Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Depression in Letters

A few weeks ago, I took my children for a hike on the Kephart Prong Trail.  Beginning at a pull-off on the right about a mile past the Collins Creek picnic area, the trail is gorgeous, especially in the fall and spring.  On this day, our destination was the shelter that lies two miles up the trail.  But one of my favorite sections of the trail lies only about 0.2 miles from the trailhead.  The Kephart Prong Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp,  Company #411, was established on 25 May 1933 and operated continuously through 1942, at which time it was abandoned by the CCC but was subsequently used as a work camp for conscientious objectors during World War II. Several vestiges of the camp remain, including the signboard, boxwoods, the chimney for the barracks, and a water fountain. 

Chimney at Kephart Prong CCC Camp
The water fountain at Kephart Prong CCC Camp

The CCC, part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 'New Deal' program, offered hope for economic survival to the families of young men aged 18 - 25.  First begun in 1933 and operating until 1942, the CCC employed these young men in natural resources work throughout the country.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was but one of the many natural areas that benefitted from this program.  Workers were sheltered, clothed and fed and paid a wage of $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to help support their families.  For families receiving these monetary fruits of their sons' labors, the $450 this equates to in 2013 currency meant the difference between having a home (however humble) versus living on the street, or eating beans and rice versus starvation.  

The Great Depression hit Swain County hard.  Though those of hardy stock in the mountains, who were used to 'making do or doing without' weathered the time better than those in the cities, it was still an era during which families barely scraped by.  With unemployment in 1933 hovering around 25%, the opportunities presented by the CCC must have seemed like a god-send to desperate families.  Many in Swain County applied for the precious few positions available to 'local men' for work in the Smokies, or for work elsewhere.

John T. Needham
GSMNP Superintendent
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives

CCC Recruits in front of Park Offices in Bryson City, 1933

 The park archives at Sugarlands contain page after page of names of our county's men, young and old, who applied.  Some were interviewed, and many were not.  Most were turned down.  Eighty years later, a few of the letters of application to John Needham (acting park superintendent at the time) can still be found in the park archives, and that is what I have chosen to share with you today.  For ease of reading, I have transcribed these letters, however, in order to stay true to history, I have left their grammar and syntax as they were written. They provide a poignant glimpse of life in Depression-era Swain County.

Granville Isaiah Calhoun 1875-1978

May 22 1933
Mr. John T. Needham
Bryson City N.C.
Dear Mr. Needham
I wish to file my application for a forman place to handle the men on the road up Forney Creek.  I have had a lot of experience in building all kinds of roads here in this part of the country building trails in the Smokey Mountains wagon Roads and R-Road work.  I built the first 5 miles of Railroad up Hazel Creek for the W.M. Ritter Lumber Co. whos head office is in Columbus Ohio.  I worked for N. Carolina Mining Co. for most of 2 years and worked for the North Carolina Copper Mining Company and _____ there agent there for 33 years and am agent here for them now.  I dun open cut work and under ground work.  I had charge of 125 men for them while the was ________________ for copper and I had 125 men working under me when I was building R-Road for the W.M. Ritter Lumber co. on Hazel Creek in this county.  I have had considerabl experience in __________ powder and hand drilling with common labor.  I can do nice tunnell work under ground.  I am 58 years old, way (sic) 220# and am in good health.  I have had Typhoid Fever in 1908 and bin vaxinated since several times.  I have had Small Pox in 1910.  I never have had any venereal diseases in my Life.  I have had measls mumps.  Never have had Pneumonia..
If any further information is desired would be glad to furnish it.
Yours Truly, 
G. I. Calhoun

Granville Calhoun's second CCC letter, pg 1
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives
Granville Calhoun first CCC letter, pg 2
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives








William Thomas Cole (1887 - 1965)

(Forney) Bushnell
June 14 1933
Mr. J.T. Needham
I understand you are going to have some carpenter work done at camp here at Forney.  I would like to help you out in that line if you are going to be in need of a carpenter are another Blacksmith.  If you don't need a carpenter I have had a quiet a lot of experence with a drilling crew in rock - and blasting if you would need a man like that.  I live here at church by side of Monteith.
William T. Cole
P.S. When you was here getting names I was not thru my corns but am most done now.

William Thomas Cole CCC Letter
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives

James Monroe Cole (1888 - 1961)

East La Port, NC
June 15 33
Mr. Needham;
Dear Sir,
I am sending in my application to get work with Smoky Mountains National Park as a road builder or any forest work.  I was borned and reared in Swain Co., Have wife one child, mother and invalid brother whom look to me for dependence.  If can't get in just now hope you will file my applications & remember me, if you are adding on more men. 
Very Truly,
J.M. Cole
East La Port
North Carolina
James Monroe Cole CCC Letter, pages 1 and 2
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives

Silas Henry Greene:  1896 - 1995

Judson NC July 25th 1933
Mr. Needham Park Mgr.
Dear Mr. Needham,
I would be glad if you can furnish me employment in the Park as I am a world war veteran.  Was over sea with the 30th Div, and have never had any help from the Gov.  I am in hard luck financially and I have a family of 7 to support.  If you can place me on any kind of job to help support my family will certainly apprecate the position.  Thinking you in advance for anything you will do for me in obtaining a position, of any kind of labor. 
I am yours truly
Silas Greene
Judson, NC
Silas Greene CCC Letter
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives

Granville Calhoun, follow-up letter

Bryson City NC
Oct 25th 1933
Mr J.T. Needingham
Bryson City NC
Dear Mr. Needingham
I was told today that the new camp on deep creek had no Superintendant yet and that the place was going to be given to a local man.  one who nows (sic) the mountains and who has had experience in these mountains and who nows how to build roads and lay out trails in the mountains.  I think I could fill the place and handle the men all right.  I would apreciate a chance at the place and if I failed I would wilingly step down and let some other man take my place.  I looked for you this evening and did not find you to talk to about this job.  I can do the work ______________________as has been dun at Forney Creek just as good as any man, I think and would like chance at the job as superentendant same as Mr. Greer has at Forney.  Please let me know if you think I would stand any chance at getting the place. 
Yours Very Truly
G. I. Calhoun
Granville Calhoun's second CCC letter, pg 2
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives
Granville Calhoun's second CCC letter, pg 1
Courtesy:  GSMNP Archives

There can be little doubt that the simple prose contained in the letters these proud mountain men penned, imparts a much clearer depiction of the Depression in Swain County than mere statistics could ever hope to show.  Regrettably, I do not know whether these men were ever provided the opportunity to obtain the much-needed work they so desperately desired.  It is certain, though, that most every young man who had the opportunity to work for the CCC had a similar story to tell.

But with every trail these young men built, every road they constructed, and every seedling they planted, a ray of hope was borne into the lives of their families....who were impoverished not only of money but also of spirit during those bleak days of the 1930's.  These letters allow me to 'see' the Depression in Swain County and how it unwittingly helped to make the GSMNP the rare gem that it is today.  They make me appreciate our county and our park in a way that I never could have before.  I hope they will do the same for you.

CCC Camp 411 Enrollees in front of barracks
Annette Hartigan, Former GSMNP Librarian
GSMNP Archives