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San Diegans remember their days in the Civilian Conservation Corps

The way we worked

Washing dishes at March Field Camp, 1933
Washing dishes at March Field Camp, 1933

The half-dozen men gathered around the table had come together to talk about events that had happened more than 50 years ago. Some of the men had weathered the50 years better than others, but none so well that the time didn't show in their hands, their voices, and the way they sat. Somehow, though, 50 years didn't seem so very long. Maybe it was the view.

One of the men, Bud Wilbur, had offered the use of his home in Pacific Beach for the meeting, and the view from his patio spanned 180 degrees, from Mt. Soledad to Point Loma to the ocean beyond. Fifty miles, fifty years — it all seemed so close, as though on a clear day you could see a lifetime.

"I went to a CCC camp [at Cuyamaca Rancho] in November of '37. First they taught me to dig holes."

James Denton, and energetic man with a mischievous sense of humor, began the round of recollections: "I guess everybody knows why there wasn't any work at that time. I was the thirteenth in my family, my father was dead, and my mother was trying to hold us all together. I was the only one in my family to go through high school, and when I graduated from San Diego High in 1938, I tried to get in the navy, but I only weighed a hundred and twelve pounds in those days, and I was an eighth of an inch too short. So the recruiter said, `Why don't you go into the Three C's camp. Be the first one in the chow line and the last one to leave. Eat a lot of bananas, and see if they can't stretch you a little bit.'

"So they sent me up to Pine Valley [Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Alpine]. I was there from March of '38 to March of '40. When I got out of the Three C's camp, Cap'n Hubbard asked me what I was gonna do. I told him, why, I was gonna try'n get into the navy, but I thought I was still a little short. So he put me in his own personal car, took me down to the recruit office in San Diego, and told 'em, `If there's anything wrong with him other than his height, get rid of him. Don't favor him, but don't weigh him, either.' So that's how I got into the navy."

The men listened to Denton's tale, laughed out loud, then put their heads down and stared at the ground, as though the story had brought back a few memories of their own.

The camp at Minnewawa was located where the Thousand Trails RV Park in Jamul stands today. (1934 flag award, Camp Minewawa)

The men's lives have gone in different directions over the years. But the one thing they all have in common is that during the Great Depression, each of them served in the Civilian Conservation Corps somewhere in San Diego County. Today there are more than 200 members in San Diego's chapter of the CCC alumni association, the largest and most active chapter in the Western states. Examples of work done by the CCC can still be found throughout the county, including cobblestone culverts in Presidio Park, trails in Cuyamaca Rancho, and campgrounds at Mt. Palomar.

"I was born and raised in Logan Heights, and everybody there was poor," David Naranjo said.

"Most people worked in the [fish] cannery. There were nine kids of us. My Mom and Dad and the oldest kids worked at the cannery, and everyday I'd be home alone. When I graduated from Memorial Junior High, I didn't want to go to high school because I wasn't learning anything. So I said, I better go to work.

"I went to a CCC camp [at Cuyamaca Rancho] in November of '37. First they taught me to dig holes."" He said this with a straight face and a sigh, which brought a laugh and a shake of the head from some of the others. ""Finally, I got on the fire crew. In the summer, we'd fight fires, and in the winter, we'd build dams. There were a lotta fires to fight in those days, and I guess there still are today. I don't know why they don't get some of these guys off the streets to go fight 'em."

Custodian's lodge, Cleveland National Forest, c. 1930

In 1933, when the country was in the grip of a terribly demoralizing depression, one-third of the labor force was unemployed. Five million young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three were without work. Any reason for optimism about the future was hard to come by. At a time when the men should have been entering the most productive years of their lives, many of them had given up hope for finding even the most menial work. "The boys had absolutely nothing to look forward to in 1932, '33," Bob Wafer recalled. "This country was in real bad shape, and to find a job was almost impossible. I remember when the state was building a road through Alpine, you had to have four dependents just to qualify for a pick-and-shovel job."

Henry Teague, a man with a silvery handlebar mustache, added, ""I remember getting in line for a job where they only wanted one or two guys, and there were fifty men in that line. And then, when you did get to work, you had no rights. If you didn't like something, they'd tell you flat out, `I got dozens of guys out there to take your job. Just say so.'"

"If you ran out of work, you couldn't just go down and sign up for unemployment, because there was no such animal,"" James Denton said. Most young men who couldn't find work ended up walking the streets, or else - almost as bad - continued living with their parents. ""In those days, if you got married, that didn't mean you moved out, it just meant somebody else moved in. My mother used to set a table for ten or twelve people every night."

David Beck Brown near the Mt. Helix wall: 'The rock work is one of the few indigenous art forms we have in San Diego County."

Besides economic chaos and rampant unemployment, the country's forests, farms, and rangelands were being destroyed as the country struggled with its first realization that the vast resources of this continent were limited. The best known example of this was the poor farming practices in the Midwest, which eventually brought about the Dust Bowl and dislocated thousands of people. But there were other examples as well. Here in California, many of our publicly owned rangelands were overgrazed by the cattle and sheep of ranchers who were interested only in their immediate profits. Their practice of abusing their grazing rights on cheaply leased federal lands left many fragile backcountry meadows eroded almost beyond repair. California's prime first-growth forests were logged by clearcutting, with no thought to reforestation. Lands laid bare by wildfire were left to erode. The same greed and shortsightedness that had devastated the nation's economy had left it's mark on the landscape as well.

The Civilian Conservation Corps became the first New Deal project that President Franklin Roosevelt proposed to Congress for solving this country's economic and conservation crises. In fact, there were only thirty-seven days between Roosevelt's inauguration, in 1933, to the induction of the first enrollee into the CCC.

