MDC spent a lot of time putting out fires in its early days

Sunday, May 9, 2004

Missouri's landscape from the late 1800s until the 1930s was marred by raging fires, unregulated hunting, forests cut over and silted streams. The sight of a deer was as rare as the yelp of a turkey.

Today, it's hard to imagine.

The road to recovery started in 1936, when Missourians passed Amendment Four. That amendment set up the state's first bipartisan conservation commission. The commission appointed Irwin Bode, chief extension biologist for the U.S. Biological Survey, as the first director of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Bode started hiring staff. He selected biologists, foresters and wildlife enforcement agents to work in the new agency. He set the standard for bringing scientists and other professionals on board to an agency that had a lot of work ahead of it.

One of the first things the department did was stop a big chunk of the state from burning each year. In 1938, the conservation commission started a forestry section, which organized four fire protection districts and built five fire towers.

That year, the MDC suppressed 46 fires.

Many fires were started by people who wanted to control ticks and chiggers. Unfortunately, a lot of those fires got out of control. One of the department's first efforts was to send foresters and conservation staff to meet with landowners and ask them to sign "Cooperative Fire Protection Agreements." By 1941, more than 1,600 landowners owning 800,000 acres signed the document.

Whoever thought up the next idea has a drive-in named after them somewhere.

Imagine living in a small town in 1938 Missouri. After a hard day's work, wouldn't it be nice to sit in a theater and watch a movie? Problem was, there were no theaters in most small towns.

But thanks to the invention of the "Showboat," the movies were headed to the side of a building near you. With a projector mounted to its floor, the "Showboat" -- a 1938 panel truck -- became a traveling film festival. The MDC staff would hang up a large sheet on the side of a hardware store or barn, wait for the light to dim and -- before you could say "pass the popcorn" -- 24 celluloid frames a second were passing in front of your eyes.

Naturally, the movies had conservation themes. Chief among them was the damage wild fires were doing to Missouri.

The combination of a forestry department, fire towers, private landowner agreements, the "Showboat," and the willingness of folks to listen and change their ways helped to dramatically reduce wildfires in Missouri between 1930s and 1950s.

Nearly a third of the state burned each year during the '30s. In 1955, about one third of one percent burned.

Phil Helfrich is a community outreach officer for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Much of the data for this story comes from "The History of the Conservation Movement in Missouri," an MDC publication for teachers.

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