The Civilian Conservation Corps was probably the single most effective Government program instituted in our nation’s history to help struggling Americans find their footing as society was crumbling around them. It was in 1930, when money was scarce everywhere, especially for young men whose families were having trouble feeding them.
President Roosevelt created a program to put these young men to work planting trees and repairing the country’s ravaged farmland. Administered by the Army, known then as the War Department, camps were established from coast to coast where young men could live and work, grow strong and responsible, and plant pride in themselves.
One of these camps was in Mansfield.
The camp in Mansfield was devoted specifically to Soil & Water Conservation, so that farmers in the area could take advantage of manpower enough to rescue their crop fields from erosion. The young recruits who shouldered this work here were all African American.
Segregation was not the law, but it was certainly the practice at that time on the nation’s timeline. Of the forty-four CCC camps in Ohio, six were designated to be made entirely of Black men. Every one of the camps ate the same food; they all did the same work at the same identical schedule; they all received the same pay. But the white guys and the Black guys didn’t live in the same camps.
That doesn’t mean the City of Mansfield wasn’t glad to have them here.
When word reached downtown that guys in the CCC camp had to wallow through mud to get from their barracks to the mess hall, a huge truck arrived mysteriously the next day loaded with recycled highway bricks. By summer of 1940, there were beautiful brick sidewalks all through the camp.
That worked so well, the camp Commander let it slip that the Government wouldn’t spring for a fence along Route 39, and, within a few days a lumber truck dropped off piles of boards and beams. Two days later, there was a truck loaded with paint.
The entire operation seemed to work that way. In January, the City let it be known they could offer a 12-acre site southeast of town for a CCC camp. In February, there was a short telegram from the Statehouse approving the plan, and then on May 1, a convoy of huge Army transport trucks rolled into town unannounced with enough lumber and roofing to put up 23 buildings that would house a contingent of 200 men.
On June 3, the young men moved in. They voted to call their new home Camp Rocky Fork, after the river at the bottom of their hill.
If anyone in town had any lingering doubts about a camp full of rowdy youngsters, they all evaporated the following summer when a disastrous fire took out two lumber yards in the heart of the manufacturing district. Turns out, one of the skills being taught at the CCC camp was firefighting. As the towering blaze lit the night sky in the Flats, crews of young men appeared on the scene ready to shoulder the hoses and swing shovels.
Most of what we know about Company 3519 and Camp Rocky Fork comes from a memoir written in the 1990s by the camp’s Commander shortly before his death. Col. Roy U. Clay’s account deals candidly with the kinds of racism he encountered from the community, but even more so with the aspects of racism he discovered within himself that he had been blind to. When his office at the camp needed curtains on the windows, his wife sewed up some fabric which depicted scenes of a comic Black character holding an umbrella. He never thought twice about it until he was confronted by an angry Lieutenant who explained how offensive it was to the people of his race. Thus admonished and chastened, Col. Clay took the curtains down himself.
He also wrote, “By accident I learned early that the young men were scared of their mothers. All I had to say was, “Behave or I will write your mother.” They would immediately beg for mercy.”
These events all happened so long ago, and involved something so transient as feeding young men whose bellies were seldom full, that it’s easy to think there is nothing left to show for all their historic activity. Those men are almost all gone now. The camps are long gone. The paperwork documentation is boxed and shelved deep in archives seldom visited. It would seem the colossal effort of 1940-42 served its purpose and disappeared into the dry pages of WWII.
But this is not exactly so.
It was only a few years ago, when I was hiking over a piece of land south of Lexington with a neighboring farmer, that I found out what remains of those young men.
We came out of a beautiful old woodlot into a field high above the valley and he happened to tell me that when he was a youngster he remembered this very field was one that could not be planted in crops because a giant, deep gully cut right through the middle of it. “It was deep enough we used to dump old cars in there,” he said. “You can’t tell it today—it looks perfectly natural.” So I asked how that was possible.
He explained that in 1941, a crew of 25 young men from the CCC camp built a series of large wooden erosion coffer dams in the gully, down the hill, and then brought in top soil by the truckload. “You can’t tell now—it’s all buried deep underneath here. They made this field good as new. We had it planted in spring wheat within a couple months.”
He pointed to the forest we had just walked through and explained that those trees were planted by the CCC kids to hold the hill in place.
Whatever temporal benefits those CCC workers derived in their lives from the time they spent at Camp Rocky Fork, we can never know; but they touched our Richland Earth in ways that still benefit us today, and will for generations to come.