Elmo Lewis was working on a farm near Humboldt in West Tennessee in 1934 for 60 cents a day. His father walked 15 miles to deliver the news that Lewis had been accepted into a new federal work program, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Lewis boarded a train in Jackson, TN, soon after with about 140 other young men between the ages of 17 and 23 who were in need of work. Their destination was Cumberland Mountain State Park.
“The CCC made a man out of a boy,” Lewis said Wednesday at a special ceremony celebrating the 75th birthday of the park he helped build and to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Tennessee State Park System, which took over operation of the park in 1938 and officially opened the park in 1940.
The CCC was one of the work programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that was hoped to jump start the nation’s economy during the Great Depression. The CCC was widely popular and not only put young men to work earning a wage for themselves and their families, but allowed the government to shore up natural resources, improve infrastructure and provide an army of unskilled labor to build parks, restore historic monuments and provide emergency disaster relief across the nation.
Among the more than 3 million young men enrolled in the CCC was Warren G. Medley, who had grown up on his family’s farm in Silver Point in neighboring Putnam County.
“The CCC and the GI Bill of Rights are the two of the best federal programs ever started by the government in any fashion,” Medley said.
He had graduated from Baxter Seminary High School and wanted to go to work. The family farm, like many in the rural area, wasn’t bringing in much money to support the family and Medley turned to the CCC to provide work experience and a steady income.
Medley arrived at Cumberland Mountain State Park Oct. 6, 1939, the same day the park welcomed its new superintendent, Sgt. Alvin C. York, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from World War I and a native of neighboring Fentress County.
“He was a fine man,” Medley said of his former superintendent.
York’s tenure at the park would be short-lived as he was asked to help with the filming of the movie Sgt. York in 1941.
Cumberland Mountain State Park began under the direction of the National Park Service. The CCC workers built the dam and bridge that would later hold back the 50-acre Byrd Lake. At 28 feet high and 319 feet long, the dam is the largest masonry project every completed by the CCC.
“It’s the only one like it in the world,” Medley said.
The CCC also cleared the area that would become Byrd Lake, reusing timber cleared from the lake bed in construction projects around the park and replanting plants and trees in other areas of the park.
The workers built trails, picnic areas, cabins, a boathouse, a bathhouse, and other buildings still in use today. Roads were also built and that was where Medley was put to work.
Lewis was charged with bringing supplies from Crossville to the camp and delivering the mail. He also worked in security which led to a fortuitous meeting with a local gal, Virgie Easterly.
“She drove her car into a ditch and I helped her get out,” Lewis said.
That was the beginning of their relationship, and the two wed Dec. 23, 1936. After he married, Lewis was no longer eligible for work in the CCC, but he stayed in Crossville and established a home with his new bride.
That wasn’t an uncommon situation. Vickie Vaden, with the Cumberland Homesteads Tower Association, presented a history of the Homestead resettlement project that led to the establishment of the state park, and noted a tidbit she’d learned while collecting living histories from the handful of original Homesteaders still living. The lady was a teen when her family moved to the Cumberland Homesteads south of Crossville. The establishment of a CCC camp nearby greatly changed the ratio of girls to boys in the community, with 200 unmarried young men just down the road.
“The local boys were uncomfortable with this situation,” Vaden recounted. “She told me that when they had Saturday night dances, there would be these mysterious fires in the park and the CCC boys went to fight them and couldn’t make it to the dance.”
Vaden said she’s still looking for corroboration of this tale, as well as other memories of the day-to-day life at the Homesteads and in the park.
The CCC enrollees worked hard for 40 hours a week. They were housed in barracks that held 50 workers each. Their uniforms were provided and an infirmary looked after their medical needs. They were also fed nutritious, filling meals.
“They had some of the finest cooks there ever has been at Crossville,” Medley said. “Mr. Jasper Ramsey was the head cook. Mr. Dusty Baker was a baker. It was one fine place.”
Medley’s hard work was noticed and he advanced through the ranks of the pseudo-military organization that was headed by regular and reserve officers of the U.S. Army. His jobs included orderly of the park supervisor’s quarters, keeping their housing neat and clean, serving in the officers’ mess, and supervising the canteen, where enrollees spent some of their monthly allotment on special treats like Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, sweet treats, toiletries and stationery. The canteen was a social hub for the camp where enrollees would relax and get to know the men working with them.
The CCC paid its workers $30 a month but workers were required to send $25 back home each month. That $5 was plenty for most of the workers, Medley said.
That $25 a month sent home generated economic activity around the country, and the camps spurred the economy in the local areas, too, with an estimated $5,000 spent each month in the local areas. The camps also provided work for local labor, helping enrollees with skilled jobs.
With the Homesteads project continuing nearby, there was additional work, as well.
“The CCC helped a lot of people,” Lewis said. “And with the Homesteads working, too, there was a lot of activity in the county.”
Taking youth with little training or education off the streets also helped back home. Judge M. Broude of Chicago estimated the program was responsible in a 50 percent reduction in his city’s crime rate as the young men were taken off the streets, given work and instructed with a sense of values, the judge said.
As the country recovered from the Great Depression and industry ramped up to meet demand for products in Europe as that continent moved toward war, unemployment levels fell and the CCC found fewer and fewer applicants and more enrollees leaving to take private sector jobs. In 1941, there were fewer than 200,000 men in about 900 camps, down significantly from the program’s peak in 1935 when more than 600,000 enrollees and officers were working in 2,650 camps.
Around this time, Medley was reassigned to Montgomery Bell State Park, which at the time was also under the direction of the National Park Service. The CCC was closing down its camps and preparing the projects to be taken over by others.
“Germany was going and Hitler was going,” Medley said. “The reason they closed out the CCC Aug. 1, 1942 was that they needed all these young men in the military, and I could understand that.”
Several of the officers Medley worked with in the CCC were called back to active military duty while he was completing his CCC service.
After completing his work with the CCC at Copper Hill, TN, Medley joined the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. At 90 years of age, Medley lives in Dickson, TN, close to Montgomery Bell State Park, but he still remembers those happy days at Cumberland Mountain State Park.
“I have fond memories of my time at Cumberland Mountain national park,” Medley said, adding he wished he could attend the special CCC recognition held Wednesday. “It’s amazing what the CCC has done from Maine to California, from North Dakota to Florida, all across this great land.”
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