Remembering the C.C.C. Camps of Old
The Enduring Legacy of Roosevelt’s Work Program
"Camp" means different things to different people. For hunters and fishermen, camp is a cabin in the forest close to a secluded trout stream or deer yard, and for young children it’s two weeks by the lake spent under the watchful eyes of counselors.
For men who grew up during the Depression, however, camp was home base for the CCC — the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Created during the first term of President Franklin Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps was one of several public works programs which aimed to put the nation’s unemployed back to work.
Facing a jobless rate that idled nearly a quarter of America’s work force, Roosevelt and the Congress established the CCC in 1933 and charged it with responsibility for a variety of projects on public lands and in the National Forests.
Unemployed and unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 worked on tasks ranging from road construction to building ski trails, and in the White Mountains seven CCC camps were “home” for thousands of “enrollees.”
The late Warren Hill of Conway — whom The Ear interviewed in September 1982 when this story first appeared — remembered those days clearly, not only because he was an enrollee himself, but because he helped to build the camp that once stood at the Blackberry Crossing Campground on the Kancamagus Highway near the Albany Covered Bridge.
Like many of the others who signed up for the C’s, Hill grew up in the city and had little exposure to the demands of rural, country life. In addition, like many others, he had little opportunity for work after graduating from high school in Lawrence, Mass., in 1935.
“It was a time when men with families couldn’t get a job,” Hill recalled, “let alone a teenager.”
Fortunately, with the help of his local minister, Hill was accepted into the CCC that fall and assigned to Company 117, a group which was then based in Tamworth.
Supervised by personnel from the U.S. Forest Service and the Army, Hill and his fellow 117th Company men spent that fall and the following winter working on roads, telephone lines, and trails around the Tamworth area.
In the spring, Hill was selected to be part of a 23-man cadre — the first members of the new 1177th Company based on the banks of the Swift River near Conway. Located at the present site of the Blackberry Crossing Campground, Camp for the 1177th was then only a plan on someone’s drawing board.
During the summer of 1936, Hill and the rest of the cadre constructed a camp which would eventually shelter more than 250 men.
As he noted, their task left them almost no time for rest. In addition to building four barracks, quarters for officers, a mess hall and kitchen facilities, the cadre erected a camp headquarters and a field hospital where all members of the CCC would receive prompt medical attention. In the 1177th, as with other camps, a doctor from the army was part of the permanent staff.
By late fall, the newly completed camp began to fill with enrollees fresh from the Boston area.
“They came to Conway on the train,” Hill said, “and we picked them up in Army and Forest Service trucks and took them over the Dugway Road into camp. Then we had three or four days of orientation with lectures on everything from safety to responsibilities in camp.”
New arrivals were issued a complete wardrobe — fatigues, boots, underwear, gloves, and helmets — as well as bedding. They were also given a hot meal, one of the normal benefits of CCC life which often proved as valuable as the opportunity to work.
With locally purchased produce such as eggs, milk, and vegetables, and weekly deliveries of meat and canned goods from Boston, many of the men in the camps were treated to well-balanced diets they couldn’t get elsewhere. Coupled with top-flight medical care, life in the CCC camps was a healthy experience.
Once the men settled in camp, they were assigned duties over and above the 40-hour work week they were expected to complete.
Since the camps were under the joint direction of the Forest Service and the Army, discipline was the order of the day.
On a rotating basis, the men took turns at K.P., snow shoveling, and fire watch — a particularly important task since wood and coal burning stoves were used throughout the camp. The men were also required to conduct themselves in a civilized manner when visiting Conway and the surrounding towns.
DESPITE THE requirements of CCC life, there was ample time for leisure activities.
In the evenings and on rainy days, high school and college level classes were offered, and twice a week they were taken by truck to see the movies in Conway and North Conway. A recreation hall also offered the men a place to relax, play games and cards, and weekends were “free time,” when men not assigned to KP or other chores could do as they pleased.
Training new recruits in the finer points of forestry work was the responsibility of the Forest Service District Ranger and his 12-man staff. Since crews from Camp 1177 did so much work in the woods, however, there were several civilian instructors as well.
“We had four ‘Lems:’ Local Experience Men,” Hill said. “They were loggers hired from the Conway area who helped enrollees learn proper wood techniques — safety was very important — and taught them how to use handsaws, axes and the heavy equipment. We used a dozen vehicles including four bulldozers, trucks and an ambulance.”
While every effort was made to reduce risk and injury, accidents did happen.
“In any group of men who are assigned to do strange, unfamiliar tasks, there are accidents,” Hill reported, “and we had our share. But we had the finest medical care possible, with a camp doctor and an ambulance there at all times.”
Because the ‘C’s were jointly managed by the Forest Service and the Army, the daily routine at camp closely resembled life in the service.
Following 6 a.m. reveille and roll call half an hour later, the men sat down to an “all you can eat” breakfast. At 8 a.m., led by Forest Service personnel, the crew departed by truck for a variety of projects where they worked until 4:40 or 5 p.m., taking a break only for lunch. After an evening meal, the men were free to do as they pleased before lights out. For their Monday to Friday labors, the men earned between $5 and $10.
“Of the $30 a month that most men earned, $22 was sent directly to each man’s family,” Hill said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was quite a bit of money.”
Even though this pay system left enrollees with only $8 each month, it was more cash than most of them were accustomed to having; all their needs for food, clothing and shelter were provided by the government, and if a man wanted a night on the town, he could afford the 15 or 20 cents it cost to go to the movies.
THE PROJECTS THE CCC crews undertook were determined by local foresters and by the regional office in Boston.
The men cut and repaired hiking trails in the National Forest, constructed bridges, campgrounds, shelters and cabins, did roadwork on the highways throughout the White Mountains, and blazed many of the region’s first downhill ski trails as well. For example, much of the crib work along the Bear Notch Road was put in by CCC crews from Camp 1177.
Beside their normal chores, the CCC crews were always ready to lend a hand when forest fires broke out, and to assist local officials with search and rescue operations.
After the devastation of the 1938 hurricane, CCC crews played an important role in clearing downed trees from the area’s roads and trails.
Although the visible results of the men’s work is still evident in the ski trails in Pinkham Notch, the hiking trails throughout the National Forest and at campgrounds, shelters, cabins, and roads in the White Mountains, the personal benefits — both in the short and long term — that each man derived were and are equally noteworthy.
“This was a very forceful period in their lives,” Hill said, “and working for the CCC gave them a sense of self respect, and it gave them a chance to earn their own way — they weren’t on the dole. Many of them later went on to work for the Forest Service, but for the ones who went on to do other things, it taught them good work habits, the ability to get along with others, and it added to their confidence.”
Editor’s note: Warren Hill, of Center Conway, died in 1996 at the age of 79 after a long illness. A U.S. Army veteran of WW II, he was the recipient of the Purple Heart and France’s Croix de Guerre. He worked for 20 years with the U.S. Forest Service as Visitor Information Officer at the Saco Ranger District in Conway prior to retiring in 1994. He won renown for his lyrical descriptions on tape cassette and on radio station 1610 of life and landscape in the White Mountains. A model of a CCC camp is on display at the USFS Androscoggin District in Gorham (Tel.: 466-2713).