Editor’s Note: First story in a series.
ALBANY — When the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, a ripple effect would spread across the country leading to 25 percent unemployment for men between the ages of 15 and 24 by 1933. Between 12 to 15 million Americans would find themselves out of work.
In major cities, bread lines formed to feed the destitute. Crop prices fell by up to 60 percent. Nearly 2 million men and women roamed the roads and rail lines crossing the country looking for work. More than a quarter-million of these wanderers were teenagers with no apparent future. Generations of poor farming and logging practices added to the economic catastrophe. Soil was depleted by erosion and wind damage at an estimated 6 billion tons being lost annually. The Little Grand Canyon is a great regional example of this.
Just five days after his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had promised during his campaign a “New Deal” for America, proposed the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He wanted immediate action from his cabinet, and less than a week later he outlined their efforts with a plan that would recruit 500,000 young unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 at a salary of $1 a day. FDR wanted the first 250,000 to be working by the early summer that year.
The Army would recruit and establish camps for these young men. The departments of Agriculture and Interior would create and run the work programs. Some feared the new program would establish a system of government-supported subsidy at a poverty level. Unions feared the military’s role. Forestry officials worried about the repercussions of men working for $1 a day alongside men earning $3 a day. Francis Perkins, then Secretary of Labor stressed that this was a temporary relief effort. It would focus on providing training and educational opportunities, provide food and clothing as well as shelter for a finite segment of the population.
During its nine-year existence, what would become known as Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” would plant more than two billion trees and clear 13,100 miles of hiking trails. They would build 3,400 fire towers and restore more than 3,900 historic structures across the nation.
The CCC had camps in 78 Georgia counties charged with building numerous dams, bridges and fire towers. They created 12 state parks, four military installations, three national forests and one national battlefield.
One of the last parks to be constructed in Georgia was State Park 9, which would be named Chehaw for the Native Americans who lived in a village by that name in the region, but not on the site. (That’s another story). Initially, it covered approximately 605 acres. Research indicates that the property had been used as a “borrow pit” for decades and was basically bare sand and brush at the time. The city deeded the property to the state in exchange for the development of a park on the site as well as some road and bridge improvements in the area.
In early 1936, a camp for CCC Company 4461 was established in Albany on an open field at 11th and Monroe, adjacent to the Albany Cotton Mill. This location would prove to be both contentious and advantageous. It was a great point of contention for the men with families living in the mill houses who were convinced that the unattached men living in the camp might be attracted to their wives and daughters.
According to Max Moore, who enlisted in Company 4461 as a teenager from Vienna, the concern was in some ways justified and led to several altercations when testosterone kicked in. Moore recalled the morning and evening marches between the camp and Chehaw, a daily seven-mile round trip. Imagine not only making this daily trek in a surplus WWI serge uniform or canvas coveralls but wearing it as you worked with a pick or shovel in the heat of a south Georgia summer.
Working at Chehaw, Moore met another CCC member, Jim Davis, forming a lifelong friendship that would see them through World War II. Many CCC veterans went straight into military service, utilizing and enhancing their newly acquired skills. Moore and Davis would return to Albany after the war, where they raised their families and had successful careers.
One of the major efforts at Chehaw was directed at reforesting the barren landscape. Project superintendent A. F. Sweetland reported on the planting of “redbud, crepe myrtle, dogwood and native shrubs.” Bermuda grass was planted, as well as 45,000 pine seedlings. Pictures from the National Archives also show that mature pines were transplanted by digging and undercutting the root balls in what appears to be 8-foot by 8-foot cubes and transported by tractor-drawn trailers to the park.
A satirical poem titled “Jeez! Trees” sums up their thoughts: “I never thought that I should be a handmaid to a horny tree. I thought that trees were sturdy stuff that grew and thrived out in the rough. But I’ve been hired to nurse and feed ‘em make their bed and sweetly treat ‘em. So that they’ll grow tall and strong protected from all harm and wrong. And now God’s handiwork the tree is suckled by the C.C.C.”
When they weren’t digging up trees or planting seedlings, they were digging a series of canals that would wind along the banks of the Muckalee Creek, allowing visitors to paddle on a manmade waterway within the park. The canals are now mostly dry, but their outline is evident in the topography of the site. The pines the CCC planted grace the park today, having survived numerous natural disasters and sweetly suckled by Ben Kirkland.
The men split more than 50,000 cedar shingles and hand-hewed 600 cedar logs to construct a variety wood and fieldstone structures at Chehaw, including picnic shelters, outhouses and a manager’s cottage. The stonework and hand-wrought iron hardware are like the other parks built in the state during this period. Most of these structures are still being used today. The original superintendent’s cottage was moved in the ’70s and currently serves as an office. The picnic shelters they built are being used almost a century after their construction.
Pam Dawson Woolard recalls living in a childhood paradise. She and her two sisters, Gloria and Janice, lived in the park in what is now the intern cottage. Their father, Earl Dawson, was the park superintendent from 1956 until 1964, when he retired due to health issues.
“The house is not that big, but even with the five of us living there I never thought of it as small,” Woolard said. “Besides, I had the biggest backyard in the world. And there was a swimming hole behind the house beside a large concession stand and dance floor with a juke box.”
The swimming hole and stonework for the concession stand are still there today. The playground and miniature golf course, along with the skating rink, are long gone. There was a second playground at the park with a unique flying maypole.
Woolard remembers: “It was very tall merry-go-’round with eight chains hanging from the top. You grabbed a handle at the end of the chain and ran in a circle until you took off and flew around the pole. J&J Pony Rides came out every summer and sold pony rides for a quarter. My father bought one of their ponies for me when I was 3, and I rode everywhere. I only lived there for a few years, but Chehaw will always be home.”
State Park 9 would continue to be a regional attraction for decades until it was decommissioned and given back to the city of Albany in the early ’70s.