A Tale of Memory’s Adventure
As kids growing up in Maine, we spent many pleasant, fun hours picnicking at Camden State Park. There were neat wooden bridges, covered picnic areas and various outbuildings to explore which our dad told us had been constructed by young boys serving in the CCC’s many years before our time. We three spent endless summers roaming those woods in freedom, exploring the nooks and crannies, climbing trees and playing on the rocks, looking for shells and treasure. In our childhood, the Civilian Conservation Corps held little real meaning for us, except for the fact that our uncle Frank had helped to build what we played on and ate under at this park. As years passed and real maturity set in for us kids, the stories of these boys’ adventures took on a new importance, as our father had also participated in this effort in another area of Maine, far more remote than Camden. This is his tale of living for three years as one of those young men, really just boys, who spent those years working hard in the CCC’s, training for life at these northern camps:
Our father, Malcolm Earl Williams, was born in 1918 in Waterville, a small central Maine town, the eldest of four children. His father, George, worked a lifetime for Maine Central Railroad between bouts of tuberculosis. His mother, Iona, remained at home caring for their children and as the oldest, Mac always felt a responsibility for his younger siblings. The family was quite poor and always lived near the tracks, closeby to work for his father. From his early teens on, Mac was the man of the family while his father recuperated at the sanatorium, hoping for a cure this time. Ultimately, that did occur, but not until after a part of his lung had been removed. We remember walking from our home to visit our grandfather at the railroad signal shack on Main Street, where he would wave his lantern to let folks know that a train was coming. There were no cars in either family for a long, long time yet to come.
As the thirties came on, the depression set in, settling hard and fast upon the entire country. Life became far more perilous for poor families in the northeast. Food was already hard to come by, heat even harder to provide during the cold Maine winters. There was often nothing to eat but bacon fat on bread or biscuits as the main meal in the evening, or supper, as it was called in Waterville. Children went to bed hungry, and to school hungry. It was hard to stay healthy on so little food, whether child or adult. At 14, Mac drove cattle daily from his neighborhood to upper Main Street before school in the mornings just to earn a little money to help his family out. Later, with his father sick and in the sanatorium, his mother relied on welfare to keep her family going while Mac set pins at a local bowling lane and gave his income to his mother. Perseverance reigned in this younger generation, yet for many, school remained the only positive daily activity in their lives. As high school approached, an entire generation was unsure of what the future held for them, for their friends. While many left to work to help their families, Mac remained in school. The depression deepened and the country struggled, sorely deprived of hope. Roosevelt had promised to revitalize the forests and improve rural areas by using the vast energy of an entire generation of young men to accomplish this miracle. He would see to it that some of the money earned by this group would go directly to the families of these youngsters. Not only would these boys have worthwhile work and training for the future, they would help put food on the tables for their sisters and brothers. With the support of like-minded individuals in the house and senate, and with the agreement of a country in dire need, Roosevelt, once elected, initiated a program to provide thousands of young men with a real reason to live, and the Civilian Conservation Corps came into existence. In 1933, shortly after his inauguration, the first camps were opened. Every state in the union had camps to provide work for their own young men. Boys from New York, New Jersey and other highly-populated urban states left home for the west and midwest, to provide the manpower to improve the vast, rural areas in these less-populated states.
Hope began its journey into the future.
After his graduation from Waterville High School in 1936, Mac was inducted into the CCC’s in Portland and then began a three-year period in which he participated in this popular and successful program which kept a generation of good kids off the streets and give them a sense of real purpose. All over the country, young men like Mac were accomplishing this difficult and tedious work of rural improvement, much of which can still be seen and enjoyed today in the some of the remotest areas of this United States.
And Maine’s camps and accomplishments were no exception:
On October 16, 1936, Mac was assigned to the 159th Company at Fort Williams, Maine and into Hay Lake Camp, about twenty miles north & west of the town of Patten. Very remote and rugged, these wooded, mountainous forests were where work began on building the road south towards Mount Katahdin, a project which was to ultimately intersect with the Greenville Camp’s roadwork. In Patten, Mac progressed from doing hardrock drilling, making holes for the dynamite in the solid rockface, to dynamite engineer as they blasted through the Horse Mountain rockface enroute to Baxter State Park. But first, they had to cut down the huge trees along the route, 25 feet along either side of the center and 20 feet beyond, clearing the underbrush. It was arduous work. Weeks turned into months. Then an acquaintance from his home town, Charlie Rogers, the mess steward, asked Mac if he wanted to be a cook…it was inside work and warm in the cold winters. He accepted this offer and cooked until he left for Greenville. When Hay Lake Camp closed in 1937, he was reassigned to the 160th, the Greenville Junction Camp. There he cooked for just a short time before he left for a weekend off. Because he returned late, delayed by a severe winter storm, he was taken off kitchen duty, considered to be a plum job, and returned to forestry work. He became a forestry tool clerk in charge of issuing tools, working in conjunction with the blacksmith shop. Many stories are told…
One day Mac was driving a pickup truck carrying a large tank filled with fuel oil up to Moosehead. At a downhill portion of the road, he threw the truck’s transmission into neutral, hoping to gain some speed as a governor held the engine down to 35 mph. Coming round a corner with too much momentum, he stepped on the brakes, lost control and the truck rolled over three times, flattening the roof more each time. No one was hurt, and he climbed out the window to run up the road to warn others that the truck was blocking the road. In five minutes about ten men were there and helped to right the truck. Then he drove it back to camp, the tank still full, with the windshield gone and roof flattened! When asked to surrender his permit to drive after his arrival, he stated frankly that he had no permit, and had actually been allowed to drive many different vehicles for six months! He lost his forestry job because of this incident! It was then that he was offered the job of hospital orderly. As there was only one orderly, that made him the head of the infirmary, which hailed a very prophetic destiny! The 160th Company moved from Greenville Junction to N. Chatham, New Hampshire, and from October 1, 1938 to February 1, 1939 Mac remained in that position at the New Hampshire camp. But on February 2, 1939 he became a patient at his own infirmary, suffering from scarlet fever which he ‘caught’ from his patient and friend, fellow CCC camp member Joe Verra, L. L. Verra, of Portland, Maine! Shortly after his own recovery, on March 11, 1939, he fulfilled his enrollment and left the CCC’s . Returning to Waterville, he entered nursing school. Thus his future was decided by his service in the CCC’s. Although becoming a doctor was his heart’s desire, admission to McGill University in Canada required a three year wait, so he decided to train for nursing while waiting. Meanwhile, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and World War II began. Mac went off to war along with most of his fellow CCC mates. As surgical tech in the operating room of the base hospital at Bradley Field in Connecticut, he went on to teach surgical technique to others…but this is yet another story!
By the time the war ended, he had married a nurse he’d met attending the Sister’s Hospital School of Nursing and was already a father. Fate had further intervened. College and dreams of a medical career were not to be. Having seen some horrific injuries while in the military, Mac, a soft-hearted man, decided on a less stressful career than medicine and ultimately went to work for the telephone company in Waterville. He raised his family of three children there and retired in 1980. Often he spoke of his days in the CCC’s and told his children of his experiences and adventures both there and in the Air Corps. The years passed, the present became history and life moved on as it always does, inevitably, inexorably.
Fast forward to 2004: In October, at my brother Mike’s suggestion, he and I and our father took a trip to the old CCC territory up north. It was a beautiful fall day, with a bit of a chill in the air, and as we rode along, dad recalled the different places he remembered. He spoke of the trucks they went north in, of being transported in the enclosed backs of those trucks, unable to see where they were. On this trip, up the same back roads he had traveled as a new inductee, he noted various points of interest as the miles passed and regaled us with tales. Our first official stop was to photograph beautiful Mount Katahdin, just the top of the mountain was visible on this cloudy day, and we were off again, heading towards Patten.
It seemed like an endless trip, but soon the exit off 95 hailed the route to Patten, and the final leg of our drive began. Miles of woods, bog, mountains and cliffs, and the route changed from good pavement to country roads.
The town of Patten appeared, with many hunting camps replete with deer hanging from the rafters, recent kills of hunters who travel miles just to walk the woods in search of this trophy. But our purpose was to find that bridge, the one dad remembered so well as taking up so much time and energy to construct. He was unsure as to how easy it would be to locate. After miles of riding, it seemed, we easily found the bridge built by his group nearly seventy years before, over the East Branch of the Penobscot River at Grand Lake, Mattagamon Township 6, Range 8. We drove right over it, turned around and went back over it! Then we parked and got out. In a moment, he was down the bank, checking out the underpinnings of the bridge! All the original work still stood, and dad was very proud and pleased that it was still standing and in such good shape. All of the supports were the original cement work and although a new road surface had replaced the old, that was the only visible sign of change. We took photos there, and dad spoke to several residents who were familiar with the CCC’s and their programs. They told him that their relatives who participated in the program were now gone. We began to understand that we were truly blessed to have our father still hale and hearty at 86, and right there with us.
We turned right just after the bridge and drove up the road he had helped to build, winding along the rocky riverbed towards Baxter State Park. As we passed Horse Mountain we expressed amazement at the sheer steepness and difficulty of the terrain. We wondered aloud how a crew of young kids could have been so successful in blasting and moving all the heavy rock away to make that long road, many miles in to the park. It was a difficult enough job for mature men, let alone teenagers. In those years he and the others grew to be men the hard way.
A bit further up this road, Dad discovered the small camp beside the river where he and another fellow spent weekends caring for the workhorses used to haul rock away. We took his picture sitting on the front porch of the cottage where, 70 years before, he had lived and worked. Obviously lived in now, there was no one at home, but signs of caring were there, making this particular stop meaningful for him. The little camp still stood, freshly painted. Where there had been a stable, there was now an outhouse. No signs remained of the huge animals who were sheltered in that area those days long ago. Again, only birds and the sound of water accompanied the silence as we bridged the years…
At Baxter, there was again no signs life, the lake was calm, the forests quiet. The birds kept us company as we walked around, sharing the views today just as they were in the thirties. Except for Baxter State Park and the buildings added since the CCC boys left the territory, by all appearances the lake itself remained unchanged.
I picked up some driftwood and a couple of large rocks to place on my rockwall as a reminder of this special day and the three long years that my father spent there as a young man, away from his family for the first time. Each of us had mixed feelings, for individual reasons. We were now a part of the elder generation, nearly at retirement age, and our father looked about, seeing the results of the work of his youthful years from the eyes of an 86-year old man.
It was a quiet reminiscence.
Later, heading along the road back into town, the search was on to find the old CCC campgrounds at Patten.
Although it was difficult to locate the camp, as there were few definitive visible signs, when we passed
a small white cabin on our left, dad noticed that it resembled the buildings from the original camp. We drove
in onto the road and got out, and while walking into the surrounding wooded area, discovered old chimneys still
left standing here and there. Piles of rubble identified where buildings had once stood, rusted pipes coming up
out of the grassy ground. Covered with years of accumulated leaves and debris, we were unable to clearly make
out where a building had once been except for the chimneys standing like sentinels as reminders of the camps
where life had busied hundreds of young men. In a short time, though, dad had found the old chimney still
standing that was in the officer’s quarters where his picture had been taken leaning against the mantle…now we
took his picture once again, this time standing in front of the ruins of this chimney. No walls remained, no
mantle was left to lean against, but the sense of déjà vu was strong and everpresent.
An hour or more was spent here, walking here and there through these old grounds, rooting through 50-year-old heaps of garbage filled with rusty cans, looking for meaningful mementos, while dad identified the standing chimneys of several different buildings, including the one at the barracks he had slept in, still standing vigil. On this day, one building remained standing on its original foundation, obviously kept up for some type of official use. In the days of the CCC’s, it had housed the generators, but now it was much smaller than the original and used for an entirely different purpose. It was as if an entire town had been obliterated, with only slightly recognizable reminders here and there of the bustling activity that had once existed. It was a lonely reminder of times long past…of a village now simply erased from view…gone forever. It had to have been very difficult for dad, but he remained silent, answering our questions only when asked.
Dusk was just beginning to set in when we left, appropriately from Hay Lake itself. Dad stood on the banks once more, quietly gazing at this beautiful lake surrounded by the same sturdy pines as were there when he first arrived…but now it was silent and lonely, no longer filled with activity, or even a familiar voice from the past.
It was, nonetheless, an appropriate ending to a day filled with memories for our father, and an unforgettable experience which we, his children minus the youngest, will always be grateful to have been able to share with him, in this, his 86th year. His younger brother, Frank, mentioned earlier, in the CCC’s also, was assigned to 1130 Company in Camden Hills. He, too, served his country…in the Philippines during WWII.
We had dinner later at a Patten restaurant, complete with locals, with paintings by area artists hanging on the walls and items handcrafted by residents for sale on the counters. So “Maine.” We got lost heading home in the dark , but still wound our way safely through the piney mountains of northern Maine...a day to remember for us, so fortunate to have been able to share this with him in our together lifetimes. Memories for our lifetime, nearly seventy years after his days with the CCC’s, an adventure to be treasured always.
We want to go back to Patten once more time…in the warmth of another summer yet to come. Soon dad will begin physical therapy to help in his recovery from serious leg surgery this past spring. In a couple more months, summer will be upon us, and if time allows, we will head out once again to visit the ghosts of Patten.
He is 87 now.