Friday, March 19, 2010
The CCC camp in Chicopee operated from 1935 to 1937, only two years, but made a profound impact on the men who worked there, and certainly a lasting impact on the city. The Chicopee Memorial State Park remains in that general area where they worked, and if there are no monuments to the CCC in town, there is that as a lasting tribute to their efforts and to that unique program.
The first CCC camps in the nation were established in 1933, and this program continued until 1942. At first in the early years, there was no age limit set for enrollees, though later with a re-defining of criteria, only unmarried men from 18 to 25 were accepted, though World War I veterans were allowed to participate in the program. They were housed in separate camps with work to suit their age (most of them would be in their late 30s to 40s) and physical condition.
The CCC also provided vocational and academic instruction. By 1937 it was recorded that some 35,000 illiterate enrollees had been taught to read, over a thousand had earned their high school diplomas, and a few even pursued college degrees while in the CCC.
Millions of acres of forest land and farmland was saved and revitalized. The CCC men participated in flood control and soil erosion projects, strung miles of telephone lines and forest fires.
By the middle of 1935, when the Chicopee camp was created, there were already some 58 CCC camps in Massachusetts. There would be more. There were more camps in the industrialized north and eastern sections of the US than in other parts of the country, because this is where most of the population was, so this is where the jobs needed to be created. First and foremost, this was a program about the creation of jobs, even if those jobs were only temporary.
A young man could join the CCC and be sent to a local camp near his home, but often young men could be sent farther away, to another state, even across the country.
A lot of young men from the Pioneer Valley who joined the CCC were sent out to Ft. Devens Army installation in Ayer in the eastern part of the state to get outfitted with uniforms and to receive basic Army-type physical conditioning by Army Reserve instructors. It was very much a military-style set up, with military discipline.
The enrollees were given usually two sets of clothing, a blue denim work outfit, and a dress uniform that was similar to the Army’s olive drab uniform. In 1938 President Roosevelt ordered a new dress uniform for the C’s that was green.
They were allowed leave periodically, and they had weekends free from work unless bad weather had interfered with projects they needed to get done during the week. In camp they usually had a small library and a recreation hall. Some camps had baseball teams and boxing matches.
A typical day began at 6 o’clock in the morning when they reveille. They had physical training at 6:30, then breakfast. Most of the young men who joined were not in terrific condition, they were undernourished, so physical conditioning was very important. Grounds were policed, barracks put in order, and then roll call. By 7:45 work began, and they worked until noon, and then lunch. If they were near the camp, they’d return to the mess hall, but if they were too far away, sandwiches would be brought to them.
At 4 o’clock in the afternoon they returned to camp. They wore their dress uniforms at dinner at 5:30. Their evenings were free to attend classes or go to the recreation hall, or even into town if there was a town close by. Lights out was usually 10 o’clock.
One of the most famous features of the CCC is that the young men were earning about $25 to $30 a month, and were only allowed to keep $5 to $8 of this. The rest had to be sent home to their struggling families. In this manner, the program supported not just single men, but kept entire families off the street.
They cut trees with a two-man saw. They learned to use dynamite. They learned how to survey, and drill holes, and plant trees. Some joined the kitchen staff and learned how to be cooks.
There were actually two CCC camps in Chicopee. The first was a CCC camp meant specifically for veterans. It was active for only a month from late June to late July of 1933, and called company 371-V, (V for veteran). These men were not local enrollees, but were sent here from Virginia, and the first camp was in the lower Sheridan Street area. These men were housed in tents.
That they were here such a short time seems largely due to complaints by residents in the Sheridan Street area that the camp full of mature men was too close to the playground and their homes. There were reports that due to the delay of implementation by the local engineering department on plans for their assignments, red tape and such, they had an idle period with too much time on their hands. A small number of them were arrested for drunkenness.
They worked at the Cooley Brook Reservoir, and possibly at bit at the Mt. Tom Reservation, records aren’t clear about that. In July this company of men was relocated to the Mohawk Trail. The camp was closed.
Some work continued at the Mt. Tom Reservation, but in March 1936, the local camp was put to work on emergency assistance following the great spring flood that year, rescuing marooned families, transporting refugees and supplies, including cots and blankets to the people they had rescued who were now homeless, doing clean-up and disinfecting. They also led cattle to dry land.
Some of the Connecticut boys were replaced by about 95 new enrollees shipped over from Fort Devans. A handful of these boys were from Chicopee and local towns, but others came from Fall River, Taunton, Worcester, and many towns in the Boston area.
In the Carl Leiner collection of material donated to the Edward Bellamy Memorial Association in Chicopee, there are several mimeographed copies of the camp newsletter. Each CCC camp had its own newspaper or newsletter that was entirely written and produced by the boys, and each newspaper had its own unique name. The Chicopee camp was called Tobacco Road. This was a reference to the popular novel of the time, Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” and the fact that the camp lay just outside of one of the large tobacco plantations that used to be where Westover Air Reserve Base is now, in this case just a few hundred yards from the American Sumatra Tobacco Company.
