When a young man is dropped into a brand-new life far from home, he surely wants to tell others all about it. Former Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee Walter M. ‘Mac’ McDowell (1914–2007) shared his memories with this writer in 2005:
“I was living in Berkeley [near Portsmouth, VA] in 1933. It was during the Depression and there wasn’t any work going on at all. President Roosevelt decided to get us off the street and give us something to do. They got me into the C-C’s and sent us to Fort Monroe Army Training Camp. Processing C-C boys was all they did there. I went in close to the beginning of the program and stayed at Monroe about a month.
“Then they put us on a train and sent us up to Crozet. Trucks met us there and we unloaded whatever we had from
the train into the truck, and it carried us up to White Hall. Yeah, a bunch of kids turned loose there with three Army officers. They helped us with how to set up tents and stuff like that. We were right out in the open, so we were learning from the start.
“We had to dig a trench to use for a latrine. The only bath we had was the Moorman’s River right down below us. It was kind of roughing it. The tents had a stove and the smokestack went straight up out through the ceiling. We started out with what wood we could gather. Then they got coal and we burned coal in the stoves. That way you could fire them up and keep ’em going all night, after you learned how. It was a learning process, I’ll tell you.
“They brought in trucks so they could get us out doing fire trails. All we were doing then was building fire trails—foot trails—built them right up to the Skyline Drive. Some went up through Sugar Hollow to the mountains, others went up through Crozet. Just rough education: cutting down trees, digging fire trails. When you dig a fire trail on the side of the mountain, you’ve got to level it out. It has to be wide enough for a fireman to get up it and stop the fires.
“Some of us went to Crozet to get our hair cut, but it was a long walk. I had to go to the dentist in Crozet to fill one of my teeth when I was there. They had one of those little foot-operated drills. He stood there and pumped with one foot and drilled my tooth out and then put the filling in it.”
In a letter, Camp Albemarle Engineer and Surveyor J. Harvey Bailey (1909–2003) described the primary mission of the camp: “We were working on private lands, and our main objective was the control and suppression of forest fires, which were somewhat frequent in those days.
“When I came here in ’36, the woods were full of dead chestnut—the insides hollowed out. When set ablaze they were like chimneys 40 to 60 feet high. You would put the fire out around them and, with just a little breeze, the fire would blow out the top and double in size. The Forest Service was training not to destroy your timber by burning, and to suppress as quickly as possible the burning that was not deliberate.”
One can only imagine the number of newsy cards and letters mailed home by the White Hall CCC boys following Camp Albemarle’s close brush with history on Independence Day 1936. On the previous day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had appeared at Big Meadows (just 30 miles away, as the crow flies) in Shenandoah National Park to dedicate that mountain playground. But the next day, on that particular Fourth of July, Mr. President came to Monticello, and the White Hall CCC boys received a special invitation.
Camp Albemarle’s newspaper The Trumpeter detailed the special event in its July 12, 1936, issue. Their coverage stated, in part: “The middle of June brought rumors, which were soon accredited, that enrollees from this Camp and another would participate in the exercises at Monticello, July 4th.
“The Commanding Officer selected these men and instructed them as to the required uniform to be worn. On the evening of July 3rd, it was a common sight to see men polishing buckles, shoes, washing various articles of apparel and other requisite preparations for the coming event. That night everyone retired early.
“The crisp air helped awaken one hundred and fifty men whose very bodies tingled with anticipation of the day’s program. The smiling face of the Commanding Officer greeted the boys in a survey of approval. Sleek hair, shined shoes, clean and neatly pressed trousers and shirts fairly glistened in the morning sun.
“Arriving at the entrance to that historic realm of Monticello, a small group was dropped off to count the automobiles, and route traffic through proper channels. A little farther up another group was left at Thomas Jefferson’s grave [where Mrs. Roosevelt placed a wreath upon the tomb of Jefferson following the President’s speech on the mountain], and at another spot still closer yet another group was detached. Upon arrival at the scene of anticipated excitement and interest, the men eagerly debarked. Some began arranging chairs on the front lawn, and others controlled traffic. After a period of feverish work, which was completed, there was ample time to review the surroundings.
“As the time drew near, the atmosphere seemed to tense. At 9:50 AM, sirens and the loud putt-putt of an escort foretold the arrival of the President. The writer hurried around to a side where a ‘peek behind the scenes’ could be obtained, and was first greeted by the sight of Postmaster General Farley. Then came Governor Peery and Senator Glass followed by the Honorable Franklin D. Roosevelt. After the customary greetings, the procession moved into the house and soon appeared upon the columned porch before the crowded lawn of patriots.
“As the President concluded his speech, everyone was asked to remain seated and refrain from leaving the grounds until he had left the vicinity. Once more the CCC boys went into action suppressing the surge of others to be off immediately. Following the salutations and remaining conventionalities, the men smilingly cleared a lane whereby the cavalcade could leave the immediate vicinity and reach Jefferson’s grave. For what seemed like hours, they fought (with words), argued, implored and pleaded to control that immense surge of traffic homeward bound.
“Around 1:00 PM, the grounds having been cleared, trucks were loaded. Each man gave a huge sigh of relief, with thoughts of a mid-day meal before them. That evening they nursed blisters, aching limbs and sun-burned noses.”
And that was the news from Camp on July 4, 1936.
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