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During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps carved out the national and state park system that we enjoy today.
Published Sep. 17, 2009

New York Times

If you've walked a trail, swum a lake or rented a cabin in a state or national park or forest, chances are good that you owe a debt to the "C.C.C. boys," who built, cut, cleared, dug and dammed for public benefit during the Great Depression.

Established in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps marshaled an ax-and-shovel army of 3 million before its end in 1942. Trails, campgrounds, shelters, lodges, fire lookouts - you name it, the CCC made it. Not least, its legions planted trees and shrubs by the truckload, healing scarred lands and enhancing vistas.

The typical corps enrollee was 18; thus, the affable and ubiquitous nickname "boy." But a few slipped in at 14, and thousands of "boys" were World War I veterans in their 30s. They enlisted for six months, but could extend for up to two years. Their pay was $30 a month, with $25 sent home for family support - 1930s-style economic stimulus.

Although Civilian Conservation Corps members worked throughout the nation, a strong case can be made that their heartland was a swath of Virginia centered on the Blue Ridge of the Appalachians.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signature was hardly dry on the act creating the organization when, on April 17, 1933, buses delivered 200 enrollees to a clearing in the George Washington National Forest in the Shenandoah Valley, just west of the Blue Ridge. The nation's first CCC installation was named Camp Roosevelt, of course -and it's the name of the small oak-canopied campground located there today.

Barracks went up, a kitchen, a mess hall. Those assigned to the camp - perhaps 3,000 during the corps' life span - worked throughout the national forest, opening roads and creating recreation facilities.

The camp buildings vanished years ago. Only small signs disclose the layout: barracks here, recreation hall there. But one can imagine that amid the summery buzz of insects, boisterous laughter burst out along pathways now lined with stones the boys laid down.

Ten miles away, atop the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah National Park flaunts its conservation corps legacy. Next to the visitor center at Big Meadows on Skyline Drive stands a bronze statue of the archetypal CCC boy. Shirtless, ax at his side, he represents the swarms of workers - some 10,000 or more - that the corps provided to help develop the park in the 1930s.

The visitor center looks out on a broad, grassy sweep - the meadows - where one of Shenandoah's 10 CCC camps stood. "Around where the barracks were, you can still find lilac bushes that the boys brought from home," Julena Campbell, supervisory park ranger, told me recently. "Imagine those rough-tough guys bringing lilacs up here." Those rough-tough guys also planted more than 200,000 trees and shrubs to beautify and restore eroded areas.

Wavley Groves of Chesapeake, Va., now 91, spent part of his two corps years taking Shenandoah's trees down. "There was a ghost forest when I got there," he recalled. "My first job was cutting those trees with a crosscut saw." The ghostly trees were chestnuts killed by blight, but still standing and spooky when sheathed in ice or frost.

The logs were a bonanza; chestnut was a versatile, rot-resistant wood. In a corps sawmill the logs became planks, beams and shingles. Some of that lumber went into Big Meadows Lodge, imparting a mellow warmth to the walls and vaulted ceilings of its spacious public rooms.

Lunching there on a visit this summer, my wife, Jennifer, and I marveled at the Bunyanesque layering of the featured sandwich, the CCC Club, presumably a testimonial to members' appetites. In truth, lunch sandwiches for the actual CCC boys were bologna or peanut butter and jelly.

We stayed at the park's other large hostelry, Skyland Resort. Its cabins, many with a vintage patina, are scattered over a campus that also includes a commodious dining room. Both Skyland and Big Meadows offer the perfect setting for turning off the world. Simply request one of the many accommodations without TV. None has a telephone, and cell phone reception can be just about nil. Come morning, the silence impels you to look outside, and there on the dewy grass a half-dozen robins are jauntily cavorting.

Along Skyline Drive, the sinuous 105-mile thread that runs the length of the park, climbing up to 3,500 feet, corps crews provided 60 scenic overlooks, picnic areas, guardrails, campgrounds and dozens of miles of trails.

At its southern terminus, the drive joins the much longer Blue Ridge Parkway, which continues 469 miles to Cherokee, N.C. Four thousand CCC boys worked along the parkway, according to Harley Jolley of Mars Hill, N.C., a historian and a corps alumnus. "Landscaping was the primary job," he said, "but they also did hiking trails, campgrounds and shelters. It was a fabulous contribution."

"Fabulous," I submit, isn't too potent a word to describe the corps' work in a Virginia state park called Douthat, a 45-minute drive west of the parkway, near the town of Clifton Forge. Virginia had no state parks until the conservation corps came along and built six, aided by National Park Service expertise. The inventory in Douthat includes trails, a 50-acre lake, stone bridges, a lodge, a dining hall, a bathhouse and picnic pavilions. In a blacksmith's shop, preserved with its authentic grime, young smiths forged hinges, locks and other hardware.

That ironwork embellishes Douthat's most intriguing feature, 25 log cabins. "Douthat was a guinea pig park," Charles Conner, the park manager, said. "They used a lot of different floor plans, trying them out." No two are identical. Three cabins were constructed with logs set vertically, a highly unusual style. Douthat officials scrupulously maintain the original exteriors. Some of the tested plans were replicated in other parks; besides its contributions in Virginia, the corps built cabins in numerous other states.

Jennifer and I stayed in No. 6, a one-room cabin. With its two rocking chairs, the front porch was a joy. As night fell, frogs down by the lake serenaded in basso profoundo. On such an evening, it is easy to conclude that not everything about the Great Depression was bad.