Reenactor recounts the CCCs
MEDORA -- A 98-year-old veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps reflected on his experiences to help restore the Chateau De Mores State Historic Site during a History Alive! presentation on July 23.
Assistant Site Supervisor Ed Sahlstrom portrayed the veteran after doing research and talking to the actual veterans who returned to the Chateau.
“The CCC worker is bits and pieces of many veterans,” Sahlstrom said. “He’s a compilation of actual research from letters the CCC workers sent home and the men I’ve talked to over the last three decades. They’d come through the Chateau on a tour and I’d step aside and listen to their stories.”
The veterans were called the “Dollar a Day Boys” because that’s what they were paid to work. They sent $25 home to their families and kept $5 for spending money. They were young unmarried men ages 17 to 28. Often they worked alongside older men, often married with families, who worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
“I tried to capture the spirit of the men,” Sahlstrom said. “I never met one or read where somebody did not say wonderful things about the time they spent in the CCCs -- they were very proud, very young. They could do something useful, and the bit of money they sent home to their families was really a godsend.”
Immersed in the Great Depression, the boys arrived at camps malnourished, often without clean clothes and lacking medical services.
“That all changed -- they were given food and a warm bed,” he said.
The CCCs and WPA had work camps all around the United States, not just in western North Dakota.
“They were there in every national park and state park, Sahlstrom said. “Medora was full of workers. They were at the Chateau, Chimney Park,the DeMores Memorial Park and at the east entrance,” he said.
The WPA used heavy equipment to build a road through the national park, while the CCCs did the finishing touches with picks and shovels.
Speaking to the crowd on the veranda of the Chateau, Sahlstrom described the Great Depression of failed banks, the Stock Market crash and no jobs anywhere.
“It was worse out here because of the great drought,” he said.
The country elected a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.
“The young president had an idea to stimulate the economy -- if you put folks on relief rolls and back to work on public projects and pay them, that would stimulate the economy.”
Hence, the beginning of the CCCs for young men, and WPA for the older men.
The boys were trained in Army disciple, getting up for 6 o'clock reveille followed by exercises and breakfast. At 8 o’clock the trucks took them to their work sites. After 4:30 p.m. they were free to relax, wash their clothing, maybe get a pass to see a movie in town or join a boxing or baseball team.
“A lot of men came with their instruments -- we formed some pretty good music,” Sahlstrom said of the boys..
Each camp had a library or they could could study for their high school diploma.
“Something quite shocking today is many of the men I knew could not read or write at all when they came into the CCCs. They were illiterate,” he added.
Louis -- son of the Marquis and Marquise -- wanted to fulfill his mother’s wishes to preserve the 1883 26-room Chateau. In 1936 he had donated the house and Chimney Park to the State Historical Society for a dollar. The CCCs were commissioned to restore the house.
The CCC boys removed and stored the 1,000 artifacts at Bismarck. The next problem was to place long beams under the house to keep it from shifting. With the Chateau secured, they turned their attention to the inside.
As the CCC veteran, Sahlstrom tells one story of the day when the boys opened the cellar to find bottles full of wine.
“Imagine in the 1930s, a bunch of 18-year-olds wine connoisseurs in the wine cellar,” he said. Two of the bottles survived and are in the display at the Chateau’s interpretive center.
The boys needed to replaster the walls, but carefully removed the original wallpaper. It was stored at Bismarck until the state could afford to reproduce it.
As the elderly CCC veteran concluded his talk, he added, “I still see my buddies working there. I still see them warming their hands and backsides on the fireplace. Those fellas are gone a long time, but I still see them.”
With the start of World War II, many of the boys went into the military as Army corporals and sergeants without the need for basic training.
“The army knew we had been trained and could get the job done,” he said.
Growing nostalgic about this past, the CCC veteran added, “I see the ladders on the floor, I see people painting. I see my youth of a long time ago. Times were tough, but we had a mission -- we were told to preserve America’s history so that it’s not forgotten. If you folks from different states have never heard of the CCCs until today, go back to your states and look around at your state parks and national parks -- and you’ll see the CCCs and WPAs all over the place. We tried to make America prettier and something to be proud of … I believe mission accomplished.”
The History Alive! presentation coincides with a display inside the Chateau’s interpretive center. Compiled by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the display recounts the work of the CCCs and the WPA.
The display tells how three CCC companies worked in the Badlands from 1934 to 1941. About 200 men were assigned to each company -- 2767, 2771 and 2772. The men lived in tents until buildings were erected, such as the barracks, mess hall, recreation hall, bath house, latrine and headquarters.
“The display was installed in April and will probably be here three to five years,” said site supervisor Samuel Kerr.
“It tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA and activities, not only out here in Medora and western North Dakota, but as a state as a whole,” he said.
Kerr didn’t fully appreciate their work until he arrived at the Chateau.
“They pretty much took the Chateau down to the studs, if you will, and rebuilt it the way the Marquis and Marquise would have wanted it,” he said.
“It’s a very powerful display, and I’m not only talking about the CCCs, but you catch a glimpse of what life was like in the ’30s for the boys who joined the CCCs. Everyone of the interviews say it was one of the best experiences of their life. Some of the boys never had three hot meals a day until they joined the CCCs.”
Kerr appreciates the research that Sahlstrom did on the government work projects.
“I think Ed’s presentation condenses down what the CCCs did for our state, being able to present a story of what they concisely did makes it really interesting.”