Monday, July 20, 2015

“Only Thing Can Find To Do:” Louis Shepherd and the CCC, Part 2

WPA Poster, ca. 1936-1941 (WPA Poster Collection, Library of Congress)

In my last post, I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Louis Shepherd, and what little I knew about his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). My next step was to send away for his Individual Record, held by the National Archives and Records Administration. Well, guess what came in the mail last week??

Yes, indeed - fourteen pages of information, though honestly a fair bit of it was redundant. However, there were some gems of information. In between his actual Individual Record (8 pages), Certificate of Selection (2 pages), and Enrollee Cumulative Record (4 pages), I learned that he:

-          was a beanpole of a 17-year--old, at 6 feet 3 inches and 160 lbs
-          was in good health – 20/20 eyesight, no asthma, no convulsions and - thankfully - no “fits”
-          got his auto mechanic training at Phelps Vocational junior high school (one of his sons also attended this school, in later years)
-          dropped out of school to seek employment

And it’s this last point I want to focus on for the rest of this post. Remember from the previous post that the CCC was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way to provide gainful employment to some of those hardest hit by the Great Depression: young men. 

Nine African American men in CCC employment. ( Public Domain: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

So let’s explore what Granddad’s situation was in 1940.

A snippet of the 1940 Census for Washington, DC showing Louis Shepherd and his mom Katherine
(née Shepherd) Banks as lodgers.

  • He and his mom Katherine are living in a boarding house at 152 D Street, SE, in Washington, DC. (Does this address sound familiar, Cooper/Shepherd family? There was a cute girl next door – I know her as Grandma Elnora!)
  • Including this boarding house, Katherine has at least 4 different addresses between 1932 and 1940.
  • Katherine is listed as a domestic, servant, cook, laundress or maid in every document that lists her occupation from 1920 on.
The Colonial Hotel, in Washington DC. According to a 1939 City Directory, Katherine worked here as a maid that year. (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress)

  • According to the 1940 Census, Katherine is working as a maid in a hotel. In the previous year, she earned a total of $744 over 52 weeks of work. In today’s dollars that’s equal to about $12,636. For an entire year.
  • Katherine is either separated, divorced or widowed in 1940, and has been since at least 1930.

All of this suggests that their financial situation was, if not dire, then not on completely solid ground, especially given the backdrop of the Great Depression. It’s no wonder that Louis would want to help out, especially if he already had his eye on that girl next door and wanted to prove his worth!

According to the new paperwork, Louis at one point worked odd jobs after school and even served as a newspaper boy - what I would give for a picture of that!! But clearly that wasn’t enough, because as his record shows, Granddad dropped out of school to seek employment. Imagine the competition - hundreds of thousands of men and women looking for work, everyone's situation worse than the last. He ended up with the CCC because, according to his file, it’s the “only thing can find to do.”

As a CCC enrollee, Granddad Louis earned $22 a month, worth about $365 today. To put that in context, according to this website, you could get a jumbo loaf of bread for about 5 cents, a gallon of gas for 11 cents, and a Cadillac La Salle for $1,240.

For the first few months, Louis sent all of his earnings home to his mom. When the new year began, he began setting aside $7 per month in his CCC savings account, but all the rest continued to be sent to my Great-Grandma Katherine. After his first term was up, in April of 1941, Louis was apparently still having trouble finding work, because he re-enlisted, under the same terms as his previous contract. But this time he didn’t stay for the whole term: in August of ’41 he was honorably discharged because he had found paying employment. Through a friend's connection, he would serve as an orderly at Weaver Bros., Inc, a real estate firm down the street from the Washington Monument, at 15th and G, NW. And because he’d been setting aside a few dollars each month, he had a little nest egg to withdraw - $56. I wonder what he did with it...

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Can You Dig It? Louis Shepherd and the Civilian Conservation Corps

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 (], 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!