Roosevelt's plan was to use the nation's unemployed youth to fight soil erosion, replant the forests, and, eventually, to improve our parks and forests by building roads, trails, and campgrounds for the public to use. Initially, the CCC was to provide jobs for 250,000 young men at one time, though that number eventually grew to 600,000 men in 2600 CCC camps across the nation. Over the nine years of the CCC's existence, more than three million young men served in ""Roosevelt's Tree Army,"" as the CCC came to be affectionately known.

Bill Hardesty, who served at the CCC's soil conservation camp in Vista: "We planted one helluva lot of trees."

"It was a name we earned honestly," said Bill Hardesty, who served at the CCC's soil conservation camp in Vista. ""We planted one helluva lot of trees."

The U.S. Army was the only organization capable of providing the logistical support for such a large number of men, so it was given the responsibility of providing uniforms, food, and transportation and for running the camps. The departments of the Interior and Agriculture provided the work assignments. The Department of Labor did the recruiting. Almost as soon as the program had been established, young men all over the country flocked to enroll.

Bob Hancock, a tall, thoughtful man who selects his words carefully, said, ""It sure beat standing in a bread line, or disappointment after disappointment. You got in the C's, you had something to look forward to. You were able to accomplish something. Even cutting brush alongside a road had a purpose."

Henry Teague: "Guys took pride in their work."

At first only those young men whose families were on welfare were allowed to enroll in the CCC, but later other youths were allowed to join as well. The period of enrollment was six months, with an opportunity to re-enlist. The pay was thirty dollars a month, though the enrollee was only allowed to keep five of that — the other twenty-five dollars was sent home to his family. The immediate effect of this CCC payroll was that a lot of people around the country who had been going hungry now had money for food.

"What my mother used to do is buy a sack of potatoes, a sack of beans, and a sack of flour," David Naranjo said. "In those days, you could feed a family for a month on twenty-five dollars."

Nearly every CCC alumni recalls that the food in the C's was better than what he had been getting at home, and to most of them, the promise of three good meals a day was just as much reason for joining as a regular paycheck. The menu for the CCC's camp at Palomar Mountain on Saturday, May 22, 1937, shows that for breakfast the enrollees were served oranges, oatmeal, milk, hot cakes, scrambled eggs, butter, coffee, and sugar. For supper they were served roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, string beans, cole slaw, cottage pudding, rolls, and hot tea. The boys had to work hard for their food, but most of them say they put on weight during their hitches.

Around the nation, public support for the CCC was practically unanimous. By 1937 and option poll showed that eighty-seven percent of the public favored the program. The only real resistance came from the labor unions, which feared the CCC workers would deprive union members of work. But even that resistance dried up when it became apparent that the unions had no hope of providing jobs for their members. At one point, even the Soviet Union issued a statement praising the CCC.

The enrollees were supposed to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, though plenty of young men lied about their age to get in.Later, the CCC camps were organized for older men — veterans of World War I — who were unable to find work. Many of these older men were skilled craftsmen and were put into positions as foremen, supervising the younger workers. This system of several young and eager workers following the orders of one experienced man no doubt had a great deal to do with the consistently high quality of CCC work. Bill Hardesty recalls one of his foremen: "His name was Everett, but we called him `Boss.' He was thirty years old and as full of hell as the rest of us. He'd go along with a joke, but don't carry it too far."

In San Diego County, there were four main CCC camps, as well as several smaller ""spike"" camps, as they were called. The main camps were Vista, which worked with the Soil and Conservation Service; Cuyamaca Rancho, which built most of the improvements in the state park there; Minnewawa, a segregated ""colored"" camp located south of Jamul; and Pine Valley, near the town of Alpine, which worked mostly within Cleveland National Forest. The only camp still standing today is the one at Pine Valley, which is now the Pine Valley Bible Conference. The camp at Minnewawa was located where the Thousand Trails RV Park, in Jamul stands today. A few of the many spike camps were located at Mt. Palomar (where its workers built many of the roads and campgrounds), San Diego River (above El Capitan Reservoir), Pamo Valley, Fallbrook, Morena Lake (where they built the campgrounds), and La Mesa (the camp that built the rock walls on Mt. Helix).

Almost every federal, state, and local park or forest in San Diego County has some lasting evidence of work done by the CCC. Many of the ranger stations, fire stations, and other buildings in out parks were built by the corps. The cobblestone culverts and walls at Presidio Park were built by the CCC, as were the campgrounds at Cuyamaca Rancho, Green Valley Falls, and Palomar Mountain. Many of the fire roads — or truck trails, as they are often called — were built by the CCC, as were many fire lookout towers, which led to the prevention of countless wild fires. (During the dedication ceremony for the fire lookout tower built by the CCC on Tecate Peak, in 1939, a fire was spotted in Hauser Canyon. No lookout tower has ever been dedicated more fittingly.)

In San Diego County, where manpower for fighting fire had always been in short supply, firefighting was one of the most common duties assigned to the CCC. "In those days," Bob Wafer said, "when a fire broke out, the forest service would put a blockade across the road, and anybody who came down that road who was an able-bodied man, he got a shovel and went to fight fire. If they still needed men, they'd go down to San Diego, go through the card rooms, the pool rooms, then the marine and navy recruiting centers, until they had enough men." But with the creation of the CCC, the forest service had at its disposal a large body of men already trained in firefighting.

