Statue honors the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Editor's note: The historical information and photos for this story are from "Connecticut Civilian Conservation Corps Camps" by Martin Podskoch, with additional material from the archives of The Day.

When he graduated high school in 1934, Harold Oehler looked around for a job after his father was laid off, but in the darkest days of the Depression, there was no work to be found.

Michael Caruso was still in school, but his situation might have been worse. His mother was raising eight children by herself, with no money coming in.

Both soon found themselves in the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal effort to create jobs amid the nation's worst economic crisis.

More than 80 years later, Caruso, 96, and Oehler, 101, were in Voluntown on Saturday to unveil a statue that honors men like them who spent time in the CCC in Connecticut.

The bronze statue of a worker, the second of its kind in the state and one of 76 nationwide, is in a former CCC camp in the Pachaug State Forest. It reflects the affectionate place the CCC holds in the national memory and in the hearts of those who served.

The most popular New Deal program, the CCC gave hundreds of thousands of young men and their families desperately needed income. Supporters said it built character. And it left a legacy of stewardship of the land whose spirit is alive and well.

Over its nine-year life, the CCC spanned all 48 states, with 21 camps in Connecticut. The work there included tree planting and road building in state parks and forests.

Southeastern Connecticut was home to two of the camps, which were busy places, much of whose work still exists today.

* * *

Roosevelt wasted no time creating the CCC when he took office in March 1933. Within a month, the plan had been proposed, passed by Congress and signed into law. The first member was enrolled on April 8 and the first camp opened days after that.

"Sounds pretty good, doesn't it, in terms of how government is supposed to work," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, one of the speakers at the unveiling.

The idea was to give young men temporary work in endeavors like forestry and flood control. Paid $30 a month, $25 of which went directly to their families, they signed up for six-month hitches and could stay up to two years.

Their service began with training, and Connecticut's initial training center was Fort H.G. Wright on Fishers Island because the Army was overseeing the effort.

Three trainees from New London wrote to The Day from there to let everyone know that, while they had not planned on sticking with the program, they were impressed enough with the experience to stay on. Wearing fatigues and eating good Army food, they learned skills such as truck driving and clerking, with time left for dances and card games at night.

"We wish to say again that everything here is to our liking and that all eligible men should take advantage of such an opportunity," they wrote.

Another man, John Chase, was less enamored and spent his off hours griping to his girlfriend.

"I was mad this morning," he wrote. "I was an electrician yesterday and today they made me a carpenter's helper but I am OK. Now they sent me back on electrical work this afternoon."

From Fort Wright, enrollees were dispatched to different camps, each home to a numbered "company" of 200 or so workers supervised by Army officers. Living in tents or newly built barracks, they did conservation work in the immediate area.

Camp Chapman at Stone's Ranch Military Reservation in East Lyme was initially for veterans of World War I and the Spanish-American War, who also qualified for CCC service.

The camp got off to a rough start when it was nearly destroyed in a windstorm and then lost a barracks to fire. But in its two years of existence, the members of Co. 177 planted a stand of pine trees at the ranch, constructed a campground at Rocky Neck State Park and built roads in Devil's Hopyard and Fort Shantok state parks and the Nehantic State Forest.

Everything the camps needed — food, clothing, equipment and men — was funneled through a statewide supply depot. Initially on Fishers Island, it was moved in 1934 to the New London waterfront, where the Cross Sound Ferry terminal is now.

From there, the 190th Supply Co. supported camps all over Connecticut and processed thousands of new enrollees. They received a physical exam and a uniform, then quickly shipped out to their assignments, which could be as nearby as East Lyme or as far away as Oregon.

"Although ... the successful operation of the whole program depends upon the efficiency of the base (in New London), its real importance is not generally realized," The Day noted in 1937.

The mission of Camp Lonergan in Voluntown, where the new statue stands, was to improve the Pachaug State Forest. Co. 179, which made fire breaks, built roads and erected buildings, did its work so well it was twice named the most outstanding company in New England.

But the camp saw misfortune in 1934, when a 19-year-old enrollee from Norwich was loading a truck with gravel. The truck slipped backwards and pinned him against an embankment, crushing him to death.

The members of Co. 179 also put out a fire in Voluntown and helped clean up East Hartford after the Connecticut River flood of 1936.

For all the thousands of trees they planted, they found themselves with a bigger job after the 1938 hurricane blew down thousands more. They cleared the forest and salvaged a mountain of timber.

Camp Lonergan was the longest-running camp in Connecticut, and when the CCC disbanded in 1942, it was the state's last one still operating.

* * *

To keep the CCC's memory alive, two groups — CCC Legacy and the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni — have worked since 1995 to place 6-foot, bronze statues commemorating the agency at former campsites, with the goal of having at least one in every state.

The CCC Worker Statue, which depicts a bare-chested young man leaning on an ax, is cast for anyone who can pay the $22,000 cost, plus $2,000 for shipping from Michigan.

When Sharon Viadella of Griswold learned of the program, she decided to be the one to get Connecticut off the shrinking list of statue-less states. Her father had served in the CCC, and she was learning about fundraising as she worked with the Friends of Pachaug Forest, a group formed to fight a proposed state police gun range near her home.

Viadella took over a long-running effort to raise money for a statue at Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, the site of the state's first CCC camp. With funds left over from the successful effort to block the gun range, she quickly got the needed amount.

A $100 donation came from Michael Caruso, one of Saturday's attendees, who had served at Chatfield Hollow and now lives in Killingworth. He recalls driving a truck and building a culvert during an enjoyable six months of service.

The statue, Connecticut's first, was dedicated May 11, leaving just eight states without one. But Viadella wasn't done. She wanted a second statue where her father had served. She hadn't known him well, and all she had to go on was a photo of him on a camp football team, with the number 179 on the uniforms.

Martin Podskoch of East Hampton, the author of "Connecticut Civilian Conservation Corps Camps," a comprehensive, 544-page book, urged her to track down her father's discharge papers, and from them she learned more about his service in Voluntown.

With Podskoch's help, she undertook a second fundraising campaign late last year. A few months later, she had rustled up another $24,000, and the second statue was ordered.

"I'm very proud and honored to be able to do something like that ... for the state of Connecticut," she said.

Viadella was honored Saturday with citations from Courtney and state Sen. Heather Somers, R-18th District. Also honored were CCC vets Caruso and Harold Oehler, both of whom also fought in World War II, and "Mama Betty" Mentillo, the 105-year-old widow of a CCC worker. Former State Troubadour Tom Callinan sang two songs.

For Oehler, his two-year tour was life-altering. Serving in western Massachusetts and then Vermont, Oehler, who lives in Stafford Springs, grew 4 inches as he broke rocks with a sledgehammer and wore snow shoes over a winter when 4 feet of snow fell.

He worked under a forester from the University of Vermont, who told him he was too smart for manual labor and urged him to go to college. He did, with borrowed money, and got a degree in forestry.

"The forest and the trees and the outdoors, that was for me," he said.

j.ruddy@theday.com

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