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Laborers on the people’s land

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Editor’s Note: Information for this feature on the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps and its role in the Hoosier National Forest was gathered by Teena Ligman, a public-affairs specialist for the Hoosier National Forest. It is one of a series of articles marking the 75th anniversary of the forest’s creation.

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Though the Civilian Conservation Corps evolved from despair and a nation desperately in need of help, it became a program that today represents the very best of a dark period in the nation’s history. Across the country, the work of the CCC is still enjoyed by millions of people and many programs since have tried to copy the success of putting people to work to generate public benefits.

President Franklin Roosevelt created the Emergency Work Act in 1933 in his first hundred days in office. One of the programs which came out of this act was the CCC – a program to recruit young men to work in forests and parks, and improve our nation’s natural resources.  The young men, called enrollees, were required to send $25 of their $30 monthly wage back home to help their families. Immediately the results of this rippled across the country’s economy as 275,000 enrollees in 1,300 camps sent money home. Many families were able to stay off relief rolls because of the money they received from a CCC enrollee.  Living on $5 a month wasn’t difficult for the boys, said George DeMuth, 97, a former Forest Service employee who once worked with the CCC camps. The camp provided most of their needs, and you could buy three bottles of beer for a quarter at the local store.

“The two greatest things that ever happened in our country,” said DeMuth, “were the Depression and Roosevelt.”  Roosevelt took unemployed men and put them to work on resource projects throughout the country. 

DeMuth says the nation, “had to do something. You can’t imagine the devastation of this country then.”  He remembered there being gullies everywhere and remarked that the only topsoil in southern Indiana was in the Ohio River.

The young men themselves were forever changed. They learned teamwork, and 40,000 of them learned to read and write. By the time the program was disbanded in 1942, nearly 3 million men had worked in the program. In Indiana, 63,742 men were employed by the CCC during its tenure. After 1940 the numbers of men diminished as they were sent to war and soon funding was cut and the camps closed.  The skills they had learned in the CCC, using heavy equipment and working well with others, served the men well in the armed forces or later in civilian life.  

Most camps were made up of men 18 to 25 years old. The camps were the dual responsibility of the company commander, an Army officer who administered the camp and the work project superintendent who lined up and oversaw the work the enrollees did each day.

Five CCC camps were allocated to the Hoosier Purchase Units and established to perform work on national forest lands.  Some camps were short-term and some persisted for several years.  Records on the camps are sketchy.  One camp was reportedly located near Shoals but no further information has been found.  

The other camps, which operated on Forest Service lands, were located near Kurtz, Bryantsville, English, Tell City and Sulphur. 

Tell City Camp 1597/2583

The William Tell CCC Camp was located in the 1400 block of Ninth and 10th streets near where the William Tell Senior Citizens Center and Dennis Kress Park are located today.  It was first organized in August 1935 as Company 1597 at Henryville. The camp moved to Tell City and spent the first several months in tents. According to the camp newsletter, many enrollees went ‘over the hill’ or deserted during that time because the weather was rainy and miserable. The barracks were completed in December. The camp was soon struck with sickness and in January 1936, there were 61 cases of scarlet fever and mumps. The barracks were quarantined until the diseases were under control.

The camp’s work was mostly improving soil erosion and damming gullies. They also planted a lot of black-locust seedlings. Several enrollees helped with the 1935 census and conducted counts and interviews in the rural areas. In April, 1936, Camp 1597 was moved to Madison to take over for a Veterans Camp composed of WW I veteran enrollees who had moved on.

There Camp 1597 became a state-operated camp and helped construct Clifty Falls State Park. However their camp buildings were left vacant. Later, it proved the perfect place for the English camp enrollees to relocate to when a water crisis at the English camp arose.

Though the site proved adequate, one of their first improvement projects was to add sidewalks around the buildings. The men brought in gravel from a quarry and crusher at Leopold. The site was so muddy that the story was enrollees from the previous Company 1597 had reported having to wear stilts to keep the mud out of their pockets.

Later during the floods of January 1937 the camp was literally standing in water. The men obtained a boat and appointed a skipper to take passengers to and from the barracks, paddling with brooms. Although some of the buildings were under water and had to be vacated, most of the barracks and the mess hall were on high footers and remained dry with the boat ferry a useful method of transportation.