David Naranjo said firefighting was a job he learned to love. "As soon as the first sound went out, every guy would grab his canteen and his tools and take off to the fire. The guys at the fire stations would get there first, then the CCC guys would come. Our job was to cut a line to try to stop the fire. As you started out, you'd have to hack the brush just to get yourself through it; then the next guy would make it a little wider, until after about ten men, that line would be ten feet wide. Sometimes we'd stop the fire, and sometimes it would jump over our head. But every man always wanted to be the first guy through. I know I did. You'd get all cut up by the brush, but there was a pride to it."

Some of the men remember the CCC as being more than just hard work, though. In some of the camps, school was held in the evenings, and many of the boys completed their high school education in the C's, including Bud Wilbur, who is now president of the San Diego County chapter of the CCC alumni association. (His wife, Marion Wilbur, is the chapter's historian.)

There was also an active sports program. ""We had some good boxers in the CCC,"" James Denton recalled. ""They used to box downtown on Sixteenth Street. Rudy Machado was a very good boxer. And we had the two Hogue boys from Jacumba, who turned out to be pretty good boxers."

In spite of their often remote locations, the CCC camps frequently held social events. ""At Pine Valley, the guy who owned the store put up a wooden dance floor with lights and everything, and on the weekends all the gals would come up from Imperial Valley, 'cause it was so hot down there, and the guys would have somebody to dance with,"" Denton said.

Every other week or so, the enrollees were given the weekend off to go home and visit their families. Every Monday morning, the CCC ran trucks from San Diego back to the CCC camps.

"Remember? They used to load us up down there by the Balboa Theatre?" Denton asked the others. ""The trucks had governors on them, so they'd only go about thirty-five miles per hour. We'd stop at a restaurant out in El Cajon to have coffee and doughnuts. It'd take about two hours to get to Pine Valley. If you missed the truck, you were hitchhiking all the way back."

Bob Wafer had spent most of the summers of his childhood in Alpine, and he knew the backcountry well. So when he signed up for the CCC in 1933, he immediately became a crew leader. "The forest service's idea was to get men who were already accustomed to the county, who knew about the hills and the terrain."

One of Wafer's first assignments in the CCC was to help build the CCC camp at Pine Valley. From there he was moved almost immediately to a new campsite on the San Diego River, above the El Capitan Dam, where he helped build another camp. ""As soon as we got that all built with tent houses and a mess hall,"" he recalled, ""in came 265 [CCC] boys from Canton, Ohio, who'd never been off a city street before in their lives."

This recollection brought some smiles from the other men. Most of the enrollees in the CCC were from the East, because that's where the bulk of the country's population lived at the time. Most of the CCC camps, however, were in the West, because that's where the conservation work was. When the Eastern city boys, or 'Bowery Boys,'" as they were called, were put with the Western farm boys, there was always trouble. "There was a lotta busting of heads," Bill Hardesty recalled. "I guess I busted a few Bowery boys' heads myself."

"They came in on the Sante Fe, and we met them at the depot with trucks," Bob Wafer continued.

"That night, before going to bed, the [army] officers shook them all down — took away knives, razors, everything."" Still, fighting went on in the camp for days. ""There were all races there; Japanese, Chinese, Puerto Ricans. The head of the camp was Cap'n Grant - a grandson of General Grant, he let us know - and he knew his army. He separated us all, and after about two weeks, things began to settle down. I think the CCC did more for the boys in that way [learning to get along] than anything else it accomplished."

In 1917, when the first Easter sunrise celebration was held on Mt. Helix, there was no road to the top of the rocky knoll overlooking the El Cajon alley. Worshipers had to go the mile or so to the top of Mt. Helix entirely on foot or horseback. Later, during the 1920's, when the Easter celebration became an annual event, a dirt road spiraling around the mountain was constructed, and a thirty-five-foot cross was erected on the summit. With the addition of the road, Mt. Helix became a favorite picnic site, as well as a place where young men took their dates for an evening of necking. Some cynics have even suggested that the white cross on top of Mt. Helix was put there as a memorial to the thousands of young women who sacrificed their virginity there - or at least as a warning to those who are still considering doing so. But had it not been for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built the rock retaining walls on the road to the top of Mt. Helix, the road would have probably washed out every winter and by springtime would have been nothing but a rutted mire. There wouldn't have been any picnics, Easter celebrations, or other rites of spring.

The rock wall, which follows the spiral route of Mt. Helix Drive, averages about three feet high and is several thousand feet in length. According to the CCC alumni association, it was built in the 1930's by members of the La Mesa CCC camp. The wall was made entirely of rock gathered on site, ad except for a concrete cap to hold the rock in place, it was assembled without mortar. Though the wall has a simple, rough-hewn appearance due to its lack of mortar, it has a definite charm that many of the surrounding homeowners have tried to imitate on their own properties. Finer rock work, using modern equipment and mortar, can be built, yet the more modern look somehow lacks the sense of dozens of pairs of hands carefully selecting and placing each rock. The government didn't have the funds to support lavish public works projects — or even to buy the mortar for a simple rock wall — so the workers had to rely on their own skill and resourcefulness to create something of lasting quality. If a body of work can be said to have a spirit, the rock work done by the CCC has the spirit of hundreds of people working together to create a sense of purpose and pride where there had previously been only despair and a little hillside of rubble rock.

Bill Hardesty, who served in the Vista CCC camp and who did some rock work himself, recalled that a wallbuilding crew would consist of several CCC enrollees gathering rock for one fellow, often an older, experienced craftsman, who actually placed the rock. ""Some guys just have an aptitude for rock," he said. ""He could just look at a pile of rocks and say, `That rock goes there.'" If the enrollees paid attention to their leader and showed and ""aptitude for rock,"" they would eventually be given a chance to lay rock themselves.

