Interpretive Specialist Buddy Ingram, who has been at the park since 1975. A Lebanon native, his grandparents had a farmhouse within hollering distance of the park’s nature center.
The 1,200-acre park features cedar glades, karst topography with loads of limestone and a lengthy cave system that includes Jackson and Hermit caves. Beside the juniper cedars there are post oak, ash, hickory, black oak and red oak trees and 19 rare species of wildflowers
The oft-overlooked nature center boasts exhibits and such live critters as snakes, honeybees and turtles. Four trails beckon hikers, and the riding stables entice equestrians. (The stables are open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays through Nov. 15. Reservations are suggested.) And there are 117 campsites.
“Camping is probably the biggest thing at the park,” Ingram said. “We will fill up our campground on holidays and spring and fall weekends. We have lots of family reunions. You can stay in cabins as a getaway, and the history and the culture creates this whole atmosphere because you’re somewhere unique.”
As for unique structures, that would be the Ranger Dick Huddleston Cedar Forest Lodge, named after the late ranger and forestry services director. The building of arts and crafts design was constructed of native cedar and limestone along with some of the materials that came from the houses of the farmers who moved away. Most of Saturday’s exhibits will be in or around the lodge.
“W.P.A. Day is a day to recognize the establishment of the park and some of the past families that the land was bought from and the historical significance of the park and the period of time and what the people did back then,” Ingram said.
“We will recreate blacksmithing and rail splitting, have a two-man crosscut saw contest, spinning and weaving demonstrations, cook pinto beans and have a soup line and a fur-trapping demonstration.
There will be traditional music from 83-year-old Roy Harper, a guitar player and singer of ballads, and there will be some string bands playing old-time, pre-bluegrass music.
“W.P.A. Days is a semi-family reunion for people who had ties to the land before the park,” the ranger said. “For some people, this is the old home place.”
For Ware Ricketts, 82, the state park was home and center of his universe. He moved to the park with his mother when he was 10 in 1938 and lived here until 1948. “This world was magnificent, this building was beautiful,” said Ricketts, referring to the lodge, in which he and his mom lived from the summer of 1938 into the spring of 1939. “I couldn’t have asked for a better way to grow up. It was a wonderful experience.
“Essentially, I grew up in the park. My mother came there on a three-month W.P.A. appointment to be the recreational director for the park. She took the job because it was a great increase in pay. It was supposed to be just for the summer. At the end of that summer, they renewed her period of employment for another three months. At the end of the year, the state offered her the job as recreation director.
“The W.P.A. performed most of the work. They built the lodge, built the picnic shelters, built the cabins. The federal employees who were working there were under the W.P.A. umbrella.”
Ricketts and his mother had been promised a new cabin, but it wasn’t ready. He recalled, “We had to stay somewhere, so we stayed in attic of the lodge that first summer and winter. The summer wasn’t bad, but winter was cold.
“For a kid of 10, the major thing for me, compared to the little town we came from (Clifton, Tenn.), was that there was a swimming pool, the lodge, picnic grounds and the caves. The whole area was a wonderful place to explore.
“For me, one of the great traumas was that I was not a farm boy, and I found myself in a little country school (Major School). I don’t know that my mother understood the psychology of sending a boy off in shorts, but Dick Huddleston finally told her, ‘Miss May, you got to buy that boy some overalls and plaid shirts.’”
Ricketts said that before World War II, most of the summer employees came from Watertown, Murfreesboro and Lebanon. When he was 14, he became a concession attendant and at 16 worked as a lifeguard. He remembers that in 1942 during the period of military maneuvers, he kept the girls away from the swimming pool as the GIs were allowed to skinny-dip in the park pool.
“The most important thing from my personal viewpoint was the window on the world that living in the park gave a young kid from a small village in Tennessee… We had all kinds of experiences, and when people would come out from Nashville to organize workshops, I kept busy as an errand runner but had the opportunity to see all this going on.”
That included lots of craft classes, from weaving rugs and placemats with a loom to working with copper and carving and making furniture from cedar.
“We did wood carving with slabs of cedar. As members of the archery club, we had a shop near the Jackson Cave ravine where we built our own bows. We had a good workshop in a tool shed that saw a lot of furniture made. I would give my right arm to have one of those cedar spool beds or cabinets,” said Ricketts, who does have the bow he crafted.
After graduating from Lebanon High, he earned degrees in English and history at Tennessee Tech and spent his career working with computers in the dating processing industry. His mother, whom everyone at the park referred to as Ma Ricketts, went to Standing Stone State Park in 1948 and from 1950 to1960 worked as a troubleshooter for the state office, inspecting almost every state park.
Now living in Mt. Juliet, Ricketts raised his children in Dayton, Ohio, but he shared his childhood at Cedars of Lebanon State Park with them via vacations.
“I brought my children there to camp from the time they were born. We came several summers, and they would bring their friends. So I did in effect show them where I grew up and the cabin I lived in,” he said. “I probably get out there to the park twice a month, just to drive through. It’s not the same park, of course. The new pool is very nice but it’s not the same pool I remember. And the (original) two log cabins were very primitive in my day, but now they have kitchens, air conditioning and carpeted floors,” Ricketts reminisced.
“A lot of people around there will tell you that their grandfather helped build the park. That and the Lebanon Woolen Mill were about the only two places that anyone could go to work after they finished school before WW II.”
Those were the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, and those were the days of the W.P.A., which gave many a man and woman a job and kept their families from going without three squares a day. Ken Beck may be contacted at