Moving a memento back home


BIG POOL -- About 65 years ago, a small group of men borrowed an old flatbed from someone in Hagerstown and a local family lent its tractor. They moved the little wood and tarpaper hut down the road -- with one of them standing atop an old schoolhouse and wielding a broom to keep the electric wires from getting snagged -- to a spot where it would be used for church events.

The abandoned building was part of a temporary camp, erected to house the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, whose young members spent much of the mid-1930s rebuilding Fort Frederick State Park, Maryland's first state park. The "CCC Boys," as they were known, had finished their work and moved on. So the park was demolishing the old camp.

Time has not been kind to the sole surviving camp building, but the sagging shack somehow still stands.

Yesterday, accompanied by utility crews and a line of onlookers, it was returned to a spot just a few yards from where it was built 70 years ago.

To many, this was the first step toward restoring the historic structure, which will help tell the story of the young men so many of later generations know nothing about.

"It's a memento of a bygone era," said Steve Robertson, the park's historian. "It's something that, by all rights, shouldn't have survived."

Exactly what this 16-foot-by-20-foot building was used for remains a question. Local residents have different memories.

One said it was the officers' headquarters. Another thinks it was the maintenance shop. Richard D. McMarlin, 88, who was 18 when he was assigned with 200 others to the CCC camp in Big Pool, said he is pretty sure it was the KP shed -- where he recalls an excruciating week of 15-hour days spent inside washing and scrubbing.

"You take 200 men, and they dirty up a lot of dishes and pans," he said from his home in Springfield, Va., this week.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the many programs begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression to get the country working again. It was made up of young men, ages 17 to 21, who couldn't find other jobs. Generally they were very poor. If their mothers agreed, they would be shipped off to one of the hundreds of CCC camps in parks nationwide. They were paid $30 a month -- $25 of which was sent back home.

From 1933 until 1942, more than 3.5 million young men went through the program, said Donna Broome, archivist and journal editor of the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. Many of them, she said, took the discipline and training and skills they learned and went on to serve in World War II.

"They were such dire times," said Broome, whose 85-year-old father Olin Bell served in the CCC in Missouri. "It was a vital economic program. It saved the country."

'Unique' survivor

The camps in which the CCC workers lived have mostly been demolished. A few barracks have survived, some as museums. One in Missouri was used as a bar, Broome recalled. A woman somewhere along the East Coast used one as her home, she said.

"Generally speaking, there's very few of them standing," she said. "They're fairly unique."

Fort Frederick was originally built in 1756, the cornerstone of frontier defenses during the French and Indian War. The large stone stockade, though, was in ruins in the 1920s, when the state reacquired the property and turned it into the first state park in Maryland.

Still, it wasn't until the CCC arrived in 1934 that the fort was anything to look at.

Over time, McMarlin said, farmers had taken the stones from the abandoned fort's walls and turned them into lime powder to use on their crops. "There were remnants, maybe 5, 6 feet tall," he recalled. "It's not easy to lay stone."

Local stonemasons were hired to teach the CCC workers how the job was to be done. McMarlin, meanwhile, was sent out on the road gang to scavenge pieces of rock to use to put the walls back together. They did this with no equipment save a truck to haul their finds back to the site.

The CCC also built a park manager's house, a blacksmith shop, a picnic pavilion, a stable and a store building -- all of which are still standing in the shadow of the fort and in good shape.

Charles McLucas' memories of the CCC and its camp come from a different set of experiences. He was a young boy growing up in tiny Big Pool, about 85 miles west of Baltimore. The first movie he ever saw -- a Western of some sort -- was at that camp. In the summer the CCC would show motion pictures outdoors, McLucas said, and he and the other kids in town would sneak out to watch them.

Now 76 and living in Hagerstown, he also remembers playing in the abandoned buildings once the CCC was gone. "We didn't have any TV to watch," explains his childhood friend Edward C. Whyte III, 75, whose father was the park superintendent in the CCC days.

The local church used the building for years -- as a space for suppers and Halloween parties -- but they, too, abandoned it sometime in the 1960s.

Vandals had at it over time and local teens would hide inside and drink alcohol, Robertson said.

Pleased to part with it

Ralph Gehr, who owns the property on which the building has been sitting, hasn't put a dime into it over the past decades, even as it became an eyesore.

"I didn't fool with it," he said. "I just left it there."

About 15 years back, he said, he even asked the local fire department to burn it down as part of a training exercise. They refused, saying it was too close to power lines.

Gehr, 84, said he was delighted when the Friends of Fort Frederick said they wanted to pay $3,000 in moving costs to take it away.

"Some people would give an arm and a leg for it," he said. "I wouldn't."

Before noon yesterday, the aging shed, having come through its half-mile journey looking no worse than when it began, was lowered onto its new footings. McLucas said yesterday's brisk morning was quite different from the first time he watched the building move.

"There wasn't this big a crowd when we brought it up here," he said. "We didn't need five permits to move it."

The restoration process is next.

Robertson says he hopes to nail down the question of exactly what the building was used for and that a team of volunteers set it up to look like it did during CCC days.

With so many of the CCC brotherhood dying out, this is the time to make sure they aren't forgotten, many said.

"It [will be] there as a reminder to the public that CCC's boys were there," Broome said.

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