Rock work done by the CCC has come to be one of the most admired and lasting examples of their work - not just here in San Diego, but throughout the nation. It's common to find drywall - rock wall built without mortar — in the same condition today as the day it was built. Many of the trails in our parks and forests would have been impossible without the tedious laying of a riprap foundation - rock stacked on top of rock to create a level path — done by the CCC.

James Denton, who helped build a pair of rock monuments (on old Highway 80 near the Alpine Forest Station) that used to mark the entrance to the Cleveland National Forest, remembered the rock work this way: ""None of us knew what to do, exactly,. We hauled rock, and somebody was plying cement, and we kept at it until it looked the way ol' Art Brady, who was the foreman, wanted it."

"Well, somebody must have known what they were doing," Bob Wafer interrupted, "because they've been standing there since 1938."

Bob Hancock, who also helped build the monuments , added, "They still look good, too."

"The cement was better then,"" David Naranjo shrugged.

David Beck Brown, an artist and director of the Grossmont College art gallery who lives in La Mesa near the Mt. Helix wall, has grown to admire the CCC rock work, which he has termed "folk architecture...I feel that rock work is one of the few indigenous art forms we have in San Diego County," he says. "It was brought here by the Spanish and the Mexicans, and later the CCC perpetuated it. Besides the rock wall on Mt. Helix, the CCC built a lot of the beautiful cobblestone walls and culverts in Presidio Park. There are also examples of their work in Balboa Park and at Cabrillo [National Monument]. The rock culverts that run from La Mesa to Spring Valley are CCC work, too. After you've seen their work a few times, you can always recognize it. You know it's CCC work."

Brown acquired a special appreciation for the CCC rock work when he tried to rebuild a forty-foot section of the original wall on Mt. Helix. ""The only damage to the wall is where cars have hit it over the years. When the county repairs the wall, they don't use the same technique [as the CCC],"" he says.""At the crest of Mt. Helix Drive, you can see several patch jobs done by the county. They're more concrete than stone, and they look like scars on the original wall."

When a landowner on Mt. Helix Drive hired Brown to repair a section of the wall that had been built on his property, he was determined to do the work in the style of the CCC. "I hired a crew, and we built the wall without mortar, just as the CCC had done. It rained a lot that season, the drainage of this entire slope was directed at that one section of wall, and it washed out. I guess we just didn't have that technique."

Brown redesigned the project to accommodate the water flow, and eventually he rebuilt the wall successfully. But, he says, "because of that experience, I developed an admiration, not just for the aesthetics of the CCC work, but its basic construction as well. It's both beautiful and functional."

The first time I ever heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps, I was just a knucklehead kid busting rock on a trail crew in Sequoia National Park. Like most kids of my generation — or any generation, for that matter - I didn't know or much care about anything that happened a generation ago — or any generation, for that matter — I didn't know or much care about anything that happened a generation ago. As far as I knew, the trails I was helping to maintain were built by God or perhaps the Indians, and the twelve-pound sledge I swung for eight hours a day was a torture device nobody else in the history of man had ever endured.

Then one day in midsummer, a stout old backpacker in his early sixties caught me taking a break. He nodded hello, slipped his pack off his shoulders, pointed to my sledgehammer, and said, "Mind if I have a try?"

I looked at the hundred yards of rock ahead of me and said , a bit sarcastically, ""Have at it."

It didn't take more than a few swings for me to see that this old boy with the gnarled knuckles and hair growing out of his ears knew considerably more about the mysteries of rock than I did. Besides an economy of motion, which made it see as though he could swing that sledge all day long, it was also apparent that he knew exactly where to strike each rock to make it shatter.

After five minutes or so, I'd seen enough. ""Where in the hell did you learn how to do that?" I asked.

"Why, I helped build this trail back in 1938,"" he said. "I was in the CCC."

Over the years I worked for the National Park Service, I met dozens of CCC workers who had come back to inspect their work. For the most part, their work had aged better than they had. But as I listened to their stories, and as I tried my own hand at rock work and some of the other backcountry skills that aren't used much anymore, I came to admire those grizzled old boys who somehow couldn't forget their days in the CCC.

Everything I've ever seen that was built by the CCC contains an understated elegance that speaks of a time when people took pride in their work for the simple reason that there was almost nothing else to take pride in. You can almost look at the old CCC work and hear the old foreman saying, "It's gonna be a long depression, boys. Let's take our time and do this right."

Bill Hardesty explained the high quality of CCC work in this way: ""Back in our day, you was taught to do something right. We didn't have bulldozers or backhoes or graders. We had to do the work with nothing but hand tools. Too many people nowadays are out for the easy way."

Bob Hancock said, ""I don't know if you could get that same feeling about work nowadays. With everything so technological, people figure if it doesn't come from a computer, it can't be worth much."

"Guys took pride in their work,"" Henry Teague said. ""They weren't like a lotta guys nowadays who say, 'How much are you gonna pay me?' then put in as little as they can."

"I don't remember anybody holding a stopwatch on you to see how 'efficient' you were," Bob Hancock said. "The main thing they were after was quality. The whole attitude wasn't, 'Hurry up, we gotta get on to something else.' It was 'Get this job done, but do it right. Then we'll see about the next one.'"

To this day, work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps is the standard of excellence in this country's parks and forests, and even though there's still some fine work being done by trail and conservation workers, I think most of them would agree that when it comes to working under primitive conditions with nothing but hand tools, we'll never again have the social conditions that forced three million young men to go to work for a dollar a day. But where will we ever find people who know how to build a wooden check dam so that it holds water, how to hitch a mule to a stone boat, or how to build a rock wall so it stands for fifty years?"

