The Civilian Conservation Corps was a federal work program developed in 1933 that focused on putting unemployed young men to work during the Great Depression. The CCC was a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program.
According to www.ccclegacy.org, “more than twenty-five percent of the population was unemployed, hungry, and without hope. The New Deal programs instituted bold changes in the federal government that energized the economy and created an equilibrium that helped bolster the needs of the citizens.”
According to Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park superintendent Mike Smith, if it wasn't for the CCC program, we wouldn't be able to enjoy many of the federal and state parks we have today.
Smith said the CCC program took U.S. Army officers and volunteer enrollees, and operated camps on state and federally owned land to develop them for parks and other projects.
“So they took these state and federal lands and developed them for not only parks and stuff, but they did a whole lot of forest improvement work, road building, all kinds of jobs,” said Smith.
Smith said it was a beneficial program for the young enrollees during a dark time in our nation's history.
“It was great,” he said. “The enrollees made a dollar a day — $30 a month. They got to keep five of it, twenty five was sent home to help out their families. The CCC gave them steady work, three meals a day, and it was a real good educational program. There were all kinds of classes they could take to learn various trades. Even though it was run by the Army, in a very rigid military manner, most of the young men just thrived on it.”
Smith said the program also put local skilled laborers to work teaching the enrollees.
“They hired what they called local experienced men as crew foremen and stuff, to do stone masonry, and carpentry and electrical work, that sort of thing,” said Smith.
Smith said the enrollees had to be young, unmarried boys between 17 and 21 years of age.
“The girls of Hillsboro had a wonderful time because there weren't many of them, but there were lots of guys!” laughed Smith. “In fact many of the local girls married CCC guys and made their lives here afterwards.”
Smith said the enrollees came from all over West Virginia.
“Many were locals, a lot of them were not,” explained Smith. “They came from all over, any place in the state that had people who needed work — which basically was everywhere. They would enroll in the CCC if they met the requirements, and they'd get sent to a camp somewhere. There were some from out of state, but I think the vast majority of the ones here were West Virginians.”
Smith talked about the development of the camp at Droop Mountain, Camp Price. The camp was named after local newspaper editor and conservationist Calvin W. Price.
“In 1935, Camp Price was set up,” said Smith. “They brought a bunch of men in, they set up a little tent city over where the park monuments are, and built most of the park structures that are here today — plus a lot of other ones. The camp was here from the early summer of 1935 to the fall of 1937 — so almost two-and-a-half years. During that time they had an enrollment of almost 300 men. At any given time they had about 160 here, some would leave, others would come in.”
Smith said Droop Mountain Battlefield was dedicated in 1928 but no funds were appropriated to run it or for personnel to staff it. He said it was the veterans of the engagement that came back every year and made signs to mark significant locations on the battlefield.
It was when Camp Price was started that the CCC really started to build the park into what it is today.
“Even though it was a park before then, it never really got developed until the CCC came,” said Smith. “They built the lookout tower, picnic shelters, hiking trails, they made a tremendous log fence along [route] 219 bordering the park, two big log entrance portals, all kinds of stuff. In fact here at the park, when the camp ended — pretty unexpectedly in 1937 — the last thing they did was go to the open areas of the park and plant mostly conifers — Norway spruce, white pine, red pine and red spruce. A lot of the trees you see in the park today — the conifers — were planted there in 1937.”
Smith said the crews didn't just focus on the park at Droop Mountain.
“They did a lot of work elsewhere, away from the park, too,” Smith said. “They built the road over from Briery Knob to Richwood and they put a fire tower up there. They did a lot of forest improvement work. It wasn't long after the chestnut blight so they salvaged a lot of chestnut out of the woods.”
The enrollees were quartered in a military style set-up according to Smith. Some of the structures the enrollees built still stand today.
“They had barracks buildings, over in the field where the flagpole is now, latrines, a shower house, a recreation hall, a dining hall — all kinds of buildings,” Smith said. “Most of the federally owned buildings for the camp were portable in the sense that they had these wall sections that you could bolt together, put 'em on a truck and move 'em from place to place. In a year or two — or however long the camp lasted — they would take 'em down and ship 'em to another place. We have some pretty good photographs that we've gathered up over the years of those buildings. The state owned buildings are still here, most of 'em anyhow.”
Smith said the CCC enrollees built three cabins. They had plans for 15 cabins, but they were never completed.
“The camp ended suddenly,” explained Smith. “Those three they built were rented out for many years though. One of them was even converted to a museum in later years. It's a good example of the CCC architecture.”
Smith said the cabins were designed to be vacation cabins, and required individual outhouses.
“They built a pretty fancy log outhouse, which we still have. It's one of my favorites. It's got two adult holes, and a baby hole — so mom, pop and baby could all go at the same time I guess,” joked Smith. “You don't see too many log outhouses though.”
When Smith first started at the park 28 years ago, he had an opportunity to meet some of the actual enrollees stationed at Camp Price.
“Pretty early in my career here at Droop, I met some of those men, who had been here,” recalled Smith. “They came here to the park in their older days and told me stories. I may have met the last one this summer. He was 94. He hadn't been here since 1936. We had a good talk. I had some photos and stories other people had told me, and he had some new ones for me. It was great.”
Smith said one project he's been working on for years now is identifying the 159 men from a photo taken in 1936.
“I began trying to identify those men by talking with ones that came to the park,” said Smith. “I had many, many interviews. Over the years I gathered up, I think 140-some names of the 159. So I did pretty good gettin' names for most of the guys in there, and also little stories that went with 'em. The guys would look at the photo and see a guy they knew and say 'well this is so-and-so, and here's a story about him.' It was really wonderful work.”
Smith was able to get detailed insight into life at the camp when he located copies of the CCC camp newsletter, “The Cannonball.” Smith said all of the enrollees he had a chance to meet remembered the newsletter, but no one had a copy.
“So after years of searching I finally learned of one in Maryland,” he said. “A lady there had a copy of it. She photocopied it and sent it to me. It was maybe five or seven pages. It came out about twice a month.”
Later down the line, Smith found copies of the newsletter on microfilm and it's a wonderful treasure trove of information about camp life, he said..
“It's about 250 pages or better of the daily camp happenings,” said Smith. “So we know in pretty good detail what was going on in the camp during that time. All kinds of little tidbits — identifying exactly when the lookout tower was completed, different things like that. When I first started looking through 'em, many of the guys I had interviewed over the years had brief little biographies in there. They had a budding artist who would draw a sketch of a guy and write two or three paragraphs about them. It was great, not only did I have my interviews, but I also had some background that I never had before.”
Smith said The Cannonball had several regular features, one that he particularly enjoys was a column called “Ask Aunt Betty.”
“I thought it was really funny,” remarked Smith. “It was kind of like Ann Landers. Basically, these young boys, many without girlfriends, were wantin' a girlfriend and asking for advice — askin' Aunt Betty what they could do to get 'em a girl, or keep their girl happy if they did have one. The advice Aunt Betty gives is just hilarious. Aunt Betty is obviously just one of the boys in the camp.”
Enrollees had opportunities for after-hours fun, as well. Smith said dances, baseball games, and boxing matches added an atmosphere of friendly rivalry. On occasion, things did get a little rough at the camps though.
“This one boy was a great boxer,” said Smith. “He was actually a sparring partner of Joe Louis'. I guess he got drunked up one night and one of the other boys got stabbed. I guess he was the one that did it. The whole camp turned out and went out through the swamp trying to find the knife that he'd stabbed him with. He didn't kill him, he stabbed him in the arm or something. He did end up having to leave the camp, of course.”
From Smith's conversations with the CCC enrollees he's met over the years, he's gathered that the program gave the boys opportunities they never would have had elsewhere.
“The nice thing about the CCC is that these young men — and they've told me this over and over — it's just the best thing that ever happened to them. It came at a time in their early life when they had very few opportunities for education or for work,” he said. “They went in the CCC, they learned a trade, and they did work that they knew was gonna last for a long time.”
That is evident from the CCC structures that remain on Droop Mountain and elsewhere in the county.