One day sometime last year, my mom and I asked my Grandma Doris if she knew anything about my granddad Louis Shepherd serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). One of the first record sets family historians look for when researching male family members are military records, because they can be goldmines of information that shed light on the whole family. My grandfather, having been born in 1922, was of an age to have fought in World War II, but if he served, it is the World’s Best Kept Secret – to our knowledge (“as the story goes,” essentially), he was unfit for service due to his scoliosis. So, the question became, what was he up to in the 1940s? My mom was pretty sure he’d served in the CCC, but neither she nor her siblings had details.
Grandma to the rescue! (To those of you who think you don’t have anything to share, YES YOU DO!!!) She headed to her bedroom and came back with a thick folder, out of which she pulled 2 papers. One, a cover letter from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, the official holders of the government’s archival records), the other, a photocopy of my grandfather’s discharge paper from the Civilian Conservation Corps! Score!!
OK, so what even is the Civilian Conservation Corps, you ask? Imagine: It’s early 1933. It’s been a little over 3 years since the U.S. stock market crashed on Black Thursday in 1929. Banks have collapsed, leaving people without their life savings. Around a quarter of the public is unemployed. People are “rioting” for food, marching for jobs, and WWI veterans have recently camped out in DC to get bonus pay for their service. The nation is hurting and people are starving. And you are Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you’ve just been elected President in a landslide victory on the promise of a New Deal package of reforms that will lift the economic fortunes of the nation.
|A Civilian Conservation Corps recruitment poster, ca. 1941. (Public domain courtesy of the Works Progress Administration, accessed via Wikimedia Commons)|
So, you propose and push forward a plan to hire the nation’s young men, ages 17 – 25, who make up a significant portion of the unemployed. You’ll put them to work taking care of the country’s natural resources. They’ll live in camps across the nation and plant trees, fix roads, build dams, restore historical structures, and take on many other projects that will allow them to develop vocational skills, further their educations, and – crucially – send $25 of the $30 they’ll earn monthly back home to their families. This, in a nutshell, is what the Civilian Conservation Corps was.
According to his discharge paper, Louis Shepherd served in the CCC from October 21, 1940 until August 14, 1941, when he was honorably discharged. He was 17 when he enrolled, 18 when he left. Unlike some of the young men in the CCC, Granddad served pretty close to home, in Cabin John, Maryland. That’s in Montgomery County and isn’t terribly far from his mom in Washington, DC, about 12 miles.
The discharge paper says that Louis was an auto mechanic prior to signing up (who knew??), but that his work in the camp was doing canal excavation. The company that Louis was a part of, Company 333 in camp NP-2-MD, was one of two who were charged with restoring the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, an industrial waterway that ran parallel to the Potomac River. Running from Georgetown, in DC, to Cumberland, Maryland, the canal had been in use since the 1800s but had ceased operations after a disastrous flood in 1924.
|The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in use, ca. 1900-1924. (Public domain courtesy of the National Park Service Historical Photograph Collection, accessed via Wikipedia.)|
The 150-200 young men in NP-2-MD and NP-1-MD, just a bit away along the river, cleared away rocks, debris and overgrown foliage, repaired the crumbling walls of the towpath, resurfaced the towpath along the canal, and ultimately restored approximately 22 miles of the canal before World War II diverted funding and resources, leading to the end of the CCC. In their time, these young men at NP-2-MD – all of them black because CCC camps were by this time completely segregated – laid the foundation for later efforts that would see the land on which they worked become the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
|By dionhinchcliffe (Cropped from Washington, Jul 26, 2008) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons|
When Grandma Doris pulled out that discharge paper for Granddad Louis, she opened a door that’s led to a whole world of interesting information, speculation, and things to research. It turns out that NARA has Louis’ Individual Record, at least 6 pages of information related to his service. I’ve sent away for those. It may have been only 10 months of his life, but what did they mean to him, and how did they shape his world?
I’ll be exploring his service and CCC experiences in futures post – especially when his Individual Service Record arrives! – so stay tuned for more. Do you know anything about his service, or about the two camps in Cabin John, MD? Please let me know below!