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Washing dishes at March Field Camp, 1933
Washing dishes at March Field Camp, 1933

The half-dozen men gathered around the table had come together to talk about events that had happened more than 50 years ago. Some of the men had weathered the50 years better than others, but none so well that the time didn't show in their hands, their voices, and the way they sat. Somehow, though, 50 years didn't seem so very long. Maybe it was the view.

One of the men, Bud Wilbur, had offered the use of his home in Pacific Beach for the meeting, and the view from his patio spanned 180 degrees, from Mt. Soledad to Point Loma to the ocean beyond. Fifty miles, fifty years — it all seemed so close, as though on a clear day you could see a lifetime.

"I went to a CCC camp [at Cuyamaca Rancho] in November of '37. First they taught me to dig holes."

James Denton, and energetic man with a mischievous sense of humor, began the round of recollections: "I guess everybody knows why there wasn't any work at that time. I was the thirteenth in my family, my father was dead, and my mother was trying to hold us all together. I was the only one in my family to go through high school, and when I graduated from San Diego High in 1938, I tried to get in the navy, but I only weighed a hundred and twelve pounds in those days, and I was an eighth of an inch too short. So the recruiter said, `Why don't you go into the Three C's camp. Be the first one in the chow line and the last one to leave. Eat a lot of bananas, and see if they can't stretch you a little bit.'

"So they sent me up to Pine Valley [Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Alpine]. I was there from March of '38 to March of '40. When I got out of the Three C's camp, Cap'n Hubbard asked me what I was gonna do. I told him, why, I was gonna try'n get into the navy, but I thought I was still a little short. So he put me in his own personal car, took me down to the recruit office in San Diego, and told 'em, `If there's anything wrong with him other than his height, get rid of him. Don't favor him, but don't weigh him, either.' So that's how I got into the navy."

The men listened to Denton's tale, laughed out loud, then put their heads down and stared at the ground, as though the story had brought back a few memories of their own.

The camp at Minnewawa was located where the Thousand Trails RV Park in Jamul stands today. (1934 flag award, Camp Minewawa)

The men's lives have gone in different directions over the years. But the one thing they all have in common is that during the Great Depression, each of them served in the Civilian Conservation Corps somewhere in San Diego County. Today there are more than 200 members in San Diego's chapter of the CCC alumni association, the largest and most active chapter in the Western states. Examples of work done by the CCC can still be found throughout the county, including cobblestone culverts in Presidio Park, trails in Cuyamaca Rancho, and campgrounds at Mt. Palomar.

"I was born and raised in Logan Heights, and everybody there was poor," David Naranjo said.

"Most people worked in the [fish] cannery. There were nine kids of us. My Mom and Dad and the oldest kids worked at the cannery, and everyday I'd be home alone. When I graduated from Memorial Junior High, I didn't want to go to high school because I wasn't learning anything. So I said, I better go to work.

"I went to a CCC camp [at Cuyamaca Rancho] in November of '37. First they taught me to dig holes."" He said this with a straight face and a sigh, which brought a laugh and a shake of the head from some of the others. ""Finally, I got on the fire crew. In the summer, we'd fight fires, and in the winter, we'd build dams. There were a lotta fires to fight in those days, and I guess there still are today. I don't know why they don't get some of these guys off the streets to go fight 'em."

Custodian's lodge, Cleveland National Forest, c. 1930

In 1933, when the country was in the grip of a terribly demoralizing depression, one-third of the labor force was unemployed. Five million young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three were without work. Any reason for optimism about the future was hard to come by. At a time when the men should have been entering the most productive years of their lives, many of them had given up hope for finding even the most menial work. "The boys had absolutely nothing to look forward to in 1932, '33," Bob Wafer recalled. "This country was in real bad shape, and to find a job was almost impossible. I remember when the state was building a road through Alpine, you had to have four dependents just to qualify for a pick-and-shovel job."

Henry Teague, a man with a silvery handlebar mustache, added, ""I remember getting in line for a job where they only wanted one or two guys, and there were fifty men in that line. And then, when you did get to work, you had no rights. If you didn't like something, they'd tell you flat out, `I got dozens of guys out there to take your job. Just say so.'"

"If you ran out of work, you couldn't just go down and sign up for unemployment, because there was no such animal,"" James Denton said. Most young men who couldn't find work ended up walking the streets, or else - almost as bad - continued living with their parents. ""In those days, if you got married, that didn't mean you moved out, it just meant somebody else moved in. My mother used to set a table for ten or twelve people every night."

David Beck Brown near the Mt. Helix wall: 'The rock work is one of the few indigenous art forms we have in San Diego County."

Besides economic chaos and rampant unemployment, the country's forests, farms, and rangelands were being destroyed as the country struggled with its first realization that the vast resources of this continent were limited. The best known example of this was the poor farming practices in the Midwest, which eventually brought about the Dust Bowl and dislocated thousands of people. But there were other examples as well. Here in California, many of our publicly owned rangelands were overgrazed by the cattle and sheep of ranchers who were interested only in their immediate profits. Their practice of abusing their grazing rights on cheaply leased federal lands left many fragile backcountry meadows eroded almost beyond repair. California's prime first-growth forests were logged by clearcutting, with no thought to reforestation. Lands laid bare by wildfire were left to erode. The same greed and shortsightedness that had devastated the nation's economy had left it's mark on the landscape as well.

The Civilian Conservation Corps became the first New Deal project that President Franklin Roosevelt proposed to Congress for solving this country's economic and conservation crises. In fact, there were only thirty-seven days between Roosevelt's inauguration, in 1933, to the induction of the first enrollee into the CCC.

