The shaping of men and America Reunion: During the Great Depression, 3.5 million young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps reshaped the contours of the United States. Last month, alumni held their 63rd reunion.

Sun Journal

October 08, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

LURAY, Va. -- Unknown to many Americans today, they were famous once as the CCC Boys, of a different time and of many different places.

For $30 a month during the Great Depression, the 3.5 million young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps reshaped the contours of the United States. As the Tree Army, they planted maples by the millions, built national parks, fought forest fires and helped support their mothers and fathers.

The unmarried 17- to 25-year-olds, from families on relief, lived in War Department camps.

"It was reveille in the morning and taps at night and we did what we were told," says Harry D. Dallas, 76, of St. Louis, who as a teen-ager built CCC dams in Illinois. "We said 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' We didn't know how to talk back or say no to someone in authority. Not like today, when a kid is told to do something and he asks 4,000 questions."

The last weekend in September, remnants of the country's longest continuously meeting CCC alumni group, the Shenandoah Chapter of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, met for what they said was the 63rd annual time in or near Shenandoah National Park. With families present at the Skyland resort, 21 men watched as their famous handiwork -- the park's Skyline Drive -- was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Weavley Groves, 79, of Chesapeake, Va., brought the rusted 8-foot saw he used in 1937 as an 18-year-old to cut chestnut trees for the drive's Big Meadows campgrounds. He donated it to the CCC archives.

"The C's made me a man," he says. "The work was hard and honest. You can still see our work. We had fun, smoked Hoover Dust -- you rolled your own cigarettes. I kept those friendships longer than [those made as] a Navy Seabee at Guadalcanal in the war."

For all the corps' maleness, it was a woman who was responsible for the cheerful reunion. Colette Silvestri, daughter of Benjamin Silvestri, a CCC sign painter, enjoyed many reunions with her father, who had been especially eager for this one because the Skyline Drive dedication was timed to coincide with the old boys seeing each other again.

"Dad died in July, but we're carrying on," Colette says. "All of us should be CCC boys. They have more of a caring spirit than you see today. Even when all of them are gone, as long as we use their roads and parks, they deserve our thanks. Schools should remember them. Reunions of families will continue -- the last Saturday in September. What they did was so important."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the corps in 1933 to provide work for some of the 13.6 million unemployed (more than 25 percent of the national labor force). The Army ran 75 percent of the mostly segregated camps; the other armed services directed the rest.

There were many rules -- no liquor, for example -- and these were sometimes broken. Work was 40 hours a week in six-month hitches, renewable up to two years. The government supplied room, board, clothing and tools; different agencies supplied plenty of work to be done.

In 1942, the remaining boys quit building roads and trails so they could go off to fight World War II, and the nine-year program ended.

For Dallas, the historian of the 15,000-member, 150-chapter National Association of CCC Alumni, the program was a family saver: "It was good for us, but also good for our families. We put meat and potatoes on the table. We were paid $30 a month; $25 went directly to our families and we got $5 for ourselves. That was big money in those days."

A few women may have worked as clerks, Dallas says, but "they weren't CCCs." A few camps were integrated in the North, but almost all were segregated: all-white, all-black, all-Native American, all-Hawaiian, all-Puerto Rican, all-Alaskan camps.

Some CCCs became famous: actors Robert Mitchum, Raymond Burr and Walter Matthau, and boxer Archie Moore.

Projects suited local terrain. In Maryland, for example, CCCs repaired the C & O Canal, developed or improved more than a dozen state parks, reforested thousands of acres and built 3,500 erosion-control dams and 274 bridges. Many of the 5,000 CCC boys who worked at Shenandoah's 10 camps and who came from the three area states later used what they had learned.

Petro Kulynych, 76, was his camp's chief clerk. Over the next 50 years, he rose from bookkeeper to board chairman of the billion-dollar Lowe's home-improvement business of North Wilkesboro, N.C.

"The CCC was better than what I had at home in the Pennsylvania coal fields," he says. "My father was a miner, from the Ukraine. I didn't want to dig coal. He couldn't send me to college. I went to the CCC here. It changed my life."

Some boys were recruited for their curve ball more than their ax handling. Take Avis Stanley, 84, of Harrisonburg, Va. "I didn't know one piece of wood from another, but I was a lefty and I could pitch. They got five of us baseball players for a camp baseball team. We won the park championship."

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