BELTSVILLE -- The Log Lodge at the national farm research center here fits the land like a fine old oak left standing in a wheat field, or an outcropping of rock in a meadow, or a country graveyard next to a barn.
The lodge exudes the warm, aromatic quality of a living building raised by hand with pine and oak logs cut from the local woods.
The Log Lodge is the visitor center at the Department of Agriculture research service, and the Maryland chapter of Civilian Conservation Corps alumni is meeting at the center to plan a reunion at Elk Neck State park Saturday.
CCC "boys" built the lodge.
"Oh yes, indeed," says John Mitchell, who was one of the builders. "It's just about 50 years old."
Men from the Public Works Administration started the Lodge in 1934 and put up the first four rows of logs. The CCC took over the job and finished it toward the end of the '30s.
"We went out," Mitchell says, "and cut trees and pulled 'em over here and skinned 'em and let 'em dry out a little and helped put 'em in place."
John Mitchell, a smiling, amiable man of 67 wearing a Pac-Man trucker's cap, joined the "C's" more than 50 years ago in Charles County. He's lived all his life in Hughesville, where he had a bar called Mitchell's in a building which he built and owned until a few years ago, when he gave it over to his sister.
During the 1930s, he says, "things were so scarce, we went up to La Plata and signed up, me and a couple more guys."
A NEW DEAL PROGRAM
The Civilian Conservation Corps was an effort to put unemployed young men to work during the height of the Great Depression. It was one of the first and most popular of the New Deal programs. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the CCC four days after his inauguration in 1933 and the first youths were enrolled 37 days later.
The CCC was organized as a sort of peacetime army, which eventually enrolled 3 million young men. They planted trees, cleared land, strung telephone lines, built roads and camps and cabins, improved parks and recreational areas, stocked streams and repaired their banks, combated soil erosion, fought fires and floods.
"The Lord bless President Roosevelt," Mitchell says. "That was a blessing especially for black folks back in those days. We didn't have a thing to do. And my mother had 14 head of children.
"I worked down on the farm six or seven years for Mr. Rawlings and he paid you 75 cents a week and the CCC's paying you a dollar a day! Yes, that was better!"
Mitchell lived in one of three segregated camps for blacks on the other side of Powder Mill Road, which runs in front of the Log Lodge, and which the CCC men first paved. Today the camp site is marked only by a trace of a foundation.
The CCC built the lodge as a cafeteria for the Department of Agriculture research service.
"I spent some hard days lifting those logs up there," Mitchell says. "They were heavy. But that's all right."
Some of the timbers across the facade of the lodge are 40 and 50 feet long and weathered a wonderful deep brown.
"Four or five men would get on one log like that. We'd work it up on a scaffold till we got it in place. We had to do it ourselves. We didn't have any cranes.
"And when we got it finished," Mitchell says, without a trace of rancor, "I wasn't allowed in there to buy a sandwich. Praise the Lord! All that is over with now."
He stayed in the C's until 1942, when the program dissolved because of World War II. He joined the Navy and served as a cook on a troop ship that took him to Africa, France, Germany and England. He came home and worked at the Indian Head Naval Ordnance Station, then later on opened his bar.
"You know something," he says. "I'd be in the C's right now if they had a place. Yes. I like it. Indeed I did."
ALUMNI PLAN REUNION
Mitchell is among about three dozen men -- and their wives -- from Chapter 113 of the National Association of CC Alumni, the Maryland Free State Chapter, who are meeting to plan the 14th annual CCC State reunion, to be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Elk Neck State Park, near the town of North East in Cecil County.
They debate such serious questions as whether everybody should bring a covered dish. They decide to bring just baked goods.
The Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service is helping sponsor the reunion. The C's built trails and cabins and shelters at Elk Neck that are still used. The C's worked at many of the parks in the Maryland system, from Patapsco to Patuxent to Catoctin to Fort Frederick all the way out west to Swallow Falls State Park in Garrett State Forest.
Outside the meeting hall, Pat Curley and his brother-in-law Lee Esham are setting up lunch for the Free State "boys."
Curley, a slim, wiry, active 73, spent six years in the C's, worked in eight camps and learned how to operate heavy construction equipment, which is how he earned his living until he retired a couple of years ago. He spent World War II salvaging ships sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor.