Friday, February 05, 2016

Indelible memorials to CCC Camp Chariton

Chariton's east water tower, built during 1939 with 45 percent financing from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Public Works Administration, is the principal landmark along 1st Street now, towering over modest homes nearby.

But once upon a time --- not long ago, but beyond the memory of most --- hundreds if not thousands of jobless young men in need of a helping hand passed through a regimented enclave of military-style buildings just to the southeast. It was known informally as Camp Chariton, officially as Co. 2175, Civilian Conservation Corps.

Located a short distance back in the field east of 1st Street, this place thrived for eight years --- from 1933 until 1941. When it closed, mostly because a majority of the young men it served now were finding jobs in war-related industry and soon would be headed off to war, it left Lucas County and surrounding counties immeasurably enriched.

During its first years, from 1933 until 1937, countless erosion-control measures were implemented in Lucas, Wayne, Clarke and Decatur counties by corpsmen headquartered here and the Red Haw State Park dam was built. Then, emphasis  shifted to forestry --- completion of Red Haw park, development of thousands of acres of Stephens State Forest, even the front gates of the Chariton Cemetery were among the results. Hundreds of thousands of trees were planted.


The first 187 corpsmen, led by Capt. R.H. Slider of the 18th Field Artillery, arrived in Chariton by train from Fort Des Moines about 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 27, 1933, and were transported to the Camp Chariton site where they erected tents to shelter themselves for the night. By the next evening a tent city had sprung up. This was Iowa's fourth CCC encampment.

CCC companies were not military units, but military men led them at first in large part because they were experienced in managing large numbers of young men. A modified but not harsh version of military discipline was imposed. The young men were single, between the ages of 18 and 23 at first, later between 17 and 28, and from families that were in financial trouble.

They were provided with shelter, clothing and food and paid a wage of $30 per month. Of this, the corpsmen kept perhaps $5 a month to meet personal needs. The rest was sent home to aid their families. The men typically worked 40 hours over 5 days each week and were free to come and go on their days off. Most didn't go very far, in part because they didn't have any money.

As the weeks and months passed, a couple of temporary Camp Chariton buildings were erected in a distinct military pattern, but a majority of the camp's 20 or so structures --- including a kitchen and mess hall, headquarters building, recreation hall and library, infirmary, educational building, barracks, officer quarters, showers and toilets, and garages for unit vehicles --- were not built until the summer of 1934.

The corpsmen who were camped in Chariton during the summer and fall of 1933 worked on erosion-control measures --- terraces, ponds, etc. --- primarily for private landowners. When winter set in, they were transferred to winterized camps and the grounds in Chariton fell silent.

That changed during April of 1934, when nearly 100 corpsmen returned to the camp site. Their job was to plant trees --- nearly half a million black locusts to control erosion. When the planting season ended in early June, these men were transferred to another camp, in Corydon, and went to work there with a couple of hundred others on erosion-control structures.

Company 2715, which would make Chariton it's permanent home, was organized in Indianola during July of 1934 and on Aug. 3 and 4, 1934, its 229 corpsmen were transported to Chariton where living quarters consisted initially of tents. Because this was to be a permanent camp, work commenced immediately on the structures that would serve the unit through 1941. Because of the need for speed, local contractors and carpenters were called in --- with Clyde Best in charge. The camp was essentially complete by October 1.

Relations with the city of Chariton and its people seem always to have been amicable. The camp provided a welcome economic boost for the city --- and the young men were for the most part well-behaved, well-mannered and friendly. Residents were invited to open houses at Camp Chariton periodicaly. The camp was immaculately maintained --- and the men were expected to be neat and clean themselves.

The men came from all over, including some who were Lucas County natives. The minimum committment to the CCC was six months, but men could serve for up to two years if other employment could not be found.

Iowa's Department of Natural Resources has gathered a collection of oral histories from a few of the men who participated in the program, including some who served at Chariton. Their memories seem to be universally positive. They liked each other, enjoyed the work, respected their supervisors and were grateful for the opportunity. Some found "those guys from Arkansas" a little rough, however.


During July of 1941, it was announced that Camp Chariton would close on Aug. 15 and the men still stationed there would be transferred to Keosauqua. Several factors were cited. The supply of enrollees was drying up as more national defense work became available, Congress had cut funding for the CCC program --- never intended to be permanent --- and all scheduled work on both Red Haw and Stephens State Forest --- other than finishing touches on a lake in the forest southwest of Lucas --- had been completed.

For a time, Chariton's National Youth Administration program --- intended to prepare young people for work in war-related industries --- utilized the Camp Chariton buildings before moving back into town.

During October of 1942, a contingent of 50 Womens Army Auxiliary Corps members arrived at Camp Chariton to service some 60 trucks and other vehicles left behind when the CCC moved out so that they could be driven to Army shops and converted for military use.

The CCC had leased the Camp Chariton site from the Van Arsdale estate with the agreement that it would be restored to its original condition when the lease expired. That entailed removal of the camp buildings.

Otto Brown purchased the camp site as well as surrounding acres from the Van Arsdale estate during 1943 and the government gave all of the buildings to Lucas County's 4-H organization, which removed at least three to the fair grounds in Derby. The remaining buildings then were turned over to the city of Chariton.

After some negotiating, a deal finally was struck. Brown gave two-thirds of a block of land adjoining the one-third block on which the 1939 water tower sat to the city. The city kept two of the camp buildings, one for storage and another to use as a shop, then gave the others to Brown, who removed some, recycled others for alternate uses.

And that was the end of Camp Chariton. But every time you drive through Red Haw State Park or spend a few hours enjoying Stephens State Forest, you're interacting with living memorials to the young men who once called it home and helped build Lucas County.

Remember, too, that an estimated 3 million young men nationwide served in the CCC between 1933 and 1942, including a quarter of a million young black men, none of whom served in Chariton. Although the CCC program was integrated at first, local residents in places other than Iowa complained and in 1935, the program director ordered that all companies be strictly segregated.

Note: These snapshots from the Lucas County Historical Society collection probably were taken during late 1939 or 1940 --- aerial shots appear to have been taken from the new water tower completed during the fall of 1939.


Donald Hixenbaugh said...

Two comments,
DL Smith and Co. stored equipment in the old buildings during the 1950s. I went through those buildings as a kid. I remember the floors being rotted and stepping through the holes.
My grandfather Moody Smith purchased the bent wood chairs from what I guess was the mess hall. He had them at the hardware store and would give them away to good customers. There are probably some still around.

Unknown said...

When I was young I used to babysit for a family who lived in the former Officers Quarters. I loved that big old fireplace! But it was a big,drafty room without a fire!

Unknown said...

My family lived in the Officer's Quarters in the mid-forties. I was perhaps 4 - 5 ish, remember the water tower overflowing and my sister and I and neighborhood kids, would run to play under it when that happened. Recall the beautiful fireplace and a piano my Mother would play. Also recall a large chicken house. And a long long clothes line.
First time I remember seeing a real soldier, my Mother's nephew was coming home from the war and stopped in Chariton to surprise her, he was traveling home to Chicago by train. It was at Christmas time. I can still see him walking down the long drive in his military uniform. We moved from there perhaps around 1945-46 to the Curran family farm east of Russell, I began Country school at Victory #6 as a Kindergartener in the fall of 1946. Otto Brown was a friend of my parents, Johnny and Kate Curran. I am their youngest daughter Sheila Curran Billick now living in the state of Washington.
Thanks for sharing this article, brought back pleasant memories.