The adage “History is local” can be proven summarily in nearly every community around the globe. We relate more readily to national and international events when we have a local perspective.
It can be said that the Emperor Napoleon’s European conquests were represented locally in the person of Claudius Crozet, who was assigned to Napoleon’s headquarters in 1809 as an officer of artillery, and who received in 1812 “from the hand of the Emperor the Cross of the Legion of Honor.”
In central Virginia, the office of President of the United States can be interpreted at shrines to former Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Wilson. Some families in the region readily point out lineages that include these statesmen. Between 1905 and 1908, during his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt retreated for relaxation numerous times to a rustic camp in southern Albemarle County, and nearby neighbors came to know him personally.
Personages, paths and events associated with the American Civil War a century-and-a-half ago can be pointed out all through the foothills on both sides of our Blue Ridge Mountains.
Greenwood Community Center was formally dedicated in 1950 as “A Memorial to the Fallen, A Thanksgiving for the Returned, World War I and II.” The principal speech heard by over 500 attendees on dedication day was given by the ever-colorful Greenwood native Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor, the first woman to be seated in the British Parliament.
A native of Kinsale in Westmoreland County, the late J. Harvey Bailey (1909–2003) was a 24-year-old college graduate with an engineering degree in 1933 making 35¢/hour in a sputtering economy. Then his job ended. The Great Depression left more that 25 percent of the country jobless and with little hope.
But an unlikely group of young laborers aided our nation greatly in the 1930s and early ’40s. Reflecting on that historic period, Bailey wrote, “President Hoover did not return to the White House in 1932. Franklin D. Roosevelt was his successor. The campaign was run on the ability of which candidate could propose and manage a plan which would bring the country to an economy which would furnish a fair living, and assist the individual to support a family and to seek employment where offered.
“The number of unemployed persons had increased enormously, alarmingly in a very short time. Especially affected were the simple laborers.
“The problem before the Federal government stretched across the country. Employment had to be found and distributed countrywide. By the time the President came to office, he had set a plan, or plans, to put the recently unemployed to employment. Of course, this took innovative employment.
“[After Government-funded public jobs were created for some with skilled backgrounds], a class of citizens remained. These were the untrained young people too young to employ. Yet they needed oversight and instruction in what would be required of them when they reached employment age. At the same time, the individual would be earning some money, helping his parents or guardians as the case might be.
“To put this program into action the C.C.C. was put into action.”
Congress passed the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) legislation on March 31, 1933. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program was authorized April 5, 1933. The first enrollee was inducted on April 7. The nation’s first camp, Camp Roosevelt, opened April 17 in George Washington National Forest near Edinburg.
On June 11, 1933, trucks met the early train at Crozet Depot and transported Camp Albemarle’s sleepy-eyed new CCC recruits to White Hall. Nineteen-year-old Walter McDowell (1914–2007) from Portsmouth, Virginia, was among that first round of enrollees: “Trucks carried us up there and put us on that vacant field at White Hall,” McDowell recalled. “Peach orchard on one side of it. They dumped us right out and threw some tents out with us and said, ‘Y’all put ‘em up if you want to sleep inside and keep out of the rain.’ The only bath we had was the Moormans River right down below us. So we were learning right from the start. They cooked outdoors until we built a mess hall [in July].”
At the end of the program’s first enrollment period in September, McDowell noted, “Not many of them left, because they didn’t have any money. They couldn’t get any money at home. That’s the reason they were in there. That was the good life then: three meals a day. Place to sleep. Lot of them didn’t have a place to sleep if they went back home. It was rough days.”
President Roosevelt made a promised inspection of camps located inside Shenandoah National Park in August 1933, and his personal approval brought a morale boost to those in the program and to the nation.
The once-skeptical public soon saw the advantages wrought by the program. States asked for more camps to be established. Once-struggling businesses in nearby towns were encouraged by increased commerce. Monies sent back home by the recruits spread out the benefits even farther. Crime statistics were noticeably lower in some large cities. At the close of 1935, more than 600,000 persons were employed in over 2,600 camps in every state.
Other nearby CCC camps were established in Nelson County to work on state forestry lands near Woodson; at Lyndhurst in Augusta County to build the Sherando Lake recreation area; in Louisa County near Boswell’s Tavern; plus ten camps assigned to Shenandoah National Park.
Harvey Bailey was accepted into the CCC program as Camp Engineer at Camp Albemarle in 1933, a position he held until the CCC’s nationwide success story ended in 1942 following the country’s entry into WWII. At the close of the war, Bailey returned to Albemarle County, where he enjoyed a long career as County Engineer until retirement.
Walter McDowell, too, survived the rigors and deprivations of the Depression and war years. He returned to his Tidewater home and found work as an auto mechanic. Later, he benefited from the growing tourist trade as captain of his own charter boats, the Tiki and the Carrie B, named for his mother, guiding Norfolk harbor tours of the Navy yard and local shipyards.
Both these men, and each of the thousands and thousands of people involved in the CCC program, made their histories locally and nationally. Our towns and our country are richer for their efforts.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James