The Bear Truth
A CCC veteran reveals the real story behind the black bear legend of Indian Lodge.
By E. Dan Klepper
According to any Texan whose enthusiasm for a good meal outweighs his interest in, say, animal legends, most stories worth telling are ones that begin, like this one, with food. While this may not be a story about high cuisine, in fact it may not mention much more than salt on a biscuit, but when you're a hard-working soldier in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a young man who just dished out a full day's manual labor, talking about anything other than something hot on a plate just won't do.
"The bread was World War I standard," recalls Cecil McMeans, one of several hundred young men assigned to Davis Mountains State Park during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's workforce recruitment program of 1933. "You could jump up and down on the bread loaf and stomp on it, but it wouldn't break. Instead, you had to saw it."
Men like McMeans, all between the ages of 17 and 25, were stationed throughout Texas as part of Roosevelt's federal Civilian Conservation Corps, a program designed to help pull the nation out of the Depression. The CCC was a welcome relief for a country full of hungry Americans out of work. The program provided jobs for any young men willing to join. It also guaranteed that most of their income was sent to their families back home. The CCC camps provided the basics for every man - a place to sleep, a job and three meals a day. In exchange, the country was able to utilize a broad pool of labor and skills for the benefit of the nation's public lands. Between 1933 and 1942, 56 state parks were developed by the CCC in Texas with 30 sites remaining in the state park system today.
Seventeen-year-old McMeans spent the first year of the program working in the newly created Davis Mountains State Park, where a number of projects occupied Company 879 and Company 881 over a two-year period. The young men's efforts built the scenic, 5-mile stretch of Skyline Drive, a longer loop and the stunning 16-room adobe Indian Lodge, the crowning jewel of Texas' CCC-built architectural treasures. But the CCC soldiers assigned to Davis Mountains State Park not only spent their days at hard labor, they also ended up sawing a lot of bread.
"What they would do with that bread was mix a half a tub full of beaten egg, put these pieces of bread about that long, about that wide, about that thick, and soak 'em in those eggs, add the salt and then deep fry 'em in a little hot grease. Then sprinkle 'em with the powdered sugar. We had syrup too. I don't know what brand it was but we ate it. And two pieces of sausage for breakfast. That," McMeans insists, "was good food."
McMeans and his fellow soldiers weren't the only ones who enjoyed the food prepared in the CCC's camp kitchen. The camp, isolated along remote Keesey Canyon, was a draw for curious wildlife and one animal in particular liked to come down from the mountain and partake of the kitchen's spoils. It was a critter that would ultimately be immortalized in the park's charming legend - the bear cub of the Indian Lodge's Black Bear Restaurant.
The official Black Bear Legend embodies a cartoon comedy featuring a bear chasing the CCC men up a windmill stand. Texans will find this tale printed on some of the giftware available at the Indian Lodge's Texas state park store:
"'Bear's affiliation with the CCC men came one day when they were on a Sunday outing at Prude Ranch. 'Bear' had broken her chain and freely wandered around that area. Taking offense to the CCC intrusion, 'Bear' made her presence known. The short of the story finds the CCC men atop a windmill with 'Bear' patrolling the bottom. After a long period of screams and shouts, help arrived and the CCC men were found."
But unlike the amusing story of the lodge's celebrated black bear, the real saga of black bears in West Texas does not read as lightly. The story of black bears throughout Texas, in fact, had taken on a much darker tone as early as the end of the 19th century. Two subspecies of black bear, the American black bear (Central and West Texas) and the Louisiana black bear (East Texas), were prevalent over most of the state until the appearance of Anglo settlers. Data indicate quite clearly that bears disappeared from the central and northern regions of the state by 1890 due to overhunting. Bears of southeast Texas and the Big Thicket fared no better. The East Texas bears were in the way of settlers' efforts to wring a living out of the swamps. They raided honey from the settlers' apiaries and were also fond of the taste of "Pineywoods rooters," hogs left to forage on their own before being rounded up and slaughtered. East Texans also hunted bears for their grease, hides and meat. By the first part of the 20th century, the bears of the Pineywoods had been exterminated. But the black bears of West Texas, however, managed to hang on for another decade or two.
"In the Davis Mountains black bears hold their own surprisingly well against unusual odds," biologist Vernon Bailey reported in his Biological Survey of Texas, 1889-1905. Bailey records seeing bear signs throughout the Davis range, including tracks, fresh scat "made up largely of acorns, juniper berries and pine nuts, while the seeds of cactus fruit were noticed in the fresher deposits." But bear hunting was also a favorite activity in the Davis Mountains.
