Back in the days when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was busy with construction projects around the United States, several fire lookout towers and accompanying complexes of buildings were erected on forested lands in Missouri.
While the towers may still be a relatively familiar sight, only two of the complexes remain in their entirety – one in Dent County near Salem and the other in Texas County, on Highway 17 just north of Roby. An effort is under way to gain historic status for the latter.
As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the CCC was a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18 to 25. As well as locations where forest workers could have access to wide-ranging views for spotting fires, the tower complexes were designed for workers to have a central gathering place, store equipment, camp out, or even reside.
Now part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF), the Roby Fire Tower complex was formerly in Clark National Forest territory, and its original buildings (including a two-bedroom home with a full basement, garage, warehouse, oil house and forge shelter) bear the wooden architecture similar to that of most Clark structures. Missouri’s two national forests were merged in 1976, and the complex remains under the MTNF umbrella.
District Ranger Kimberly Bittle, of the MTNF’s Houston-based Houston/Rolla/Cedar Creek district, said paperwork has been submitted to include the Roby Fire Tower complex on the National Register of Historic Places. “They’re working on it – it’s just a matter of working it through the process,” she said. “And it should be listed, because it’s a big part of the history in this area and one of only two complete sites left in the state.”
Historic documents in Bittle’s possession indicate the 100-foot tower was the first of its kind constructed in Missouri. About 20 fire towers remain in the MTNF, three in the local district (the other two are at Fairview and Pilot Knob).
Bittle said despite its age, the complex is still an important aspect of the Forest Service’s firefighting capability in the area, and that many workers come and go from it each year (especially during the spring and fall fire seasons).
“The number of personnel varies,” she said. “We have three permanent firefighters, and they come here pretty often, and we also have what we call ‘militia’ who are people who come away from their other duties and assist, and they will come here when it’s their weekend or week to work fires.”
Most of the construction at the complex was likely completed by members of the Blooming Rose CCC Camp in Lynchburg, although some reports indicate ranger district employees in the Work Progress Administration program, or WPA, were involved (the WPA was also called the Work Projects Administration and was another offshoot of Roosevelt’s New Deal). The tower itself was actually built in 1934 by enrollees at the Boss CCC Camp before federal acquisition of the land in 1937, while the rest of the buildings at the complex were completed by the late 1930s.
A 1991 report by a Forest Service historian indicates much of the lumber used in the project was salvaged from the Blooming Rose camp. Bittle said a large warehouse was even disassembled at the camp and then rebuilt about 20 miles away at the complex.
While the district’s fire engine is kept at the main headquarters on U.S. 63 in Houston (whose buildings are already on the National Register of Historic Places and bear the rock architecture typical of pre-merger MTNF structures), large bulldozers and other equipment used in fighting fires are stored at the complex. A portion of the site is even used as a collection area for tires carelessly discarded in MTNF streams and fields that are recovered and then trucked away for recycling.
The fire tower and the section of Texas County where it’s located are named after Cyrus Roby, who ran a mercantile in the area in the mid-1800s. Historic graffiti left behind by CCC workers is still visible on the tower’s lowest vertical section.
The first “tower man” to live in the home at the complex was Ike Williams, in 1937, and the last time anyone lived there was in the 1980s.
Bittle said that thanks to efforts by volunteer groups and grant funding, the fire tower complex in Dent County has largely been restored and refurbished. She said buildings at the Roby complex are in need of attention and she hopes the same type of preservation effort will eventually happen there.
“This kind of window into our past is getting less and less common every day,” Bittle said. “It would be a shame to see it deteriorate, but it would be great to see people get involved who care about this kind of thing. Hopefully we can find a group that will want to preserve it.”
For more information, or to inquire about starting a restoration effort at the Roby Fire Tower complex, call Bittle at 417-967-4194, or email email@example.com.
This kind of window into our past is getting less and less common every day. It would be a shame to see it deteriorate, but it would be great to see people get involved who care about this kind of thing. Hopefully we can find a group that will want to preserve it.”