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They answered the call – The Civilian Conservation Corps

Arthur H. Springer, CCC worker, World War II veteran, and survivor of the Great Depression. K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Trail Foundation

The morning started off much as it always did for 19-year-old Arthur Springer. He rolled out of bed a little before daylight. Carrying his boots, he walked quietly past his still-sleeping brothers and down the stairs to the kitchen where he poured a ladle full of steaming oatmeal into a bowl. His mother set two biscuits and a small bowl of lard beside the oatmeal that he proceeded to eat without sugar or cream. It was the height of the Great Depression and sugar and butter were luxuries that he seldom enjoyed.

She poured Artie – Artie was what his friends and family called him – a cup of dark brew made from dried and ground chicory root. It wasn’t coffee, but it was hot and robust. Still, he missed that eye-opening jolt of coffee on cold mornings, but coffee was something his family could rarely afford in those days.

At first light on that early May morning of 1937, Artie shouldered a burlap sack containing a seining net, a short-handled cultivator, a minnow bucket and a few empty lard cans. He then headed off on foot through the corn and soybean fields to the banks of the Scioto River in central Ohio to dig worms. Afterward, he would seine the riffles of the Scioto for soft craws* that he could sell to a bait store for a nickel each.

This is a typical story of making ends meet during the Depression. Artie’s father was a builder of houses and no one was buying new homes in those lean times, so it was up to Artie and his eight siblings to bring in a few dollars here and there in any way they could.

Artie had four brothers and four sisters. His father and the boys would hunt for ducks and squirrels along the Scioto River and run trotlines for catfish at night. His sisters sewed torn garments, took in laundry and worked on the nearby farms picking corn and tomatoes as they ripened in the fertile flood plains of central Ohio.

It was a group effort to keep food on the table, and Artie later reminisced about the fact that he never heard a complaint from his siblings.

He remembered a week where all they had to eat was a bushel of turnips that had been payment for two days of farm work. He said that a cooked turnip never crossed his lips again over the next 68 years of his life. 

It was almost sunset when Artie removed his muddy boots on the porch and walked into the house with the $1.32 he earned from the sale of his soft craws and fishing worms. His mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner when she told Artie that there was a letter from the federal government for him on the kitchen table.

He slowly read the words on the official-looking envelope and then sat down to open it with his Barlow knife. The contents of that letter would forever change his life. He was instructed to travel by train to Oregon where he would be inducted into the Civilian Conservation Corps for a period of six months. At the conclusion of this period, he would re-enlist for another six months, and then another.

He was one of more than 500,000 young men to receive that same notice. He would earn $30 per month, of which $25 would be sent back to his family in Ohio. This was big money for Artie, and he was proud to be in a position to help his struggling family back home. This attitude was shared by most of those who committed their efforts to the vast array of public work projects undertaken by the CCC.

The experience gained in their service with the CCC would change the face of this country and the lives of these young men forever. They did not know it at the time, but they were being readied physically and mentally for the greatest conflict the world has ever known, and it loomed just beyond the horizon. The effects of the deprivations of the Great Depression and the world war to come would produce the greatest generation of Americans in modern times.

What does this have to do with Watoga State Park?

Plenty, as it turns out. The role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the development of state parks in West Virginia cannot be overstated. In the words of the authors of the history of West Virginia’s parks Where People and Nature Meet: “The work of the CCC was the real beginning of the West Virginia State Park System.” 

There were some 2,650 CCC camps scattered throughout the 48 states, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. West Virginia alone had 67 camps including Camp Watoga, Camp Seebert and the Will Rogers Camp.

The typical CCC camp consisted of 12 wooden buildings, a mess hall, four barracks, officers’ quarters, garages, tool house, supply building and a bathhouse. **

CCC workers performed a wide variety of work. In West Virginia, an estimated 55,000 men fought more than 10,000 fires during the tenure of the CCC camps. They built fire towers, roads, trails, bridges, park buildings, lakes, picnic shelters and thousands of log cabins.

These young men planted a staggering number of trees from 1933 through 1942; roughly three billion. In response to the drought conditions during this time period, as epitomized by the Dust Bowl, the CCC worked directly with farmers developing new soil erosion control practices.

Among the West Virginia state parks that the CCC is credited with developing are Lost River, Babcock, Hawk’s Nest, Cacapon, Droop Mountain Battlefield and our very own Watoga State Park.

Take a hike on Watoga’s Lake Trail where you can see the handiwork of these young men in one short hike. You can park near the Administration Building then proceed around Watoga Lake, past cabin 20, the swimming pool and on to the Recreation hall – all of these structures were built by the CCC.

When you return to the Administration Building be sure to visit the CCC Museum. You can’t miss it, just look behind the bronze statue of the CCC worker that graces the grassy area in front of the office.

Ken Springer

Author’s Note: This edition of the Watoga Trail Report is dedicated to my father, Arthur Henry Springer, and all of the young men of the CCC who willingly accepted the opportunity to help their families and their country through discipline and hard physical labor.  

Arthur Springer went on to serve in the US Army for the duration of World War II. He was stationed in the Pacific Theater from August 1941 until June 1945 and was discharged as a highly decorated soldier. A compas- sionate man, he was by all accounts brave in life, and in death. 

Artie died on October 23, 2008. He was but one of more than a half-million young men who stood up when the call went out. His stories of the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the horrors of World War II live on in his children as lessons and warnings of what can be.

* A ‘soft craw’ is a crawfish (crayfish) in the molt stage. This happens several times a year to accommodate the growth of the crawfish. They are exceptionally good bait, particularly for smallmouth bass.

**CCCLegacy.org

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