BELTSVILLE – Over a corned beef and cabbage lunch, the old men swap memories of 1930s America, a time of poverty, prayer, then hope.
“It was the beginning of our lives,” says Joseph De Cenzo, 77, a Clinton resident who vividly remembers being 18.
“When I graduated in ’36 I was looking for a job. I worked on farms for a dollar a day to help my family out. There were seven of us. We just raised our own gardens and canned our own vegetables,” De Cenzo recalls.
That changed forever in 1937 when De Cenzo signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps, popularly known as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Tree Army.”
The CCC, part of the New Deal, hired as many as four million men between 1933 and 1942. Before they were through, they erected 3,470 fire towers, built 97,000 miles of truck roads and planted over two billion trees.
Six decades later, De Cenzo and his gray-haired cronies gather each month to relive some of their best years. They are members of the Hyattsville chapter of the National Association of CCC Alumni. Founded a decade ago, Chapter 113 is 250 strong, including families of some of the men.
Kenneth Greenwell, a Waldorf farmer of 76, tells his story in a husky voice:
“When I was 18 I went to be enlisted in La Plata, and they picked me up that afternoon with two or three other fellas. We came up to camp 1362-A2 in Beltsville. We built roads and all the things that are connected with roads….
“At the time, I got a chance to ride into Hyattsville and go to a movie theater for a nickel. I enjoyed the Westerns.”
Greenwell comes to meetings “to see some of the old boys, talk with ’em and see how they’re doin’.”
The chapter president, 80-year-old Angelo Petro Sr. of Upper Marlboro, “started out as a water boy on the Appalachian Trail in 1935,” and now travels across the country to keep the CCC spirit alive.
De Cenzo, the chapter treasurer, led athletics and entertainment in a Pennsylvania camp. “We had social events like dances and the fireman’s band….Sometimes our baseball team would play for fundraisers for the churches,” he recalls.
But there was discipline as well. “You were housed by the military, says Richard Thomas, declining to give his age. “I think maybe the military background was good for us. You had daily routines…It kept us out of mischief.”
The local “old boys” meet at the Log Lodge at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, built as a recreation center by and for the CCC. It seems an appropriate place – one of four CCC camps in the Beltsville area between 1934 and 1936.
“I worked right here on this agriculture farm, digging up trees,” Thomas says. “I was a bulldozer operator and an ambulance driver for six or eight camps when I was 17 years old. I started out at $30 a month and I finally got $36. It helped my family as much as it helped me.”
Thomas grew up in Sandy Spring raising cattle, sheep, corn, wheat and beans. “Shucks,” he says, “the Depression not only hit hard, we had to sell our farm. My parents had to make a living with a roadside stand. But we survived.”
Some of them have heavy Irish, Italian or Polish accents, reflecting some of the largest immigrant groups to join the CCC. They can get cantankerous when planning reunions and pot luck dinners. But they have a healthy dose of concern for the future.
The men recruit their children’s children to do community service in a Youth Corps. They also look to the federal government to create CCC-type programs, like AmeriCorps, a national service network begun by President Bill Clinton in 1993. AmeriCorps gives young adults a modest living and up to $4,725 in college tuition in return for work on projects that protect natural resources and promote public safety. The old CCC members approve.
“This new Congress is thinking of doing away with that,” says William A. Bailey, past president of Chapter 113, referring to Republican plans for cutbacks. “But not many of those people there can remember what the CCC did. Almost any park you go to across the United States was built by the CCC.”
The CCC boys won’t forget building America – or the president who put them to work.
Harry Dengler worked at a camp near Hyde Park, FDR’s New York estate. “Yes, those were the Depression days, and FDR did a lot for us,” Dengler says. This year is the 50th anniversary of FDR’s death, and Dengler wants to honor his hero with “something very special.” “I remember,” he says with a grin, “planting trees on FDR’s estate. “The only mistake I made was cashing that first four dollar check I got in 1935. I should have saved it.” -30-