The Civilian Conservation Corps at Droop Mountain

ECW welcomes back guest author Jon Tracey

“Tower Portal Construction at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park,” in Preserving Pocahontas, Pocahontas County W. Va. Historic Preservation Archive, Item #403, http://www.pocahontaspreservation.org/omeka/items/show/403 (accessed December 13, 2019).

The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s earliest programs to alleviate the hardship of the Great Depression. During its operation from 1933 to 1942, the Corps put over two and a half million young men to work.[1] Designed to put to work what Roosevelt saw as America’s two most wasted resources, unemployed young men and decayed land, CCC camps performed a range of duties. Well-known for their reforestation efforts, enrollees also fought forest fires, prevented soil erosion, created wildlife preserves, built roads, and, most relevant for this post, created state parks. One of the parks they created was Droop Mountain State Park, located in Pocahontas County, West Virginia and preserving the site where the battle of Droop Mountain occurred. Thanks to their hard work, visitors can now travel to Droop Mountain State Park, drive through the battlefield, walk trails marked with interpretation, see a small museum, use recreation pavilions, and view a stunning landscape from atop a log observation tower.

The battle of Droop Mountain was fought on November 6, 1863. There, 5,000 Union soldiers commanded by William W. Averell assaulted 1,700 Confederates under the command of John Echols atop Droop Mountain. After lengthy combat and hand-to-hand fighting, Union troops broke the Confederate defenses. It was the last large engagement fought in the new state of West Virginia, as it helped to cement Union control.[2] Camp Price opened in 1935, working to turn this landscape into one that preserved and interpreted the history thereby blending natural resource management with cultural resource management.

“Two Unknown CCC Workers at Camp Price,” in Preserving Pocahontas, Pocahontas County W. Va. Historic Preservation Archive, Item #697, http://www.pocahontaspreservation.org/omeka/items/show/697 (accessed December 13, 2019).

CCC camps tended to have a little over 200 men at any given time. This number would occasionally fluctuate, and as six-month terms of service began or expired specific individuals would come and go from the longer running camps.[3] Life at the camps followed a strict military schedule. The average weekday work schedule looked as such: “Reveille at 6AM; breakfast at 6:30; a heavy work day and Retreat ceremony promptly at 5PM. A full nutritious meal always followed for dinner, and then it was early lights out during the work week.”[4] Constant healthy meals helped the men who had come from poverty. The average recruit gained about 14 pounds in the first few weeks, and Camp Price noted that the junior enrollees had gained an average of 11 1/3 pounds for a total of 1,408 pounds.[5]

At Droop Mountain, the iconic observation tower and many other buildings such as the museum were built by their CCC camp. A Camp Price enrollee serving there recalled that when they arrived the woods had been heavily damaged by a blight which the camp then attempted to manage using best forestry practices. The camp used the dead chestnut trees to create the lookout tower and cabins, and he noted that they often found Civil War bullets embedded in the trees.[6] Rella Yeager recorded Camp Price’s forestry management duties, describing the removal of dead trees, the eradication of plant diseases, and even the distribution of over six hundred pounds of food to game birds and wildlife during a period of intense blizzards.[7] Uniquely, Johnson also recalled that one of his duties was to compile and print a history of the battle and noted that soldiers’ remains and other relics of the battle were sometimes discovered.

“CCC Workers Playing Music at Camp Price,” in Preserving Pocahontas, Pocahontas County W. Va. Historic Preservation Archive, Item #586, http://www.pocahontaspreservation.org/omeka/items/show/586 (accessed December 13, 2019).

In 1937, members of Camp Price reflected on its accomplishments, recording the following accomplishments among their duties: “developed twelve acres of picnic ground… fifteen miles of fire break has been dug…five miles of horse trails…fourteen miles of telephone line…twenty thousand acres of timber land has been gone over and plant disease eradicated…The enrollees have spent 1340 man days in fire fighting and forty two days searching for lost persons.”[8] These statistics are impressive, even more so considering they built Droop Mountain State Park in only about two years. An educational supervisor at Camp Price recorded the creation of the park. Writing in 1936, he noted, “one year ago Droop Mountain Battlefield was a wilderness,” but through the clearing of underbrush, creation of picnic areas, and footpaths, the park was now accessible. Even as the boys worked on much of the landscape, he concluded by stating, “Camp Price and the entire park are always open to visitors, and on weekends or holidays, enrollees will be glad to point out the points of interest, both historical and scenic.”[9] The enrollees had accumulated an extra duty as they created a tourist attraction – that as tour guides and historic interpreters.

Though most young men had no experience with forestry or their other duties, the CCC worked to ensure that enrollees gained valuable instruction both so that they could perform the assigned tasks and so that they could support themselves after their term of service expired. Local woodsmen were hired as “local experienced men” to help the boys adjust to their new life and serve as experienced supervisors for forestry duties.[10]

The observation tower at Droop Mountain State Park, built by the enrollees at Camp Price. Photo by author.

