GREENVILLE— Unknown to many, scores of fascinating activities take place at the Moosehead Historical Society and Museums in Greenville throughout the year. Often times people drop by in search of information and, in the process, provide information of their own which increases the society’s bank of knowledge. Even more exciting are the occasions when an “old timer” stops by and offers a fascinating oral history. Just such an event occurred recently.
Mr. Francis Fenton of Mercer was visiting the Moosehead Historical Society campus with his daughter Carol Gilbert. I had the good fortune to meet them and Fenton, who was born in 1915, regaled me with his memories of Greenville, specifically his being part of the Conservation Corps Unit on Indian Hill. He remembers it clearly as being a lifesaver for him as well as his family back home on the farm. It changed his life and the lives of many young men who were caught up in the dreadful economic depression during the 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spearheaded the 1933 Emergency Conservation Work Act, with the intent to mobilize thousands of young folks to work on conservation projects. For Maine it meant working in the vast forest tracts that made up most of the state. At the time, Francis was working for his board at a nearby farmer’s place. He was about 20 years old and barely getting by. His recently widowed father had no money and nobody around had funds to purchase the farm’s bumper apple crop. “The situation was bad, real bad. That’s why I had to board out for my meals. We didn’t know if we could make it – that was the same for so many families at the time,” Fenton recalled. “The CC Camp was the greatest thing to ever happen to me and to millions of others. That was the best investment the government ever made.”
He heard about the program from a neighbor. Francis remembered the camp on top of Indian Hill in Greenville as being very large. It was the 160th Company, and called the Moose Camp. “There were about 200 boys in the barracks there,” he said. “And it was run like a military camp, all the beds made up nice and tight. Tight enough to bounce a coin on them and everything was kept very clean and orderly,” he chuckled. He started out in KP, as all new recruits did, in 1936. The Greenville Camp was busy at the time with road building. Fenton shook his head at the memory. “Those boys built that road out to Wilson Pond,” he said. “They’d come back awful dirty and awful messy. They worked so hard on that road. And in the winter of ’36, we had a lot of snow too. That made everything harder still!”
He was in Greenville for about a year and a half and remembers the crews spent endless hours shoveling. “The cook wanted me to stay because I knew my way around a kitchen,” Fenton said. Then someone recommended him for medic. “I knew something about medicine too,” he continued. “My great-grandmother was a local doctor with herbs. Why, she had 21 bags of herbs hanging in the woodshed and told our parents what to use if someone started getting sick. We never had to see a doctor,” he added. He watched and learned, even as a child.
He worked under the supervision of Doctor Pritham from Greenville Jct. The good doctor had given him strict orders not to call on him unless it was an emergency. “I had to do everything because when Doc Pritham says something, he really means it!” Fenton declared. “The other medic was letting guys work when they were already sick. It made them even sicker. So, even though I was just a kid, my word was law. When I said a guy was sick, he was sick!” Fenton was able to keep pneumonia at bay in Moose Camp. “Even the officers agreed with me,” he grinned.
According to Fenton, the CCC did a lot of good work in Maine. “They worked on the Appalachian Trail through the state,” he said. “They planted trees, made roads, built bridges. And they got paid well for the time.” The concept behind the corps was to give the economy a kick-start by hiring poverty stricken kids so they could help their families. “Every month we’d earn thirty dollars,” said Fenton. “We’d get to keep $5 and the rest was sent home. It really kept the country going and I was able to help my father survive during that bad time.”
The Maine camps had ten general work project classifications according to the book “In the Public Interest” a pictorial history of the CCC in Maine, written by Jon A. Schlenker, Norman A. Wetherington and Austin H. Wilkins. They included tasks such as fire tower construction, bridge building, access roads and trails, even fire-fighting and emergency work. The CCC was invaluable during the hurricane season of 1938. The book states that six counties in the state were severely impacted and over 150 million board feet of timber was “wind-thrown”. Whole forests were flattened in the storm and many towns were swamped. The CCC was responsible for salvaging about 75 million board feet of lumber, clearing countless roads and creating fire safety strips around acres and acres of downed timber.
In 1936, when Fenton joined the Corps, enrollment was at its peak, with more than two million young men participating. They had to be single, in good health and ranged in ages from about 18 to 28. Most, including Fenton were extremely grateful for the opportunities the CCC afforded them and their families, and learned valuable trades in the process. The Greenville Camp, slated for transfer to a western state in 1938, was called upon to help with the hurricane effort as well. They were retained for ”hurricane fire hazard reduction work” and transferred to a base in Chatham, New Hampshire. Just prior to that Fenton had left the camp. “My turn was up and there were so many others who wanted the life-changing training the CC camps offered,” he said. Fenton knew the war was coming and he joined the Navy.
After the war and 20 years served in the Navy, he retired to the family farm in Mercer and one day was asked to join a group placing a commemorative plaque on the Appalachian Trail near the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. The Greenville crew had been working on the trail around Katahdin. According to the book, “ At the time of the CCC programs in 1933, the Appalachian Trail had barely penetrated Maine.” The crews were not only involved in work around Katahdin but completed a particularly important two-mile link between Sugarloaf and Spalding Mountain along a number of ridgelines, thus the reason for the plaque being placed in that area. Fenton was honored to help install it in 1987. “It was a hard old climb,” he recalled. “That was the first time I ever felt like I was getting old. I had to stop to rest a bit every once in awhile. ” He must have been in his late 70s at the time. But he’s proud of that accomplishment. “It was an honor for me and now everyone who goes through that section of trail will see the marker honoring the CCC,” he smiled. “We accomplished a lot.”
Nowadays, the 98-year old Fenton can be found working on the family farm – Sandy River Apple Orchard, in Mercer. “He’s always busy,” his daughter said. “He’s usually out on the tractor every day taking care of the orchard, or working with the mowers and weed whackers, keeping everything trimmed.” During apple season, his freshly picked heritage apples are offered for sale and Gilbert, a master quilter has restored the barn and 1790s home to accommodate groups of quilters for special Quilt Retreats between Sept. 15 and the end of October. Fenton enjoys the retreats too. “It’s nice to have the farm busy with people again,” he grinned. “My father would be pleased too.” Find out more information at thequiltedappleretreat.com or call 858-735-5862.
The Eveleth-Crafts-Sheridan house on Pritham Ave . in Greenville is open for tours Wed. through Fri. from 1 to 4 p.m. until early October. The Carriage House, which also houses the Lumberman’s Museum, is open all year long from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tues. through Fri. affording you the opportunity to do your own research as Francis Fenton and his daughter did. Contact them at 695-2909 for information or visit mooseheadhistory.org.