My Life in the Civilian Conservation Corps
Carl C. Wilson
January 2, 1996
I graduated from Nampa High School in Nampa, Idaho in May 1933. Just before graduation, I heard that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a desire to find jobs for unemployed youths, had established the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon to be called the “CCC.” Although I’d never shown any special interest in conservation, except for love of hiking and fishing, I did need a job. Moreover, the CCC sounded like the answer to me. So, I applied for admission at the local office in Nampa. I was really getting antsy about my chances. So, I asked my cousin, Pearlie, if she would “ask” the Ouija Board for some answers. We all sat around the table, and Pearlie asked the question! Is my cousin, Carl, going to get into the CCC and, if so, when? The answer from the Board was “Yes” and on June 1933.
Well, to make a long story shorter, I heard from the CCC office in Boise that I was to report for induction into the CCC at Boise on June 13, 1933. My dad and mom drove me to Boise in our almost new 1929 Chevrolet, and I reported to the CCC/U.S. Army office in Boise. I signed up for a 6-month stretch. It was a drastic change for me—the only time I’d been away from my folks for a very long was when I spent several weeks with Grandma and Grandpa Robertson in Pine Valley, Oregon. Here I was embarking a real adventure! I was loaded into an olive drab Army truck with a canvas top and seats along the sides and the middle and looking at a bunch of young Idahoans I’d never seen before. Guess we were all a little apprehensive if not scared. Then we rode in this rough breezy truck for about one hour up into the mountains above Boise in the Payette National Forest.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, Camp F-66, Company #970, of the CCC at Gallagher Flats a few miles above Grimes Pass, Idaho, which was to be my address for the next year! We were all “herded” out of the truck by an Army sergeant, who ordered us to stand at “attention.” He said, in some respects, you are in the U.S. Army, and you will be expected to obey orders just as if you were in the U.S. Army. You can only leave camp if you have a “Pass.” If you go without permission, you are AWOL (Absent Without Leave), and the Army will be looking for you.
After this somewhat harsh introduction to my new home, we were shown our barracks where 50 of us would live during the next year. This building was a new KD (knock-down) structure with tar paper exterior walls and no insulation. The parts had been assembled by journeymen carpenters before our arrival. We were ordered into the mess hall where we were given our first taste of Army chow. (It was definitely different than Mom’s home-cooking, but we all ate with gusto—we were tired, worried and hungry.) Then, we were issued our U.S. Army clothing. As I recall, we were given two woolen shirts, a black dress tie, woolen trousers, and a heavy wool coat—all except the tie was that unmistakable olive drab. Our “work uniform” consisted of blue denim pants, a light blue chambray shirt, a blue denim hat, and one of pair of heavy work boots. Unfortunately, the Army shoes were much too wide and too short for my feet—something like a size 7 and a wide EEE. I didn’t realize how bad until about a month later when the arch on my left foot began to hurt so badly I limped. I went to our Camp Doctor, and he said I should have arch support shoes. So, the next time I went home to Nampa, we bought a pair of dress shoes, which I used as “work shoes.” Sadly, that short time in poorly fitted Army shoes has impacted my entire life. My bad arch didn’t keep me out of the Navy when I enlisted 11 years later, but the arch has been weak even in the 1990s! We also were issued the soldiers’ type of olive drab caps—which were for dress up when we left camp! I believe all the clothing was left over from World War I, and it really was stinking from mothballs.
After we got our clothing, we were given a barracks bag into which we were to stuff our new clothing—we also had a small wooden locker into which we put clothing not in use and personal items such as tooth paste, tobacco, etc. The locker stood near the head of our two bunk beds—I lost the toss and gained the upper bunk! We were also given two Army blankets, O.D., of course, and a mattress sack which we were to fill with straw down at the barn. The mattress cover served as our “sheet,” and the two blankets were supposed to keep us warm on those cold winter nights. They did, if we kept the fire going in that big wood stove which sat in the center of the 50-man barracks. (There were three other barracks just like ours, which made this a 200-man camp.) All the enrollees were from the State of Idaho. This was good, because some of the other Idaho CCC camps had some very rowdy young men from the big towns back East!
I almost forgot to mention that each of us received $30 per month of our services, but $25 of that went to my parents. Each of us then had all of $5.00 to spend on candy, cigarettes, etc. Those who smoked cigarettes usually made their own with Bull Durham and papers. Tailor-mades were just too costly!
Once we were established in our barracks, Sergeant “Slim” informed us that as of Monday morning, we were to report to the U.S. Forest Service representative and his crew for work details. After breakfast, which was served at 7:00 a.m., we made our beds so that they would pass inspection; cleaned our barracks, and prepared to line up for work details. Earlier, at 6:00 a.m., we heard the reveille call, and we had to get up promptly or we would be “put on report,” which meant that we wouldn’t be able to get one of those precious weekend passes!
After reveille, we washed, shaved, etc. and prepared for breakfast in the mess hall. Breakfast usually consisted of scrambled eggs (which were easy to fix); canned meat on toast—something or other on toast, and occasionally we had pancakes, which we big and very tasty.
First, I worked on the road crew, and our major task was shoveling dirt from the inside of the road to the outside fill slope. This was really tedious, and some of our lazier CCC boys tended to Goldbrick, which meant they goofed off when the foreman wasn’t watching. I tried to work diligently shoveling dirt—sort of became a “shovel engineer”—and that skill has followed me the rest of my life! At lunch time the chow truck would come out from camp to the job site. The mess crew would dish out into our mess kits tasty stew or some other delicacy. After lunch, we would wash our kits in a tub of soapy water and then rinse them in a washtub of clear water. Seems like there was always a longer line behind the washtub than the rinse water, which showed the need for two washtubs—operations research.