Roosevelt's plan was to use the nation's unemployed youth to fight soil erosion, replant the forests, and, eventually, to improve our parks and forests by building roads, trails, and campgrounds for the public to use. Initially, the CCC was to provide jobs for 250,000 young men at one time, though that number eventually grew to 600,000 men in 2600 CCC camps across the nation. Over the nine years of the CCC's existence, more than three million young men served in ""Roosevelt's Tree Army,"" as the CCC came to be affectionately known.

Bill Hardesty, who served at the CCC's soil conservation camp in Vista: "We planted one helluva lot of trees."

"It was a name we earned honestly," said Bill Hardesty, who served at the CCC's soil conservation camp in Vista. ""We planted one helluva lot of trees."

The U.S. Army was the only organization capable of providing the logistical support for such a large number of men, so it was given the responsibility of providing uniforms, food, and transportation and for running the camps. The departments of the Interior and Agriculture provided the work assignments. The Department of Labor did the recruiting. Almost as soon as the program had been established, young men all over the country flocked to enroll.

Bob Hancock, a tall, thoughtful man who selects his words carefully, said, ""It sure beat standing in a bread line, or disappointment after disappointment. You got in the C's, you had something to look forward to. You were able to accomplish something. Even cutting brush alongside a road had a purpose."

Henry Teague: "Guys took pride in their work."

At first only those young men whose families were on welfare were allowed to enroll in the CCC, but later other youths were allowed to join as well. The period of enrollment was six months, with an opportunity to re-enlist. The pay was thirty dollars a month, though the enrollee was only allowed to keep five of that — the other twenty-five dollars was sent home to his family. The immediate effect of this CCC payroll was that a lot of people around the country who had been going hungry now had money for food.

"What my mother used to do is buy a sack of potatoes, a sack of beans, and a sack of flour," David Naranjo said. "In those days, you could feed a family for a month on twenty-five dollars."

Nearly every CCC alumni recalls that the food in the C's was better than what he had been getting at home, and to most of them, the promise of three good meals a day was just as much reason for joining as a regular paycheck. The menu for the CCC's camp at Palomar Mountain on Saturday, May 22, 1937, shows that for breakfast the enrollees were served oranges, oatmeal, milk, hot cakes, scrambled eggs, butter, coffee, and sugar. For supper they were served roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, string beans, cole slaw, cottage pudding, rolls, and hot tea. The boys had to work hard for their food, but most of them say they put on weight during their hitches.

Around the nation, public support for the CCC was practically unanimous. By 1937 and option poll showed that eighty-seven percent of the public favored the program. The only real resistance came from the labor unions, which feared the CCC workers would deprive union members of work. But even that resistance dried up when it became apparent that the unions had no hope of providing jobs for their members. At one point, even the Soviet Union issued a statement praising the CCC.

The enrollees were supposed to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, though plenty of young men lied about their age to get in.Later, the CCC camps were organized for older men — veterans of World War I — who were unable to find work. Many of these older men were skilled craftsmen and were put into positions as foremen, supervising the younger workers. This system of several young and eager workers following the orders of one experienced man no doubt had a great deal to do with the consistently high quality of CCC work. Bill Hardesty recalls one of his foremen: "His name was Everett, but we called him `Boss.' He was thirty years old and as full of hell as the rest of us. He'd go along with a joke, but don't carry it too far."

In San Diego County, there were four main CCC camps, as well as several smaller ""spike"" camps, as they were called. The main camps were Vista, which worked with the Soil and Conservation Service; Cuyamaca Rancho, which built most of the improvements in the state park there; Minnewawa, a segregated ""colored"" camp located south of Jamul; and Pine Valley, near the town of Alpine, which worked mostly within Cleveland National Forest. The only camp still standing today is the one at Pine Valley, which is now the Pine Valley Bible Conference. The camp at Minnewawa was located where the Thousand Trails RV Park, in Jamul stands today. A few of the many spike camps were located at Mt. Palomar (where its workers built many of the roads and campgrounds), San Diego River (above El Capitan Reservoir), Pamo Valley, Fallbrook, Morena Lake (where they built the campgrounds), and La Mesa (the camp that built the rock walls on Mt. Helix).

Almost every federal, state, and local park or forest in San Diego County has some lasting evidence of work done by the CCC. Many of the ranger stations, fire stations, and other buildings in out parks were built by the corps. The cobblestone culverts and walls at Presidio Park were built by the CCC, as were the campgrounds at Cuyamaca Rancho, Green Valley Falls, and Palomar Mountain. Many of the fire roads — or truck trails, as they are often called — were built by the CCC, as were many fire lookout towers, which led to the prevention of countless wild fires. (During the dedication ceremony for the fire lookout tower built by the CCC on Tecate Peak, in 1939, a fire was spotted in Hauser Canyon. No lookout tower has ever been dedicated more fittingly.)

In San Diego County, where manpower for fighting fire had always been in short supply, firefighting was one of the most common duties assigned to the CCC. "In those days," Bob Wafer said, "when a fire broke out, the forest service would put a blockade across the road, and anybody who came down that road who was an able-bodied man, he got a shovel and went to fight fire. If they still needed men, they'd go down to San Diego, go through the card rooms, the pool rooms, then the marine and navy recruiting centers, until they had enough men." But with the creation of the CCC, the forest service had at its disposal a large body of men already trained in firefighting.

