Backroads: The Civilian Conservation Corps

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Men in their new camp uniforms. Images courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

351st Company, Camp 8, Sherando, Virginia

1983 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the CCC Camp located at Sand Spring, south of Sherando. The initials stand for Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to curb unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Camp 8 was one of five such camps in the Pedlar district that housed more than a thousand young men during its nine years of existence.

The 351st Company was organized at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, on May 8, 1933. In the same month, 185 enrollees, four Army officers, and four regular army enlisted men left Fort Monroe for Sand Spring, Virginia.

Eleven days later, they arrived and set up camp. The first rule of order was to clear the land for future buildings. They removed rocks, cut trees, and hauled water from Sand Spring for cooking and drinking. The men washed themselves and their clothes in the crystal waters of Back Creek, which winds down the same mountain hollow today. The men, despite their primitive surroundings, went to work and built a camp that was later considered the best looking in the state.

Tent city, spring of 1933

By that summer a mess hall, complete with electric lighting and indoor plumbing, was constructed.  By autumn, a new barracks, chapel, and a recreation hall were finished, and the grateful men took down their tents and moved inside for the winter. The recreation hall became the main attraction for camp members. Bone-weary men looked forward to the various activities held there after a long day of working in the field. Movies were shown, plays and skits were put on, educational classes were available, and parties were held for the CCC workers. Morale ran high at the recreation hall for the young men 16 to 19 years of age who were employed there.

The camp was located at a point near the northeastern end of the George Washington National Forest, with the goals of timber stand improvement and forestry work. The first step in this direction, and to facilitate fire control, was the construction of fire trails and forest roads to give easy access to the growing timber.  Later, the construction of a lake/recreation area (Sherando Lake) and a planned game refuge (Big Levels) were incorporated in the work program.

Big Levels Game Management Area came about largely through the efforts of Mr. Justus Cline of Stuarts Draft and Judge A. Willis Robertson of Lexington. Both men were closely associated with the Sherando Lake Recreation Area project. 

The actual lakebed clearing started in February 1934. This, along with the work of cutting down trees, started the biggest single project of the United States Forest Service in Region 7. By the time the project ended, these once relatively unskilled men were experts in stone masonry, carpentry, landscaping, concrete construction, and plumbing.  They acquired their new skills through work on the project under the instruction of the technical service.  

New recruits at Camp 8.

Camp 8 was directly responsible for building and maintaining several area roads and also for the construction of six local mountain trails in addition to part of the Appalachian Trail that runs through this district. The CCC members elaborated on and rerouted much of the trail, and many an avid hiker today has the Civilian Conservation Corps to thank for the breathtaking views they are privileged to see along the trail.

The CCC boys were also responsible for the construction of the Coal Road, which runs fourteen miles from Sherando to the Saint Mary’s River; Campbell’s Mountain Road, which runs from Love to the Tye River in Nelson County; and the Sherando Lake Road, which is two miles from Back Creek into the lake itself. Camp 8 also maintained the Howardsville Turnpike from Sherando to the Blue Ridge Parkway, along with the various telephone lines strung along the roads.

Trail construction in the area included Torrey Ridge Trail, Turkey Pen Ridge Trail, Kennedy Ridge Trail, Stoney Run Trail, Bald Mountain Trail, and Cellar Mountain Trail. Anyone who has driven or walked down these trails can appreciate the hard work that went into constructing them.

Camp life enriched many of the local men’s lives during the Depression. One man was quoted as saying, “We ate better on one regular workday than we ever did on the best of Christmases back home.” Lean frames filled out under the careful nurturing of camp cooks such as Alton “Fats” Lewis. Although the men were required to live at the camp while they held their government jobs, those lifesaving paychecks of $30 a month made sure the ones at home weren’t going hungry, either.  Many area men said they would have probably starved if it weren’t for President Roosevelt’s “Make-A-Job” program.

The improved wooden barracks.

Along with all the hard work the men did during that time, there were some sideline activities that amused everyone. Camp 8 adopted two baby black bears, and they became very tame as the men bottle-fed and showered them with attention.  

Another big hit was the camp newspaper called the Spring Owl.  This was a weekly publication filled with clever wit and humorous innuendos the men used when writing the paper. They were careful never to tell the whole story but kept you guessing as to “who done what.”  

Not only did the CCC Camp house government workers during the Depression, but it also became a local POW camp when World War II broke out.  About 150 German prisoners were housed in the barracks, and many participated in painting “stained-glass” pictures on the windows in the chapel.  These colorful hand-painted windows can be seen today in the history room of the Waynesboro Public Library.  Two German prisoners by the names of Hans Schages and Karl Baumann, who were interred at the detention camp in Sherando, received such good treatment by the Americans that after the war, when they returned to Germany, they married and brought their families back to become citizens in a land that was no longer foreign to them. 

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