"In January of 1890 I learned that 10 or 12 bears had been killed in the Davis Mountains in the fall before," Bailey recorded, "and the annual bear hunt of the ranchmen has become as firmly established an institution there as the annual camp meeting. In November a large crowd gathers with camp wagons, hounds, and saddle horses for a week's bear hunting."
By the time McMeans arrived at Davis Mountains State Park in 1933, bears in the Davis range were still present, but their population had been dramatically reduced. According to Principal Game Birds and Mammals: Their Distribution and Management, published early mid-century by the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission, "In the Trans-Pecos country, where the black bear is still holding on because of the rough and rugged character of their habitat, bears are still killed at all times of the year ... hunting bears with hounds in the Trans-Pecos country is gradually but surely reducing their ranks. One man, Sam G. Luedecke, killed 79 bears during the period 1925 to 1935 on one ranch." The commission recommended managing the state's remaining bear population in the same way that they regulated other game animals before the bears vanished altogether. But their efforts never succeeded in protecting the black bear, and by mid-20th century it was too late.
Whether its "Pineywoods rooters" covered in honey or a dinner of venison with a side of juniper berries, black bears consume a remarkable menu of foods and do so robustly. Their habits indicate that when deprived of this natural supply of food, particularly during drought, they will eat livestock. But, unlike the mythology surrounding the bear, livestock was never meant to be the black bear's primary meal. The Mammals of Texas, the foremost guide to Texas' wild side, reports that "their food is extremely varied as reflected by the crushing type of molar teeth. They are known to feed upon nest contents of wild bees, carpenter ants, other insects; manzanita berries, coffee berries, wild cherry, poison oak, apples, pine nuts, acorns, clover, grass, roots, fish, carrion and garbage about camps." In fact, according to McMeans, this last item was a particular favorite of the legendary black bear of Indian Lodge.
McMeans has a slightly different story of the lodge's infamous black bear, simply because he and his crew were the pranksters responsible for the legend's making.
"Yes," McMeans confesses, laughing, "that was my bunch. What happened was a rancher in the area had caught a bear cub, and he ended up taming it. But after a while he got tired of it and turned it loose. It wasn't full grown but it knew people. Well, it wasn't used to foraging by itself and somehow or another he got wind of our camp. He would come down and raid the garbage cans and turn 'em over and eat what he could find. But we never could do nothing about it because we never did see it. We just figured it was a bear.
"So, one night one of the camp boys 'threw a drunk' in Alpine and when he came back to camp, he went to the shower to cool off and kind of sober up. But when he came out of the shower he run face to face with that bear. The bear got scared and run out the back. But the camp boy was so scared he had to go take another shower! So we finally had proof the bear was there.
"One day we finally sighted him again. Now, I think we had 200 boys in the camp, that sticks in my mind. It was a full company. Anyway, that mountain was covered with boys chasing that bear. And the bear got scared, ran up to the top and run this a-way and that a-way, while the boys ran on top and both sides. The bear got scared of all of us and run into a little cave. But once we roped him then he was very docile. We brought him back, penned him up and kept him for about two weeks.
"But we got tired of foolin' with him, so then they took him way, way, away from us, turned him loose and we never did see him anymore. Now that was my bunch. I was in that bunch chasing that sucker. It was a wonder we didn't get hurt."
McMeans tells a classic tale of men confronting nature, providing Texans with a plate-full of calamity along with a serving of reality. But rather than weaving the past into light-hearted prose — the recipe for all myths and legends — McMeans' account gives a pragmatist's edge to the history of bear/human relationships in West Texas. It is a relationship that has improved only slightly in the intervening decades. The Louisiana black bear is now considered a threatened species and is designated as such by both the state and the federal government. As a result, Texans are working toward re-establishing a sustainable East Texas bear population. The black bear subspecies of the Indian Lodge legend is also listed by the state as threatened, an understatement considering the paltry number of bear sightings each year, made primarily in Big Bend National Park, where hunting is not allowed.
A truth in any legend is that its subject is usually already lost to the past. The bear stories of Indian Lodge and McMeans' CCC company recount a period in the state's natural world that fewer and fewer Texans recall and that has, for the most part, ended. But should restoration efforts at work today continue on behalf of Texas' bear population, perhaps the story of the West Texas black bear will acquire a new and brighter chapter.