David Naranjo said firefighting was a job he learned to love. "As soon as the first sound went out, every guy would grab his canteen and his tools and take off to the fire. The guys at the fire stations would get there first, then the CCC guys would come. Our job was to cut a line to try to stop the fire. As you started out, you'd have to hack the brush just to get yourself through it; then the next guy would make it a little wider, until after about ten men, that line would be ten feet wide. Sometimes we'd stop the fire, and sometimes it would jump over our head. But every man always wanted to be the first guy through. I know I did. You'd get all cut up by the brush, but there was a pride to it."

Some of the men remember the CCC as being more than just hard work, though. In some of the camps, school was held in the evenings, and many of the boys completed their high school education in the C's, including Bud Wilbur, who is now president of the San Diego County chapter of the CCC alumni association. (His wife, Marion Wilbur, is the chapter's historian.)

There was also an active sports program. ""We had some good boxers in the CCC,"" James Denton recalled. ""They used to box downtown on Sixteenth Street. Rudy Machado was a very good boxer. And we had the two Hogue boys from Jacumba, who turned out to be pretty good boxers."

In spite of their often remote locations, the CCC camps frequently held social events. ""At Pine Valley, the guy who owned the store put up a wooden dance floor with lights and everything, and on the weekends all the gals would come up from Imperial Valley, 'cause it was so hot down there, and the guys would have somebody to dance with,"" Denton said.

Every other week or so, the enrollees were given the weekend off to go home and visit their families. Every Monday morning, the CCC ran trucks from San Diego back to the CCC camps.

"Remember? They used to load us up down there by the Balboa Theatre?" Denton asked the others. ""The trucks had governors on them, so they'd only go about thirty-five miles per hour. We'd stop at a restaurant out in El Cajon to have coffee and doughnuts. It'd take about two hours to get to Pine Valley. If you missed the truck, you were hitchhiking all the way back."

Bob Wafer had spent most of the summers of his childhood in Alpine, and he knew the backcountry well. So when he signed up for the CCC in 1933, he immediately became a crew leader. "The forest service's idea was to get men who were already accustomed to the county, who knew about the hills and the terrain."

One of Wafer's first assignments in the CCC was to help build the CCC camp at Pine Valley. From there he was moved almost immediately to a new campsite on the San Diego River, above the El Capitan Dam, where he helped build another camp. ""As soon as we got that all built with tent houses and a mess hall,"" he recalled, ""in came 265 [CCC] boys from Canton, Ohio, who'd never been off a city street before in their lives."

This recollection brought some smiles from the other men. Most of the enrollees in the CCC were from the East, because that's where the bulk of the country's population lived at the time. Most of the CCC camps, however, were in the West, because that's where the conservation work was. When the Eastern city boys, or 'Bowery Boys,'" as they were called, were put with the Western farm boys, there was always trouble. "There was a lotta busting of heads," Bill Hardesty recalled. "I guess I busted a few Bowery boys' heads myself."

"They came in on the Sante Fe, and we met them at the depot with trucks," Bob Wafer continued.

"That night, before going to bed, the [army] officers shook them all down — took away knives, razors, everything."" Still, fighting went on in the camp for days. ""There were all races there; Japanese, Chinese, Puerto Ricans. The head of the camp was Cap'n Grant - a grandson of General Grant, he let us know - and he knew his army. He separated us all, and after about two weeks, things began to settle down. I think the CCC did more for the boys in that way [learning to get along] than anything else it accomplished."

In 1917, when the first Easter sunrise celebration was held on Mt. Helix, there was no road to the top of the rocky knoll overlooking the El Cajon alley. Worshipers had to go the mile or so to the top of Mt. Helix entirely on foot or horseback. Later, during the 1920's, when the Easter celebration became an annual event, a dirt road spiraling around the mountain was constructed, and a thirty-five-foot cross was erected on the summit. With the addition of the road, Mt. Helix became a favorite picnic site, as well as a place where young men took their dates for an evening of necking. Some cynics have even suggested that the white cross on top of Mt. Helix was put there as a memorial to the thousands of young women who sacrificed their virginity there - or at least as a warning to those who are still considering doing so. But had it not been for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built the rock retaining walls on the road to the top of Mt. Helix, the road would have probably washed out every winter and by springtime would have been nothing but a rutted mire. There wouldn't have been any picnics, Easter celebrations, or other rites of spring.

The rock wall, which follows the spiral route of Mt. Helix Drive, averages about three feet high and is several thousand feet in length. According to the CCC alumni association, it was built in the 1930's by members of the La Mesa CCC camp. The wall was made entirely of rock gathered on site, ad except for a concrete cap to hold the rock in place, it was assembled without mortar. Though the wall has a simple, rough-hewn appearance due to its lack of mortar, it has a definite charm that many of the surrounding homeowners have tried to imitate on their own properties. Finer rock work, using modern equipment and mortar, can be built, yet the more modern look somehow lacks the sense of dozens of pairs of hands carefully selecting and placing each rock. The government didn't have the funds to support lavish public works projects — or even to buy the mortar for a simple rock wall — so the workers had to rely on their own skill and resourcefulness to create something of lasting quality. If a body of work can be said to have a spirit, the rock work done by the CCC has the spirit of hundreds of people working together to create a sense of purpose and pride where there had previously been only despair and a little hillside of rubble rock.

Bill Hardesty, who served in the Vista CCC camp and who did some rock work himself, recalled that a wallbuilding crew would consist of several CCC enrollees gathering rock for one fellow, often an older, experienced craftsman, who actually placed the rock. ""Some guys just have an aptitude for rock," he said. ""He could just look at a pile of rocks and say, `That rock goes there.'" If the enrollees paid attention to their leader and showed and ""aptitude for rock,"" they would eventually be given a chance to lay rock themselves.