In addition to these local woodsmen, the CCC arranged for classes on forestry. Roosevelt had stated his interest in giving enrollees “some kind of formal instruction in forestry and the natural history of trees.”[11] Education soon expanded beyond forestry, as many of the enrollees had never completed high school. The camps began to offer education in a variety of topics including forestry, literacy, history, and even some university-level courses. Ranger Medesey of the U.S. Forest Service wrote about the CCC’s education program in The Pocahontas Times. “There is no prescribed curriculum; the program meets the immediate needs and interests of the enrollee,” he noted, “The corner-stone of the entire educational system in the camps is that one learns by doing.”[12]

Education at Camp Price was taken quite seriously. The library grew slowly at first, with 49 books by November 1935, but by February 1936 there was an impressive collection of over 200 books “on every subject from electricity to algebra” that offered “a wealth of material to better ones self.”[13] Many attended practical courses on photography, business, English, and arithmetic, but the recreational courses on dancing or “what to say to your best girl” were extremely popular.[14]

Henry Johnson, the assistant educational officer at Camp Price, recalled that when they first arrived at Droop Mountain they slept in tents until the fall of 1935 when their barracks and other facilities were finished. He also recalled a unique aspect of life at Camp Price, remembering that Camp Price was placed where Confederates encamped and recalling meeting Civil War veterans. He also noted an interesting story:

Life among the 220 enrollees of CCC Camp Price on Droop Mountain was not without its haunting legends. Tales were told of the sound of marching feet on moonless nights around the perimeter of the camp. More than one enrollee, upon returning from seeing his girl friend at Lobelia, Mill Point, Jacox and other points, would scurry through the darkened woods and bring tales of ghostly “Who goes there” challenges. The screaming of bobcats at the camp dump and the cries of the large owls that emanated from the darkened forest served to add to the eerie aura surrounding a luckless nighttime traveler. Only the bravest of CCC workers ventured alone at night into an area alive with memories of those who had fallen and died there.[15]

Map of the Battlefield of Droop Mountain, The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, Plate 135B #2.

Though Johnson understood many noises could have been wildlife or simply local pranksters, the men at Droop Mountain certainly understood and embraced the connection their camp had to Civil War history and memory.

Enrollees at Camp Price remembered their time here positively. They arrived at overgrown hills in West Virginia, and through hard work and time turned it into a beautiful historic park that interpreted the local Civil War history. In many ways, the modern historian owes much to the Civilian Conservation Corps. These men and boys, no longer popular in historic studies, shaped America’s modern preservation movement. The next time you visit a historic site, keep an eye out for log structures and signs detailing the CCC, as the odds are good that they contributed to preservation there.

Jon Tracey holds a BA in History from Gettysburg College and is currently pursuing a MA in Public History and Certificate in Cultural Resource Management from West Virginia University. He has worked as a park ranger for three seasons at Gettysburg National Military Park, and previously worked at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Eisenhower National Historic Park. His primary focuses are historical memory, veterans of the war, and Camp Letterman.

[1] John Salmond, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army:” A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1967), iii.

[2] Terry Lowry, “Battle of Droop Mountain,” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia, July 17 2012, Web. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1964

[3] Larry N. Sypolt, “Civilian Conservation Corps,” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. October 14 2013. Web. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1195

[4] Robert E. Anderson, Written On The Land (Fairmont: ABC Printing, 2002), 10.

[5] The Cannon Ball, January 29, 1937, West Virginia & Regional History Center, CCC Camp Papers Microfiche 0074, MN #1442 Cannon Ball Co. 2598.

[6] Henry J. Johnson, “CCC Workers Haunted by ‘Ghosts’ of Battle,” Wonderful West Virginia, Vol. 46, No. 9, 29.

[7] Rella Yeager, “Camp Price,” McClintic Public Library, Pocahontas County Libraries, WPA Writer’s Project Box, CCC Folder.

[8] The Cannon Ball, August 27, 1937, West Virginia & Regional History Center, CCC Camp Papers Microfiche 0074, MN #1442 Cannon Ball Co. 2598.

[9] “Wilderness Becomes Park: Boys do Great Work in a Year’s Time,” McClintic Public Library, Pocahontas County Libraries, WPA Writer’s Project Box, CCC Folder.

[10] John Salmond, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army:” A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1967), 40-41.

[11] Salmond, 64.

[12] “Ranger Information Box,” The Pocahontas Times, November 14, 1935.

[13] The Cannon Ball, November 26, 1935, The Cannon Ball, February 21, 1936, West Virginia & Regional History Center, CCC Camp Papers Microfiche 0074, MN #1442 Cannon Ball Co. 2598.

[14] The Cannon Ball, November 6, 1935, West Virginia & Regional History Center, CCC Camp Papers Microfiche 0074, MN #1442 Cannon Ball Co. 2598.

 

[15] Johnson, 30.

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3 Responses to The Civilian Conservation Corps at Droop Mountain

  1. Jon-Erik Gilot says:

    Great article! Droop Mountain is a gem of a battlefield.

    • Jon Tracey says:

      It really is! The monuments there are small but meaningful, the interpretation and regiment-specific signage is really well done, and the view and entrenchments are beautiful.

      Plus, those pictures of the CCC boys hanging around the monuments is an awesome extra layer of history to them.

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