CCC lives in work, memories |[11/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 26, 2007

Many of the men who served with the Civilian Conservation Corps have died, but their stories and the evidence of their work lives on, especially in Vicksburg.

Randy Sharp remembers some of those stories, told to him by his grandfather, L.J. Simpson, who died about eight years ago at age 80. Sharp recently found a photo montage, taken on Feb. 16, 1940, that shows his grandfather standing in a military-like uniform with the nearly 200 other young men who served with Company 474, NP-3, one of four camps in Vicksburg.

The CCC was begun by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt soon after he was sworn into office for his first term, in 1932. Roosevelt set out to recruit thousands of unemployed young men and send them out to battle erosion and declining timber resources. More than 3 million men took on the task. In Mississippi, about 105 camps sprang up. Here, the focus was the Vicksburg National Military Park, which had been created by Congress in 1899.

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Simpson’s camp was believed to have been based on land owned by the park near the Louisiana monument. Others were stationed on Jackson Road near a park observation tower, in the park where the visitors’ center is and another near the Wisconsin Monument, said Terry Winschel, park historian.

“I remember stories — he used to clean up in the park,” Sharp said. “They cut grass with sling blades. He also told me how they used to climb the winding tower.”

In fact, a photograph of one of the since-demolished observation towers appeared in “A View From the Top” in a Sunday edition of The Vicksburg Post just before Simpson died.

“He smiled and was glad to see that,” Sharp said. “That worked out good.”

About 20 years ago, Sharp went with his grandfather to a reunion at the Masonic Temple.

Winschel said the reunions have been standard among the civilians who filled the camps from 1933 until about 1940.

“They’d say they worked hard, but it was so long ago,” he said. “They couldn’t remember the particulars.”

Most of the work in Vicksburg was to preserve the park.

“The majority of (the enrollees) sculpted hillsides, removing the scars of erosion that had destroyed the historic topography,” Winschel said. “They also hand-planted the dense forest we have in the park.”

The young men, mostly in their late teens to early 20s, were instrumental in building roads and bridges, cutting grass and were the first to conduct tours of the military park.

“That was the start of our licensed guide program,” Winschel said. Today, the Vicksburg National Military Park and Gettysburg are the only two in the system that license trained civilians to conduct tours.

Local genealogist Bobbie Ferguson researched the CCC camps for a class she took about 10 years ago. Her interest stemmed from her uncle, William Smith McKneely’s involvement in the early 1930s. As part of her research, Ferguson talked to many of the enrollees, none of whom is still living, she said.

“Even though it was hard work, they had such great stories,” she said. “They talked about the character it built up in those young men — how it made them. It educated them and made them able to go on. Everyone I talked to — I felt like it was a great tribute.”

Although work was constant, most camps had recreation — basketball, boxing, softball and even bands, Winschel said. Some of the men, many from the North, married local girls, Ferguson said, and stayed to raise families here.

“They had dances every so often. That’s how my aunt met my uncle,” she said.

Historian Gordon Cotton said his friend and longtime assistant director at the Old Court House Museum, Blanche Terry, met and married a man from the camps.

“There would be a whole lot more old maids in Vicksburg had it not been for the CCC,” he and Ferguson both remember her saying.

The CCC enrollees were paid $1 a day and, when they received their pay, they were required to send $5 to their families, Winschel said.

“Most of them were farm boys with no education,” Ferguson said. “It was the Great Depression. There was no way for their families to survive.”

Simpson, originally from Rosedale, stayed in Vicksburg and worked for 20 years at Magnolia Mobile Homes, Sharp said. The park and the work he did were always something of which he was proud, his grandson indicated. Now, Sharp takes his daughter, 13-year-old Amber, to the park so she can see the work her great-grandfather did to preserve it.

“They did absolutely invaluable work at the Vicksburg National Military Park,” Winschel said.