Go for a hike or a drive almost anywhere in the Adirondacks, and you might come upon a stand of trees, probably red or white pines, of uniform size and age, evenly spaced in straight rows a consistent distance apart. “That’s not natural,” you might think, and you’d be right. You’ve most likely come upon a plantation established during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The CCC was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ideas for putting people to work during the Depression. At its peak in 1933, the corps had 2,600 camps nationwide and employed half a million men (it put nearly 3.5 million, but evidently no women, to work throughout its lifetime, 1933-42). In New York State, some 220,000 enrollees constructed 393 miles of truck trails, many of which are still in use today as hiking or motorized vehicle trails; built 63 dams; planted 18,000 acres of trees; fought forest fires; and dug 107 fish-rearing ponds. They did much of this, and more, in the Adirondacks.
These are among the nuggets in Martin Podskoch’s latest book, the self-published Adirondack Civilian Conservation Corps Camps: History, Memories and Legacy of the CCC. This volume is vintage Podskoch: like his previous books on Adirondack (and Catskill) fire towers and other aspects of regional history, it’s chockfull of information, rare photos, and interviews with oldtimers who personify his subject. Peruse it, and you will be educated, enlightened, and entertained.
The retired schoolteacher begins with a down-to-earth foreword by a well-known CCC veteran, the late Clarence Petty (an unfortunate oversight is that he is not given a byline; one needs to know a few details of Clarence’s early life and assume that his picture is there because he wrote it). Laid off from a Western Union job, Petty began working at the Tupper Lake CCC Camp in 1933 and was promoted to camp superintendent at Brushton, in the St. Lawrence Valley north of the Blue Line, the next year. He remained at Brushton, except for a short stint at Mannsville, “an all-Negro camp [near Watertown] where I learned quite a bit,” until he shut the place down in 1942. It was the last one operating in the region.
“At first I had my doubts about the program because there were so many loafers and so few tools, but it turned out . . . a great success,” Petty declares. “Not only did the boys learn to work, they learned pride in a job well done.”
Petty’s first assignment was to procure firewood for the camp, known as Cross Clearing. Told there were no tools for this task, he walked five miles home to Coreys and brought back an ax and crosscut saw. The “super” randomly chose a dozen men to work with him.
Petty picks up the story: “We went into the woods and none of them could tell one tree from another. I was afraid to let them use an axe. Every time they saw a conifer, they called it a Christmas tree. When I told them to carry wood back to camp they started off in the wrong direction.” Later, the State Police quelled a riot, at which point it became known that among Petty’s crew were escaped prisoners, including some who’d been incarcerated for murder.
Despite these pitfalls, work did get done. Petty’s crew built the Big Deer Pond trail, near Wawbeek Corners, which can still be hiked or skied today. At Brushton, he led a massive reforestation project on abandoned farmland, the result of which can also be seen more than seventy years later.
In his preface, Podskoch explains that his book tells the stories “of the 26 Adirondack CCC camps and the stories of the young men who left their homes to earn $25 a month to help their families survive during the Great Depression. Many had only an eighth-grade education and were wandering … in search of a job. Once in the CCC they felt important, learned how to take orders, developed a love of nature, and learned a trade.”
Next come chapters on the military-style camp organization, and on camp life. We learn that planned recreation included field days with boxing, wrestling, and baseball games and that social activities included dances with “local girls” that sometimes paved the way to marriages.
The preliminaries done, Podskoch delves into the stories of the Adirondack-area camps (some of which, as Clarence Petty’s experience confirms, were outside the Adirondack Park), stretching from Paul Smiths to Old Forge, Warrensburg to Benson Mines.
Indian Lake/Blue Mountain is representative. Podskoch begins with a well-footnoted camp history. It sat near today’s Lake Durant State Campground; the site is easily visible from Route 28/30. The men built the dam that created Lake Durant; built campsites, fireplaces, and rangers’ cabins at the future campground there and at Lake Eaton, Eighth Lake, and Golden Beach campsites; constructed a new dam to replace a deteriorating one at Cedar Lake; and removed flammable blowdown from the 1938 hurricane.
After hours, the men benefited from an education program that offered classes in business law, English, first aid, journalism, and auto mechanics and prepared them for careers after their CCC days. They formed a drama club that performed in area schools, American Legion halls, and churches, and even on a Plattsburgh radio station.
Next, Podskoch turns to his trademark sleuthing out of veterans of these activities, detailing how he tracked them down. Ted Roy recounts the trouble he and three pals almost got into for stealing three apple pies and the time the whole camp had to move forty tons of coal from one spot to another and then back again as punishment for a pillow fight, denying them their chance to go to Tupper Lake where “there was a bowling alley, theater, and girls.” George Bowles describes the privations of working in the woods in winter, adding that “if it was 20 below we stayed in the barracks.” Jesse Merrill says ministers came to camp to conduct impromptu services on Sundays, the only day off of the week, and Leroy Spring, who still lives in Indian Lake, talks about how they made Lake Durant.
The chapter, like the rest of the book, is heavily illustrated with vintage photos, another characteristic of Podkoch’s books. We see the austere camps and mess halls and can imagine how uncomfortable they must have been in frigid weather; the crews at work with Spartan equipment on dams, tree planting, and road building; and some of their more unusual finished projects, such as a toboggan slide on the Potsdam Normal School campus (now SUNY Potsdam). Graying, fuzzy images of baseball games, swim races, and blanket tosses confirm that the CCC was not all work and no play. And there are the portraits of the men today, elderly now, with long-ago looks in their eyes, but occasionally a smile too.
Like many self-published books, this one would have benefited from a professional proofreader. But its fascinating content allows that shortcoming to be overlooked.
The CCC was a federal stimulus project of another era. Government money put people to work in a time of high unemployment and helped the environment too. Not a bad idea.