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Wednesday, 31 May 2006 00:00

Hard times and happy days

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On March 4, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. Frank C. Davis, the author of My C.C.C. Days, says “the lights in all the government buildings in Washington, D. C., burned all night, that night.”

On March 9, Roosevelt called the 73rd Congress into emergency session and told them that he proposed “to recruit thousands of unemployed young men, enroll them in a peacetime army and send them into battle against the destruction and erosion of our natural resources.” Before it was all over, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), under control of the U. S. Army, would provide work for three million young men in a “massive salvage operation” that would affect the entire United States.

Eighteen-year-old Frank Davis of Mebane, N.C., was one of those three million young men who joined the CCC. After two weeks at Fort Bragg, he found himself on a train to Bryson City where a truck delivered him to Camp 411 on the Kephart Prong, a point that was located between the Qualla Indian Boundary and Newfound Gap. He also learned that he would be paid $30 a month ($25 of which would be sent to his family in Mebane).

My C.C.C. Days is a straightforward account of Davis’ life at Camp William Holland Thomas (Smokemont). Due to his talent for repairing and maintaining engines and electrical equipment, the young recruit found himself in constant demand at a variety of worksites. He repaired and operated Caterpillars, power shovels and rock crushers. In addition, he became an adept pole climber and assisted in maintaining the telephone lines between the camp and Gatlinburg.

What gradually emerges in this memoir is the scope of the CCC operation in the Smokies. As tons of granite was pulverized and converted into roadbeds, walls, overlooks and stone guard rails, an awesome road construction unit slowly moved across the national park to Gatlinburg, leaving in its wake a network of campgrounds, fire roads, maintenance facilities, fire towers, recreation facilities, scenic overlooks — all created by the CCC.

In addition, the young men in this Smoky Mountain unit quickly demonstrated a remarkable talent for self-improvement. Davis trained his companions, and, in turn, others trained him. In time, the CCC boys participated in education classes and even established their own recreation in the form of a string band. The food was good (and plentiful) and morale remained high.

In addition, Davis gives a fascinating insight into the camp’s daily routine. He recalls good-natured pranks and camaraderie, and sleeping three-to-a-bed when the temperature dropped below zero. He watched the Cherokees play stickball, and gives a candid account of his first awkward attempts to dance at camp-sponsored events. Indirectly, (by reproduced photos of post cards) the reader learns of his courtship of Elizabeth Sherrill, the Sylva girl who would eventually became his wife.

By the time the CCC was disbanded in 1942, the majority of the original enrollees had acquired civilian employment, frequently due to their CCC training. With the beginning of WW II, men who had received CCC training were given priority treatment by the armed forces. In addition, unemployment – the primary reason the CCC was created — had virtually vanished. However, today, more than 60 years after this remarkable project ceased to exist, the CCC legacy is still with us.

My C.C.C. Days contains a generous number of photographs that not only depict Davis’ life in the Smokemont camp but also provide a glimpse into a kinder, gentler time. Although the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, these pictures generate a sense of optimism and innocence. They also reflect a time when the youth of this nation enthusiastically accepted a challenge that required their dedication, hard work and corporation. One cannot help but wonder if such an undertaking could be duplicated in our world today.

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