The Conservation Corps Marked Virginia. Now We See The Evidence

The Civilian Conservation Corps built nine surviving cabins at Fairystone State Park in Bassett. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles

October 1, 2020

Traces of a popular group from the 1930s still remain.

EDINBURG – You can see it if you look close enough. Take a walk through Stuart’s Fairystone Park or drive around Shenandoah National Park. You’ll possibly find CCC carved on a tree or another small tribute. This is in honor of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped build bridges, plant trees and otherwise shape Virginia’s landscape in multiple ways.

In 1933, the throes of the Great Depression gripped America. That year, the unemployment rate reached a national high of 24.9%.

With no work in sight and a fledgling government assistance program, President Franklin Roosevelt took charge. He created a New Deal plan, designed to get the country back on its feet.

Part of the plan centered around a specific group of Americans – unmarried men, ages 17 to 25 (and by some accounts, 28) – in need of a job. Thus arose the Civilian Conservation Corps, a group comprised of hardworking young fellows who left a drastic impact on America.

The Conservation Corps

“If you look at the Conservation Corps only through the perspective of the agency – or whoever built the camp, etcetera – you are really cheating yourself of the best part of the history,” said Joan Sharpe, president of the CCC Legacy Board of Directors. “Those were the kids.”

Unfortunately, time swept away some stories. Painful memories padlocked others.

“Many of them were not particularly proud of the fact that they were so poor, they had to be in the CCC,” Sharpe said.

She relayed a story of one Conservation Corps boy whose father worked in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. During his nighttime shift, the father wore a pair of shoes. The following morning when he arrived home, the father gave the same pair of shoes to his son to wear to school. When the son got home, they’d switch again, because the family only owned one pair.

“The stories go on and on and on about the poverty of it,” Sharpe said. “I think that’s what’s hard to fathom.”

Over the years, many workers repressed memories of growing up without certain things.

“We often think of war veterans and how they don’t talk about their experiences because it’s just too painful,” Sharpe said. “But a lot of people don’t talk about their CCC experience either.”

Shapre noted that she receives two or three calls each month from family members shocked by discovering a missing element of a love one’s past.

“They’ll say, ‘My dad died. I was going through his personal things and I saw all of these pictures about the CCC. And he never told me he was in the CCC,’” Shape said. “So there are literally blocks of life – blocks of the CCC experience of a young man – that are being stored in old chests and attics.”

Making money

Pulled from poverty, the boys left their homes in exchange for a cash promise. Signing on for at least six months at a time, workers earned $30 a month.

“They were desperate,” Sharpe said. “They were hungry.”

Even though the young men completed physically demanding projects, they barely saw any of their income. The program required that they send most of the money – between $22 and $25 – back home. Their labor took care of their families.

The trade-off wasn’t so bad. The CCC met all of the corpsmen’s needs. They had fresh food, a roof over their heads and corps-issued clothing and shoes.

Shapre noted that in many cases, the boys used their meager $5 remnants for fun.

“With that five dollars, of course, they would go to the movies and have a beer,” Sharpe said.

Major impacts

With a manpower group 3 million-strong, CCC workers impacted the nation like no peacetime corps before or after them. Depending on their locations, the workers performed various tasks.

One of the largest undertakings was Roosevelt’s Tree Army. CCC workers planted more than 3.5 billion trees. The forests covered lands made barren by fire, erosion, intensive agriculture and lumbering.

The workers also established more than 700 state parks over a nine-year span. There, they built dams, constructed campsites, cleared paths, chiseled stone stairs, maintained access roads, constructed bridges, engineered soil erosion techniques and more.

Other groups, like the Works Progress Administration – similar to the CCC, but hiring workers with established skills – also reshaped America during a dark decade.

“Where I grew up in South Dakota, the projects of the WPA – the dams, the recreational parks, things of that nature – had a huge impact on our poor, meager lives out there on the prairie,” Sharpe said.

CCC disbands

Following the Pearl Harbor bombing in December 1941, America entered World War II. In 1942, the CCC disbanded – a direct result of discontinued funding, diverting desperately needed resources toward the war effort. Once again without a job, many corps workers immediately joined the military.

Living in barracks, dining in mess halls and completing work as a team, the similarities between the CCC and the military uniquely qualified the workers for the transition. The similarities allowed many corps boys to skip boot camp.

“The kids were given their clothing, which was World War I surplus. When you see the photographs of the kids during that orientation period, you couldn’t tell them – unless you were looking for the insignia on the uniform – you could hardly tell them apart from a new recruit in the army,” Sharpe said. “That presence of that military environment all the way through their CCC career left them with a really good understanding of what the military was all about.”

From cooking the same recipes as military members to operating machinery, many workers transitioned easily.

“There were some parts, some tasks within the CCC that were so closely related, that when World War II broke out, those kids who had those jobs could move laterally into military service,” Sharpe said.

Other options

Those who didn’t join the military entered the workforce as prepared employees.

“It was Roosevelt’s idea that they were better off when they came out than when they went in.”

The CCC opened up multiple opportunities for the workers. Along with offering classes for those interested in learning – as most had not attended high school – the corps also gave vocational training.

For the unemployed demographic in the 1930s, learning to drive wasn’t an issue because they couldn’t afford a car. Completing CCC projects, many boys learned how to drive trucks, transporting the staff to and from town and to different areas of larger projects. When they aged out or left the CCC, the workers already met qualifications for obtaining their commercial driver’s licenses.

The work remains

Rebekah Morgan, assistant park manager at Fairystone State Park in Bassett, noted that there are still examples of the CCC’s work in the park today.

“They built the dam, which created the lake,” Morgan said. “And then they actually built nine of our original cabins.”

In 1933, Junius Fishburn, former president of the Southwest Virginia Trust Co. and former owner of the Roanoke Times, donated the land for the CCC’s project. The workers completed the endeavor in 1936, making Fairystone one of six original state parks in Virginia.

The largest state park in its day covering over 4,700 acres, the land showcased staurolite deposits. The ‘fairy stones,’ still prevalent in the park today, often form in St. Andrew’s or Roman cross shapes.

Now, 84 years after the park opened, people are rediscovering the work done by the CCC boys. The influx in visitors is likely due to more people getting outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We think it’s awesome. We’ve been busy the whole time. We haven’t closed down at all. Actually, we’ve been even busier than usual, under the circumstances,” Morgan said. “I want to say we’ve had probably more visitors from locally than we usually do, just because we were open and they could come out and explore.” 

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

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  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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