Tell City resident Omer Bryant, 89, worked at the Tell City CCC Camp and remembers planting trees with crews lined up with planting hoes. Each carried up to 100 trees. He remembers they always put the fastest man in the lead and everyone else had to keep up, planting trees every 6 feet as they moved across the field.

Bryant drove a truck and bulldozer while working at the camp as an enrollee for 21 months in 1938-39. He said at that time an enrollee could only stay with the CCC for two years. Bryant was coming up on the end of his two-year enrollment and got a chance to get a job at 25 cents an hour so he left a couple of months early. Later he served in the Navy in both theaters during World War II.

Bryant’s family lived in Rome, so he was able to ride his bicycle back and forth to visit his family – a 17-mile round trip. He said most of the boys at his camp came from north of the Ohio River. In November of 1937 the camp reported having 11 sets of brothers enrolled at the camp.  About the same time the camp numbers swelled to 222 enrollees.

Bryant said there was a lot of friction between the CCC boys and the local boys over girls. “We could always dig up a dime to take one of the local girls to the movie. Local boys couldn’t always get a dime, and they resented us.”

“We honored the flag at evening retreat and kept our boots shined and everything arranged properly,” he said. He estimates 99 percent of the boys from the CCC camp ended up later serving in World War II. He believes the transition from civilian life to military was made easier by their days in the CCC.

Bryant recalls that there were always some men in camp who couldn’t read or write and he wrote letters to their girlfriends to help them keep in touch.  He said maybe the best thing about the CCC for him was, “I was just a country hick, but I learned to get along with all kinds of people.” He reminisces that his days in the CCC were “the most enjoyable time of my life. I was young, we had good food and were well taken care of. We worked hard but we always had plenty to eat and a warm place to sleep.”

Bryant said his favorite projects were working out at the German Ridge recreation area and building roads. He said, “It is rewarding for me to go back today and see the things we built.” He noted the buildings at German Ridge were actually reconstructed from old homes that were taken down and moved. “In those days the government was buying up land for $3-10 per acre, and there were several places over at Goosetown that had nice buildings, so we took those down and put them back up at German Ridge.”
He said other buildings were moved to other recreation areas that are gone now.

He also remembers helping put in the phone line between Tell City and Bedford. The importance of the phone lines was primarily to report forest fires.  The five towers in the Patoka and Lafayette Units had a vision coverage of 576,000 acres of forests. If a lookout spotted a fire, the CCC could have 130 men at the scene of any fire within two hours. The phone lines ran along the railroad right-of-way and they followed that line all the way to Coxton. Then they cut cross county to Bedford. He said he and four other men would climb the poles and put up the lines. It was hard work, and very hot that summer. When they climbed the poles, they’d get creosote on them and it would burn.  

Fire-fighting was always a major effort for the men of the CCC Camps. The camp newsletters included daily logs of activities that read eight fires, six fires, four fires, seven fires … day after day of fire runs for the camp which had small groups of men loading up in trucks and heading out to different parts of their districts to fight fire. Many of the runs inevitably proved to be false alarms.

In January 1937 the Ohio River flooded and the CCC camps were sent to help. The entire town of Leavenworth was evacuated in three days by 30 CCC men from the English camp and their trucks. Temperatures were below freezing and the roads were covered with sleet and snow. The Tell City CCC camp was simultaneously working to evacuate whole families and their possessions from flooded areas along the river. They moved entire stores with all their merchandise to high ground.

For 21 days during the flood of 1937, the Forest Service phone line was the only way for Tell City to communicate with other cities. The line had to be raised to keep it above water in the Ohio River bottoms, and maintenance was done by rowboat. Once the emergency passed, there were many weeks of flood cleanup and water purification work that the camp helped with.  

In 1940 the decision was made to look for a new camp site. The first choice was the Marchand Tower site but they drilled to 555 feet without finding water for a well. The next choice was just east of Leopold. When adequate water was not found there either, the camp remained in Tell City for another year before finding a site near Sulphur in July 1941.  The camp moved in September to the Sulphur area “to place the camp near the center of the work area.”  The water supply for the Sulphur camp was a large spring. It was said to be the only good water source between English and Tell City that could supply a 200-man camp.

Once the road was completed, 22 new buildings were completed for the Sulphur camp. A new panel construction was used with 5-foot wide panels bolted to 6-inch treated posts. After the William Tell Camp in Tell City was abandoned, the buildings remained. Some of them were moved to the town of Grandview, a few miles down-river from Tell City.

That summer, the Grandview Elementary School had burned and the CCC buildings were used for 125 students to attend school. In 1943, many of the buildings were moved to the Burns City Naval Depot, now called Crane Naval Weapons Support Center, to be used as storage. The other buildings became the property of the city of Tell City and the VFW. Bryant remembers the old barracks left in Tell City being used as housing for many years. “After the war when housing was so short, lots of veterans and their families lived in those buildings.” The remaining Tell City CCC camp buildings were still standing until the late 1950s, when they were torn down.

The CCC Camp at Sulphur operated until the CCC Program was disbanded in 1942.
 

Kurtz Camp 1594

Camp 1594, known locally as “Camp Little America” was established Sept. 12, 1935. It was located half a mile northeast of the Kurtz railroad stop. Foundations of buildings are all that remain. Paul McWilliams, an early Forest Service employee, remembers most of the boys at the Kurtz camp were from the coal-mining areas of Kentucky or Tennessee. He said a lot of them were of Polish descent, though they did have a few local boys as well. McWilliams said some of the boys “were really pitiful … but it wasn’t very long before they began to shape up.” He explained they were thin and looked starved.

He said they also couldn’t count. If they made a purchase with a quarter in the commissary, they didn’t know if they should get change back or not.
Most of the work done by this camp on the Hoosier was construction work.  DeMuth, who also worked out of this camp, said CCC crews built the Hickory Ridge and Trinity Springs fire towers and put in many miles of poles and telephone lines between the towers and the towns of Houston, Bedford and Kurtz.  

They also built the tower at Houston and helped man many of the towers during high fire danger. The crews also did road construction and built many of the roads in the areas, including the Tower Road, Dutch Ridge Road, and Maumee Road.  The rock was quarried near Blackwell Pond.
DeMuth said the most important thing the CCC did was to revegetate the abandoned farms as they were acquired by the Forest Service.  He reflects that it is probably difficult for people today to understand how people could have let the land get in such bad condition, “But people just didn’t know what they were doing to the land. They just didn’t know. ”

The land acquired by the Forest Service was generally the steepest and the most eroded. “You could see bedrock on almost every hill,” he says.  DeMuth explained the forest service planted locust on some of the severest sites but the rest was planted with shortleaf pine. At that time shortleaf pine was the only readily available seedling.

Rose Wray, whose family lived just west of the Kurtz CCC camp, remembers the camp well, though she was just a girl at the time. Her father, David Whittredge, had hogs and went to the camp daily to pick up refuge to feed their hogs. She said after the hogs finished there would be bowls, silverware and tin pie plates left behind. In the early days they faithfully returned everything they salvaged from the hogs but later were told to just keep what they found. Wray said as a child she can’t remember eating soup out of anything except CCC camp bowls.  

Wray also remembers the young men walking over to their farm after work or on weekends to watch them milk cows or train horses. Sometimes they’d even pitch in and help throw bales of hay up into the loft. Her dad also often took many of the boys to their church on Sunday.

The camp was closed  May 12, 1942. At that time the camp numbers had dwindled from 200 to 57. The last enrollees were transferred to Valparaiso to work on a national-defense project. After the camp was closed, a caretaker stayed on at the site for some time.

Bryantsville Camp 1586

The Bryantsville Camp 1586 was also known as the Spice Valley Camp and official directions were “five miles west of the Mitchell telegraph office and railroad stop.”  At the time, the Forest Service owned very little land and government funds could not be used to lease land for a camp. A suitable site was available on land which belonged to Howard Burton just west of the Spice Valley Church but the land wasn’t for sale. The lease price was $5 per month.  The Bedford and Mitchell Chambers of Commerce agreed to cover the lease price for the land to encourage another CCC camp to be built in this area.  A water supply was the biggest concern, but a well was dug that supplied good water. Work on the Bryantsville Camp began in October 1935.

