BLAIRSVILLE – In 1937, 19-year-old Murl Garoutte left his home in Marionville, Mo., boarding a steam engine train bound for the Nevada desert to join 3 million other young men mobilized across the nation in the “Tree Army.”
As a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Garoutte and the other uniformed “boys” of the CCC helped build many of the park trails, roads, reservoirs and canals that remain in use today.
“It was dry, dry, dry out in that desert in Nevada,” Garoutte, who now lives in Gainesville, recalled Saturday. “It rained about a quarter of an inch and that was our spring rain. It was hard work, but at that age, it didn’t matter.” Saturday at Vogel State Park, 16 former Tree Army boys gathered with their families for Georgia’s only remaining reunion of the CCC, one of the Roosevelt administration’s “New Deal” work programs that provided jobs for unemployed young men and sent money back home to their families in the midst of the Great Depression.
The bulk of their work was outdoors, with 10 state parks built by the CCC in Georgia alone, including Vogel.
While more than 78,000 Georgians ages 18 to 25 enrolled in the CCC between 1933 and 1942, probably fewer than 300 are still living today, estimated Connie Huddleston, a historian and author of “Georgia’s Civilian Conservation Corps.”
Ed Smith of Cornelia recalled why he left home to live in temporary barracks with 200 strangers, living on a diet of potatoes and beans and earning $1 a day, with $25 of his $30 monthly pay being sent back to his parents by the government.
“At that time, it was a necessity,” Smith said.
Carl Henson of Ellijay spent more than three years in the CCC, clearing brush and building roads in forest land. The pay he earned was essential for his family’s survival.
“They needed the money to put something on the table,” Henson said.
Not all CCC members joined out of necessity.
C.H. Brown of Lithonia enrolled in the CCC near the program’s end in 1942 at age 15, lying about his age with his parents’ consent.
“I did it just for the adventure,” said Brown, the son of a successful freight agent from Trion. He was working alongside young men much less fortunate.
“Most of them were poor farm boys,” Brown recalled. “A lot of them were so homesick they cried themselves to sleep. For me, it was a great lesson in responsibility and made me grow up fast. I was an adult at 15.”
At 82, Brown is probably the youngest of Georgia’s surviving CCC boys.
Most of the CCC alums who gathered Saturday had fond memories of the fraternal atmosphere and the work that prepared them for their next challenge in life: World War II.
“I at least got to travel some,” said Roy T. Smith of Atlanta, who spent time in southern Oregon clearing roads and fighting forest fires for the CCC. “When the war came on, you got to do plenty of traveling.”
Comparisons were drawn Saturday between the recession of today and the economic crisis that was the Great Depression.
Huddleston, the historian, doesn’t think a program like the CCC would work today.
“I don’t think the American people would accept the CCC,” she said. “I don’t think young people would sign up and give up all their creature comforts. I think the CCC worked strictly because of the time.”
CCC veteran John Guess said he knows the difference between now and then.
“When we were 17 years old, we didn’t feel entitled,” he said.