By Phil James
Sometimes you simply need a fresh start in life. Not the wishful fairy tale kind that magically erases the tearful memories and ugly scars from a previous time, but the sort where someone comes alongside to encourage you, take stock of where you’ve been, note what you’ve learned, and offer guidance for the choices ahead.
When young Ben Pesta arrived in the CCC camp on Buffalo Ridge near Amherst in 1937, his life definitely was not headed in any direction for which he could have planned. He was 600 miles from his Michigan birthplace, seeming like another lifetime away.
Born in Detroit to Polish parents in 1914, Pesta returned to Poland with his family when he was six years old. There Ben became an apt student. “He obtained a diploma in civil engineering from Grudziadz Polyteknik,” said his son Ben II, “and was about to be commissioned as a reserve officer in the Polish army. The army ran a security check on my father and saw that he was a dual citizen. Instead of commissioning him, they expelled him from the country as a potential spy. He was given a week to leave Poland. Had this unpleasant business not occurred, he would almost certainly have been murdered by the Soviet army at the Katyn Forest in 1939.”
Bidding a hurried farewell to family and lifelong friends, he boarded ship for an unplanned return to the United States. His son continued, “My father came to the United States in the depth of the Depression. He spoke five languages, none of which was English. He took what jobs he could find, one of which was as an announcer at a Polish-language radio station in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Eventually he found his way into the Civilian Conservation Corps.”
The early 1930s marked one of the lowest and most desperate times in United States history. Creative, and perhaps inspired, measures needed to be employed to improve the welfare of the nation. When the U.S. Senate passed the Emergency Conservation Work Act in 1933, it included a provision for a nationwide chain of forest camps to be built by an organization known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Within weeks of the program’s establishment, 250,000 men were moved to concentration points where they were formed into companies of 200 and transported into forest areas across the country.
Tasked to protect and make improvements on private forest lands, CCC Co. 2356 at Camp Buffalo Ridge had been carved into thick forest through the raw determination of young men from Pennsylvania and their equally determined overseers. From its establishment in 1935 until Ben Pesta’s arrival in 1937, the camp had grown into a compound of 20 buildings with roads and gravel-surfaced walkways lined with flowers and shrubbery. A 25,000-gallon dammed reservoir built by the boys on a ridge above the camp provided water for their daily needs as well as for a fountain and fish pond in the center of camp. Each of these in-camp improvements was made during the time that the same youthful workforce was busily suppressing forest fires and constructing some 23 miles of the recreational Buffalo Ridge Trail.
The CCC program sufficiently met the needs of the displaced, like Pesta, as well as for those set to aimless wandering by the Great Depression. Camp programs emphasized “education, recreation, religious exercises, broadcasting programs, musical entertainments, athletics, indoor games, dances, speakers and regular lectures,” all while teaching and modeling the individual’s responsibilities to himself and his neighbor.
During his time on Buffalo Ridge, Ben gained fluency in his sixth language, English, and attained the rank of group leader. He earned a Certificate of Proficiency for driving 2000 accident-free miles in a half-ton Chevy truck, and was certified in first aid by the Red Cross.
Meanwhile, 50 miles away in CCC Camp Albemarle at White Hall, camp engineer J. Harvey Bailey toiled with the technical aspects of that camp’s projects. In 2002, while looking at a 1938 camp photo, he recalled the diverse backgrounds of several with whom he had worked.
“Not only the enrollees are on there, but the technical people are on there, too,” said Bailey. “Those dressed in white are the cooks. This gentleman here was a blacksmith, but he had worked in the steel mills for Mr. Carnegie. He worked the steel bars into the steel they used for jackhammers for the Forest Service of the whole state. There’s Russell Bargamin, Crozet area. He was the company commander.
“Mr. W.W. Driscoll was one of the technical men who lived in White Hall. He did various things in orchard work and also with the extract that was used for soft drinks. He’d run mills that crushed and extracted the juices. That’s what he had done prior to the CCC, when the country sort of collapsed. He lived at home. Several boarded there that worked in the camp.
“George Schenck was from Bedford, head of the technical division and had been an old tunnel man in his day. He had worked on several through West Virginia. Railroad work. He was very thorough in that work.”
Harvey Bailey paused and looked up from the vintage photo he was holding. “Did you know Ben Pesta? He and I were very good friends. He was schooled in engineering in Poland. He was at a camp south of us and was sent to help me at P60 (Camp Albemarle.) He was fond of airplanes, too. He was proposed to marriage to a local girl there at White Hall. He was going to take up aviation. By that time they had these flight simulators that they used [for training] before they got them flying. He borrowed some money from me to pay for the course. After the war was over he came back and paid off his indebtedness.”
From mid-1938 until early 1940, instead of facing Stalin’s grisly extermination of Polish officers in Russia’s Katyn Forest, Ben Pesta was an energetic member in the White Hall camp. In the field, he assisted with surveying and construction of the dam at Lake Albemarle, and attained an operator’s permit for all motor vehicles used by the Forest Service. In camp he illustrated and edited the camp’s newspaper, The Trumpeter; formed the Linguist Club to help others learn French, German and Latin; and emceed the camp’s Friday night dances. During his free weekends he courted Crozet High School senior Ethel Kirkpatrick, who lived a convenient few miles from camp.
The tuition money borrowed from Bailey was put to good use: word arrived in camp March 1940 that Ben had earned his private pilot’s license out in sunny California. His engineering degree opened the door for a job at San Diego’s Consolidated Aircraft factory, which led to his convincing Ethel’s parents to allow her to join him on the West Coast, where she became a June bride.
For young men like Ben Pesta and others set adrift by circumstances during the 1930s, the CCC was the right program in the right place at the right time. We are the beneficiaries of the history they made with their new lives.
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: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2014 Phil James