Other jobs I had included helping the carpenter build new mess hall tables then putting linseed oil on them. One of my favorite camp jobs was cutting wood for the kitchen and for the wood stoves in the barracks buildings. I think I got this “cushy” task because of my weak arch and inability to wear the heavy U.S. Army work shoes. Anyway, I helped a real professional woodsman saw up the hundreds of logs we had in our humongous woodpile back in the barracks. For a while, I worked with him on one end of a crosscut saw, and he really worked my tail off! I still have the scar on my arm when I mistakenly reached under the saw to get a chip out of the way. Then, we got a drag saw which speeded up the work immensely. We could get a “round” in just 5 to 6 minutes compared to about 15 with the hand saw. Then, after we had the “rounds,” we were expected to chop the wood in the right size sticks for the kitchen and the barracks stoves. We tried to give the kitchen the best pieces for obvious reasons.
At night after a big dinner, we read, told lies, and sometimes listened to music. “Whitey” Smith played the guitar and sang one of my favorites, “Red River Valley.” Also, Richard Alcorn, from Nampa, had both a banjo and guitar, and he was outstanding on both. On Saturdays, we washed clothes and made the barracks spotless for inspection—we did have the standard “white glove” inspections by either the lieutenant or the captain. Then, we had a doctor’s office where we could go for sick call, cuts, etc. We also had monthly “short-arm” physical inspections. At nights we had also the opportunity to take educational courses. We had two Ed Aids who taught us how to measure logs, how to identify trees, and stuff we could use in a forestry career.
I had several good friends—I can’t remember their names except Gordon Greenway, who later roomed with me at the University of Idaho where I was taking forestry. I also recall Bruce and Harlow, but other names have faded away. I do remember that Perry Oxley was our Forest Service camp superintendent for the entire year I was at Camp Gallagher.
With some trepidation, I recall the time I worked on a big blasting job on Gallagher Flats to Lowman Highway. The jackhammer crews had dug huge caverns (coyote holes) in the rock face above the road next to the South Fork of the Payette River. I helped take into the cave about one ton of black powder and two tons of dynamite. I didn’t begin to worry until I saw a still smoking cigarette butt on the trail next to the exit! When the explosives were all “wired” and the fuses and caps set, we all walked up the road and waited for the big blast. The big boss pushed down the plunger, and the whole side of the mountain dropped into the river. Of course, none of us could go back to camp that night until enough debris was removed from the road surface to permit our trucks to go through. Sad to say, two of our boys were killed the next week when huge boulders rolled down on them from above as they were working on the road.
We were involved in another tragedy on this Lowman Road. About two weeks later, one of the horse packers noticed as he was going up the road toward Lowman that car tracks had gone over the side of the road towards the river. Our crews were involved in locating the bodies of two people who had driven the car over the side of the road. Some mechanics blamed the brand new “free wheeling” which Plymouth had just installed in their new 1933 model.
Life continued on at Gallagher Flats, and all of a sudden, my six months was up. But, my folks and I agreed that I would sign up for another hitch. By now, the 105 pounds (soaking wet) that had weighed in high school was now 135 pounds, and all of it muscle, naturally!
Yes, we did get our weekend passes to go home. Those of us whose homes were in Boise Valley would pay one of our guys who had a car at camp (parked outside, of course) about one dollar apiece for a trip down to the valley and return. My folks who had been notified by letter would then meet me at the Star or Eagle intersection about 7:00 that evening. We would then return by the same means on Sunday eve. Of course, I enjoyed being home and it was great having Mom’s cooking for a change. Also, it gave me a chance to tease my sister and to see Howard Oswalt and other friends. Of course, they were all impressed by me in my Army uniform!
Then, it was tree-planting time at a burn near Grimes Pass that shaped my future. This took place in the spring of 1934. We CCC boys were planting ponderosa pine seedlings in the rain and snow on steep slopes above the river. Working with us, and I guess supervising us were three “foresters” wearing “tin coats” and “tin pants” and seemingly enjoying the rugged experience. It was this plus a little exposure I’d had in the “log-scaling” class at camp and the tree naming (dendrology) which made my mind up about wanting a career in forestry.
Later that year, shortly after July 4, I got my first taste of firefighting on the Silver Creek fire on the Payette National Forest—it was the “one-step” method of line cutting. This brief experience helped re-enforce my decision about a career in forestry. Incidentally, this was the year that so many big fires were occurring in the Tillamook area in Oregon.
I remained at Gallagher Flats, Co. 970, Camp F-66 until mid July 1934 when I was discharged from the CCC, Roosevelt’s finest program. Then, I was back in the labor market. I did work in the hayfields and weeded onions until fall, when I registered at nearby College of Idaho (now Albertson College) for a course in pre-forestry. I had seen a copy of the U. of Idaho catalog, so I knew that I had to take botany, chemistry, mathematics, English, etc. I completed the year here and enjoyed it—there were only 400 students, and the nasty sophomores knew all of us who had to wear green “dinks” as freshmen! In the fall of 1935, I registered at Moscow and began my forestry career. To sum up, it is my feeling that I might have become a bookkeeper or banker or taken some other line of work if I hadn’t had that wonderful year in the CCC. It really shaped my future, and I owe FDR and the CCC program a whale of a lot!