Rock work done by the CCC has come to be one of the most admired and lasting examples of their work - not just here in San Diego, but throughout the nation. It's common to find drywall - rock wall built without mortar — in the same condition today as the day it was built. Many of the trails in our parks and forests would have been impossible without the tedious laying of a riprap foundation - rock stacked on top of rock to create a level path — done by the CCC.

James Denton, who helped build a pair of rock monuments (on old Highway 80 near the Alpine Forest Station) that used to mark the entrance to the Cleveland National Forest, remembered the rock work this way: ""None of us knew what to do, exactly,. We hauled rock, and somebody was plying cement, and we kept at it until it looked the way ol' Art Brady, who was the foreman, wanted it."

"Well, somebody must have known what they were doing," Bob Wafer interrupted, "because they've been standing there since 1938."

Bob Hancock, who also helped build the monuments , added, "They still look good, too."

"The cement was better then,"" David Naranjo shrugged.

David Beck Brown, an artist and director of the Grossmont College art gallery who lives in La Mesa near the Mt. Helix wall, has grown to admire the CCC rock work, which he has termed "folk architecture...I feel that rock work is one of the few indigenous art forms we have in San Diego County," he says. "It was brought here by the Spanish and the Mexicans, and later the CCC perpetuated it. Besides the rock wall on Mt. Helix, the CCC built a lot of the beautiful cobblestone walls and culverts in Presidio Park. There are also examples of their work in Balboa Park and at Cabrillo [National Monument]. The rock culverts that run from La Mesa to Spring Valley are CCC work, too. After you've seen their work a few times, you can always recognize it. You know it's CCC work."

Brown acquired a special appreciation for the CCC rock work when he tried to rebuild a forty-foot section of the original wall on Mt. Helix. ""The only damage to the wall is where cars have hit it over the years. When the county repairs the wall, they don't use the same technique [as the CCC],"" he says.""At the crest of Mt. Helix Drive, you can see several patch jobs done by the county. They're more concrete than stone, and they look like scars on the original wall."

When a landowner on Mt. Helix Drive hired Brown to repair a section of the wall that had been built on his property, he was determined to do the work in the style of the CCC. "I hired a crew, and we built the wall without mortar, just as the CCC had done. It rained a lot that season, the drainage of this entire slope was directed at that one section of wall, and it washed out. I guess we just didn't have that technique."

Brown redesigned the project to accommodate the water flow, and eventually he rebuilt the wall successfully. But, he says, "because of that experience, I developed an admiration, not just for the aesthetics of the CCC work, but its basic construction as well. It's both beautiful and functional."

The first time I ever heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps, I was just a knucklehead kid busting rock on a trail crew in Sequoia National Park. Like most kids of my generation — or any generation, for that matter - I didn't know or much care about anything that happened a generation ago — or any generation, for that matter — I didn't know or much care about anything that happened a generation ago. As far as I knew, the trails I was helping to maintain were built by God or perhaps the Indians, and the twelve-pound sledge I swung for eight hours a day was a torture device nobody else in the history of man had ever endured.

Then one day in midsummer, a stout old backpacker in his early sixties caught me taking a break. He nodded hello, slipped his pack off his shoulders, pointed to my sledgehammer, and said, "Mind if I have a try?"

I looked at the hundred yards of rock ahead of me and said , a bit sarcastically, ""Have at it."

It didn't take more than a few swings for me to see that this old boy with the gnarled knuckles and hair growing out of his ears knew considerably more about the mysteries of rock than I did. Besides an economy of motion, which made it see as though he could swing that sledge all day long, it was also apparent that he knew exactly where to strike each rock to make it shatter.

After five minutes or so, I'd seen enough. ""Where in the hell did you learn how to do that?" I asked.

"Why, I helped build this trail back in 1938,"" he said. "I was in the CCC."

Over the years I worked for the National Park Service, I met dozens of CCC workers who had come back to inspect their work. For the most part, their work had aged better than they had. But as I listened to their stories, and as I tried my own hand at rock work and some of the other backcountry skills that aren't used much anymore, I came to admire those grizzled old boys who somehow couldn't forget their days in the CCC.

Everything I've ever seen that was built by the CCC contains an understated elegance that speaks of a time when people took pride in their work for the simple reason that there was almost nothing else to take pride in. You can almost look at the old CCC work and hear the old foreman saying, "It's gonna be a long depression, boys. Let's take our time and do this right."

Bill Hardesty explained the high quality of CCC work in this way: ""Back in our day, you was taught to do something right. We didn't have bulldozers or backhoes or graders. We had to do the work with nothing but hand tools. Too many people nowadays are out for the easy way."

Bob Hancock said, ""I don't know if you could get that same feeling about work nowadays. With everything so technological, people figure if it doesn't come from a computer, it can't be worth much."

"Guys took pride in their work,"" Henry Teague said. ""They weren't like a lotta guys nowadays who say, 'How much are you gonna pay me?' then put in as little as they can."

"I don't remember anybody holding a stopwatch on you to see how 'efficient' you were," Bob Hancock said. "The main thing they were after was quality. The whole attitude wasn't, 'Hurry up, we gotta get on to something else.' It was 'Get this job done, but do it right. Then we'll see about the next one.'"

To this day, work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps is the standard of excellence in this country's parks and forests, and even though there's still some fine work being done by trail and conservation workers, I think most of them would agree that when it comes to working under primitive conditions with nothing but hand tools, we'll never again have the social conditions that forced three million young men to go to work for a dollar a day. But where will we ever find people who know how to build a wooden check dam so that it holds water, how to hitch a mule to a stone boat, or how to build a rock wall so it stands for fifty years?"

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