Several generations of conservationists recently gathered in central Maine to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a U.S. work relief program designed to provide jobs for young men during the Great Depression.
“The CCC Boys” — Phil Gouzie, John McLeod and Ralph Bonville — were the highlight of the anniversary celebration. The three men shared stories about working at CCC camps throughout Maine, from building a fire road during the bitter winter to building state parks. The program operated from 1933 to 1942, and in that time, it provided 3 million men with jobs related to conservation.
The May 16 event at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Maine Conservation Corps and the 20th anniversary of the Americorps National Service Program, both of which were largely modeled after the CCC.
“The CCC Boys” received The President’s Call to Service Award, presented by the Corporation for National and Community Service to honor those who have provided more than 4,000 hours of service during the course of their lifetime, and were given a congratulatory letter from the White House, signed by President Barack Obama.
Four other Maine CCC alumni received the award — Thomas DesJardins, Wilbur Rickett, Robert Poisson, and the late Peter Madore — though they weren’t present at the celebration. Peter Madore’s widow, Anne Madore was on hand to represent her husband, and said she was pleasantly surprised by the recognition of his part in the conservation of Maine.
Though the CCC camps closed in 1942, the program was never officially terminated. It became a model for conservation programs established thereafter in the United States — on national, state and local levels.
“President Franklin D. Roosevelt made history when he created the CCC on March 31, 1933, just 27 days after he took the oath of office,” said Jo Orlando, Director of the Maine Conservation Corps, in her opening speech at the celebration. “Millions of young men and World War I vets nationwide joined in response in his call to service in outdoor recreation projects. For 11 years, the CCC provided billions of dollars in services and enabled millions of families to live in dignity. The CCC gave young men a taste of military training and discipline that prepared many for service in World War II.”
Among its accomplishments, the CCC erected 3,470 fire towers, built 97,000 miles of fire roads, devoted 4,235,000 man-days to fighting fires, and planted more than 3 billion trees, according to CCCLegacy.org, a national organization that strives to bring awareness to the heritage of the CCC.
“Fast forward 50 years, 1983, when the [Maine] governor and legislature created the Maine Conservation Corps,” Orlando said. “Our mission is to accomplish conservation projects, create conservation employment, provide conservation education and engage conservation volunteers.”
The following are excerpts from the stories told by “The CCC Boys”:
Phil Gouzie, 90, grew up in Westbrook and was the youngest of eight children. He served in the CCC from 1939 to 1941 in Bridgton. He currently lives in South Portland and is the president of the CCC Legacy Maine Chapter 111 and serves on the national board of the CCC Legacy.
“I started off working in the trees. Most of the work we were doing in the fall was painting the gypsy moth clusters of eggs with creosote, which would kill the eggs … well, the highest tree you would ever catch me in was in an apple tree, stealing apples. I wasn’t about to climb these elms. When there’s pictures in ‘The Public Interest,’ which is the bible of the CCC in Maine, showing these boys in these elm trees, hanging by a rope about 60-70 feet in the air, I was a ground man, which meant, if I saw a cluster under a certain branch, I’d point it out, and the guy would swing himself over there and take his creosote brush and paint the egg clusters … I was probably the best one to go under barns, under rocks.
“Later on, I was told that Dr. Hill needed somebody to help them. He came to the camp about two or three times a week to check on the boys, and he immediately put me to work standing by to hand him gauze and tweezers and stuff, pulling out ticks. And most of the boys had what they called boils — it’s like a blister on their neck, and they have to be squeezed. And Dr. Hill didn’t like to do that job, so he gave me a pair of spectacles and he said, ‘Here’s how you do it.’ So I became an expert at taking care of boils.
“I helped the mechanic with the trucks. There’s a picture of me on the board right there with the pickup truck that they issued me. I would load that with these big containers of soup and food to bring to the boys out in the woods. So I had it made. And at night, I ran the projector, and we had old Buck Jones movies, Tom Mix, the Dead End [Kids] and stuff like that.”
John McLeod, 89, of Portland, served in the CCC from 1940 to 1942 in Camden and Bar Harbor.