In the meantime, CCC Camp 1599 had been set up in July 1935, in tents on Garvey Lane, now John Williams Boulevard, on the west side of Bedford. The number of enrollees in that camp soon swelled to 425. By November 30, 1935, many of the men had moved to the Bryantsville Camp. Others from Camp 1599 were moved to Camp Clark at Henryville.  The tent camp in Bedford was abandoned.

Four barracks and nine other buildings were built for the Bryantsville Camp. The cost of construction for a CCC camp was estimated at $18,000. Local labor and materials were used where possible.  It took an average of 8-10 days to complete the construction of a new CCC camp.  By Christmas of that year there were 204 enrollees in residence. The enrollees came primarily from Indiana and Kentucky.

Within the first year the camp had planted 400,000 black locust trees from seeds they had collected and worked extensively on erosion control. They also built two fire towers; one near Bryantsville and another near Shoals. Their assignments were all on national forest lands in the Lost River Unit.
The camp competed with 42 camps in their region and won “Best Camp in Indiana” in November 1936 for their outstanding achievements and beautification efforts around their camp.  Camp enrollees organized a string band and a four-piece harmonica band that was regularly requested to play at local events. The camps also organized baseball and other sports teams that played other camps on weekends.

On July 2, 1936, the Bryantsville camp was hit by a tornado. The maintenance building and blacksmith shop were destroyed and several barracks shifted on their foundations. Many trees came down in camp. One enrollee working in the maintenance building survived with only cuts and bruises though the building blew down around him.

In September, 1937, the Bryantsville camp was disbanded.  The camp buildings were dismantled in May 1938 and loaded onto 18 rail cars and sent to Miles City, Montana.

English Camp 2583

This camp was first set up four miles west of Paoli. It was a tent camp. Paul McWilliams, an early Forest Service employee, said the tent camp was there a week before the Ranger even knew it was set up. The men remained in tents at the Paoli camp until the camp was moved closer to English.

In 1935, the Hoosier National Forest purchased land to establish Camp 2583 near the Crawford-Orange counties line from J.N. Barnett, who had a store nearby.

The land included a large spring which seemed to have more than enough water for a 200-man camp. By the end of July 1935, 206 enrollees had arrived, all of whom were enrolled from the Indiana area. According to the camp newsletter these enrollees “ranged in size from a couple of very little ones to a good many huskies.”

They continued to live in tents until October while clearing land for the permanent buildings. A well was dug to supplement the spring. Later the camp numbers swelled to 235 enrollees.

Twelve buildings were constructed including a hospital, recreation hall, mess hall, officers quarters, bathhouse with heated water, education and administration buildings, and five barracks. More buildings were later constructed at the camp.

In October of their first year on the way to fight a forest fire near Valeene, a truck carrying 20 men overturned on a steep bank. Two men were killed and eight were seriously injured. Not only was the work sometimes dangerous, but conditions were also hard. That first winter temperatures dropped to 30 degrees below zero with 8-10 inches of snow.

The Forest Service soon discovered that in order to efficiently manage the forest and suppress the countless fires that plagued southern Indiana’s forestland, they needed to improve the road systems.

The English CCC camp set up a rock crusher and a quarry to supply surfacing materials for many roads in the southern part of the forest. The crew quarried and crushed 13,000 yards of stone for road beds and constructed 3.5 miles of new road.

On July 1, 1936, 40 enrollees were sent to the William Tell CCC Camp in Tell City due to a drought and shortage of water. When the drought continued, the decision was made to temporarily move the CCC company stationed at English to Tell City.
The spring which supplied water to the camp was down to one-third of its flow and water had been hauled for over a month from other sources in the county.  On Aug. 1, all but 40 of the remaining enrollees in the camp were moved to Tell City.

The plan was that the camp would be reopened by Oct. 1, 1935, but when the drought had not abated, even the blacksmith shop was moved to Tell City. By Nov. 12, 1936, the decision was made to permanently move the English camp to Tell City and have the English camp remain as a side camp.

In November 1940, 75 men from the Tell City Camp arrived at the English CCC Camp to tear it down. The lumber was cleaned and stored under a shed for further use. Later some of the lumber was used to build a five-room house for the Oscar Parks family at Deuchars that included the Deuchars Post Office.

Another home for a Perry County family in need was also built with the used lumber.