This is an interesting set of newsletters to read. There are hand-written ads from local businesses. The boys must have solicited advertising to help pay for the paper they were using and mimeograph ink.
Simple ads, like “Compliments of Hi Grade Café and Bowling Alley - 65 Market Street, Chicopee Falls, Mass.”
There were ads for the Chicopee Laundry, the Wernick theatre, Lasher’s greeting cards and fountain service, and the Barber Shop at 69 Main Street, Falls, where haircuts were 25 cents.
There were ads from the Rivoli theater. There was even an occasional movie review written by one of the boys about a movie he’d seen either at the Wernick or the Rivoli. In the November 1936 edition of Tobacco Road, the anonymous movie reviewer did not like “Big Broadcast of 1937”. He says Martha Raye is “one of the most unfunny funny people on the screen.” He was also unimpressed with Astaire and Rogers in “Sing Time”, “most disappointing film of the month.” Clearly this guy had a future as a movie critic. He didn’t like anything.
There were ads from Darcy’s Restaurant at 119 Main Street, Falls, the Imperial Hat Cleaning company of 102 Main Street Falls. There were ads from the Chicopee Falls Fruit Produce Co, where Tony’s Hamburg, tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches cost 10 cents. There is an ad for the Market Square Diner, opposite City Hall where, according to this add boasted, “the right coffee for people who like it right”.
One ad states “Compliments of Dr. Metivier”, who was mentioned in this previous post.
When a young man’s 6-month hitch was over, he had a decision to make. He could re-enlist for another six months, if he was eligible, or he could call it quits. There were many editorials written in Tobacco Road about this. In October 1936, a young man named James Dennis O’Brien was the editor of the paper, and he wrote about the ending of the latest shift of men.
“Some men are leaving camp without definite plans for their future. These men should stop and think twice before they make their final decision. Remember, there is a long, hard winter ahead. Don’t leave Camp just to return to the gang. If you do, you’ll regret it.”
In March, 1937, the editor was a boy named Richard Leonard. He wrote, “A few more days and it will be all over once again….Until the appropriate moment has arrived where you can leave, with the thought that the family can make a go of it, until you land a job, I believe that the CCC is the proper station to park your bag.”
Pretty sober words from young kids who knew what grim realities they were facing back home. The newsletters had silly jokes news about the camp baseball tournament or boxing match, but every once in a while you see these serious editorials about what they were going to do with their lives in the middle of the Great Depression. Many of the boys faced similar situations as Carl Leiner did.
Carl helped to support his mother and younger siblings. Many of these young men had acquired the responsibilities of manhood in their early teens, even before they had ever arrived at the CCC camp. What the CCC camp did was to give them hope for the future, and some skills they could take along the way.
In the later months of the camp’s existence from late 1936 through 1937, they worked on the Atwater Park area at the Chicopee-Springfield line doing landscaping, clearing brush. They build a road and several foot trails and bridges. A fireplace was built, rustic seats and steps. Route 391 cuts across a lot of the back part of what was the Atwater Park area now, so perhaps some of that CCC work is gone.
A lot of the work in 1937 had to do with building forest roads and firebreaks in what is now the Chicopee Memorial State Park, clearing 15 miles of watershed land, 500,000 trees planted, five forest road bridges built, the excavation and removal of two islands in the reservoir. They built a fire lookout tower, and some 5,000 linear feet of guardrail.
When the 1156 company was established in 1935, an Educational Adviser was transferred here from Company 122 to assume direction of educational and recreational activities. He was Mr. Henry B. Fay, later principal of Chicopee High School.
Another member of the staff, second in command of the camp, was Lt. Harry J. Jenkins, who later retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Air Force. He had come to Chicopee from Company 140 at Fort Devans, where he composed the “Civilian Conservation Corps March”.
The boys had their sports teams. The softball team reached the semi-finals of the City Tournament but lost to the Spaulding team, which went on to become the state champions. The 1935-36 basketball team was undefeated in the CCC League, and reached the finals in the Chicopee Industrial League.
We see the boys gathered in the warm weather, and in the snow, always ready for a picture. In one of those snow shots they’ve got their axes and cross-cut saw. In another they all seem to be hiking in a long military file along a snowy ridge, walking away from the camera, their shovels on their shoulders. There’s one of the recreation all. Some guys in the back seem to be playing pool. A bunch of fellows and their tractor.
But if you’re looking for evidence of the CCC camp at the Chicopee State Park, just walk around the park. The camp buildings are gone, abandoned in June 1937, replaced by a stand of second-growth forest. The trails and the beach and water are there for us to enjoy. As for most of the state and national parks and forests, that is monument enough.