“I helped build Camden State Park itself — the trails, the trees, right down to the water itself. The big picnic area there, I was on the last part of building that when they closed the camp in 1941. Before they closed the camp, I was a hospital orderly. I happened to hurt myself playing baseball. I scraped my shinbone. Went down to Liberty that night, and it was raining, and the uniforms we had, the dye came out of it and gave me blood poisoning in my leg. I still have the scar. So they put me in the hospital, and I was lucky in a sense because the hospital orderly was going to get out, so they needed a hospital orderly, and I got the job, which gave me $36 a month, instead of what Phil was getting, $30 a month. So we still sent $25 home every month, and we kept our $5 or $6, whatever it was left over. We lived on $5 every month.”
Ralph Bonville, 94, of Freeport, served in the CCC from 1936 to 1937.
“I’ll go back to the beginning, or almost the beginning. I was born two months after World War I. That’s kind of — quite a while ago. I was born Jan 8, 1919 in Presque Isle, northern Maine. In ’34, we moved to Portland. I graduated from Deering High in ’36. Got out of school, there was no work. You couldn’t buy work. The kid upstairs says, ‘Lets join the C’s.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ Well, anyway, we went over. We both signed up, took our examination. My buddy had a hernia. [They] wouldn’t take him. They took me. So I was sent down to Princeton, which was called ‘Far East Camp.’
“… not a road in the place, so they were fighting fires by going in on the rivers, any way they could. So our job was to build a fire road, starting at Princeton and going all the way over to the Penobscot River. We never did finish it. The lumber companies, after the C’s got out of there, they finished it. It’s now called the Stud Mill Road. If anybody wants a ride in the wilderness, it’s pretty good.
“My job was shovelin’ … The truck was here — you had to fill your corner. There was four corners and four guys. And we did that day after day, during the winter of ’36-’37, snow [waist] deep. We’d go in there in the morning. The ground would be frozen from the night before, so they had to put some dynamite in there to loosen it up before we could shovel. It was an experience.”
Gouzie told two other stories at the event:
“My father worked at the Haskell Silk Mill in Westbrook, Maine, and I was one of eight, the baby of eight children. My father came home one night after work — and my mother was a very strong woman, the old typical housewife of the depression and the ‘30s — anyway, my mother was crying, and I really couldn’t remember my mother crying, and I was thinking, why is mumma crying? And I was in high school in my sophomore year. I was more interested in playing football. I weighed 210 pounds and it was muscle then, and not fat.
“So, hearing my mother crying, I snuck down the stairs and I said, I wonder what’s going on, and then she said to my father, ‘We’ll find something else for you to do.’ And he said, ‘The mill is closed. I lost my job. I got no money.’ And my mother said, ‘Well, I don’t know how we’re going to pay the mortgage’ — $500 dollar mortgage, they couldn’t even pay the interest, which was probably $18 a month or something.
“So I’m listening to this and I had heard about the CCC, and I said to my mother the next morning, I said, ‘I’m going to go join the CCC.’ It was hard for her to stop me from doing that. She said, ‘They won’t take you because you’re only 16 years old.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell them I’m 18 and we lost my birth certificate.’ I went to city hall and there was no problem because they knew the circumstances of the people that the mill was closed and there was no work, so I was sent to the induction center at Fort William, and after getting in the truck, I ended up in Bridgton.”
The second story told by Gouzie:
“I was only 40 miles away [from home], and I decided I was going to walk home because I had a weekend pass. And I started to walk from Bridgton, and I don’t think we saw one automobile, me and my buddy. We walked from Bridgton to Naples, which wasn’t bad — 9 miles — and my friend Ray said, ‘I’m going back to camp.’ I said, ‘I’m going to Westbrook.’ He said, ‘You got 30 miles to go.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m going home because I miss Mumma.’ That’s homesick.
“So anyway, I started walkin’ and then I got to the causeway of Naples and a big lumber truck came down with logs chained down and he had one of these signs that they don’t have on today’s trucks, but it’s a white sign that says, ‘No riders.’ And it meant ‘no riders’ because if he got caught with a rider, he could lose his job. And he said, ‘I gotta go out back for a minute.’ And he said, ‘If somebody climbs on top of the logs and hangs onto the chain, you’ll get to Portland because I’m going to N.T. Fox lumber company.’ I climbed onto the load, I took ahold of the chain, and I said to myself, ‘My god, I’m going to die on my way to see Mumma.’ I made it to Prides Corner in Westbrook, if you know [Route] 302, it’s before you get to Portland. He didn’t want to be seen with a CCC boy on the logs when he got to N.T. Fox, so he dropped me off there … so anyway, I got to see Mumma.”