The Civilian Conservation Corps Comes to Bolton
On July 2, 1932, the Governor of the State of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, easily won the Democratic presidential nomination. In his acceptance speech he outlined what was to become the most popular experiment of his New Deal. To end the rampant unemployment and economic chaos that was gripping the country, he wanted to create an army of young men to fight soil erosion, save declining timber resources and preserve parks and public spaces. His Emergency Work Act became the Civilian Conservation Corps, and on April 7, 1933 the first inductee was enrolled in the CCC.
By 1941 when Congress stopped funding the CCC, almost three million young men had participated. Most came from poor, urban environments, primarily in the northeast, describing themselves as borderline juvenile delinquents with no hope for meaningful work or a meaningful future. The CCC gave their lives structure, albeit of a military nature, and provided monthly income to their families back home.
Roosevelt wanted to move quickly, getting a quarter of a million young men in camps by July of 1933. His staff boldly charged ahead and made detailed plans. The CCC camps would be designed to hold about 200 men so a relatively large, open space was needed for housing, food preparation and machinery storage. Publicly owned land, adequate roads and the proximity of good work sites were critical. The vast tracts of state land on the western side of Lake George were ideal.
Located seven miles north of the hamlet of Bolton Landing was the 1,000-acre Alma Farm, a property acquired by the State of New York in 1925. The farm once had two large farmhouses, three enormous barns, and many outbuildings, but by 1926 all of the buildings had been removed. It also had 200 acres of open land and it bordered Northwest Bay Brook, an excellent source of water. The best site on the farm was near the location of the large farmhouse, but the mid -1920s construction of the new highway over Tongue Mountain had created a long causeway across the low fields at the southern end of the Alma Farm. This causeway blocked the natural flow of water and created flooding conditions during heavy downpours. The best CCC campsite would have been cut off during high water, and the men would not have been able to be transported to work sites.
Farther to the south and on the west side of Northwest Bay Brook was an Alma Farm property called the Burgess Farm. It was here that the planners decided to build the camp.
On May 23, 1933, Roosevelt’s third month in office, twenty-eight men arrived in Bolton and set up a temporary tent campsite on the northern fringes of the Alma Farm. Four days later another 161 men arrived and set up tents. In the meantime construction crews were building the permanent camp at the Burgess Farm site. As each bunkhouse was finished, 40 men left their tents and moved into their new lodgings. In less than seven months the permanent camp was finished. The first meal served in the new mess hall was Thanksgiving dinner, with all the trimmings.
The camp became CCC Camp S-82, 204th Company and was one of 67 CCC camps in the state. It was run by Army and Navy reserve officers, who insisted on military decorum, although some aspects of military life, like saluting and bed checks, were rarely enforced. Some men did get homesick, and occasionally a man would go AWOL. The commanding officers would contact home to see if the man arrived safely, but they never forced him to return. The men were expected to follow orders and to complete their tasks thoroughly and efficiently. They were paid $5 a month, and $25 a month was sent home to their families.
Men were assigned work sites based on their skill levels and the requirements of the jobs. Every morning they would load up large trucks and travel to projects in state parks, on the islands, and in the state forests. Men scoured the white pine forests looking for gooseberry and currant bushes to dig up as part of a blister rust eradication program. They destroyed gypsy moth egg masses to counteract previous years’ caterpillar devastations. They planted thousands of pine seedlings on old farm fields. The 200 acres of open land on the Alma Farm was completely covered in pine plantings. Near the lake, stream banks were rip rapped to control erosion, and fish spawning habitats were improved. The men constructed buildings on Glen Island, in Hearthstone Park, Fort George Battleground Park and Rogers Rock Park.
They built hiking trails on Tongue Mountain. They also responded to local emergencies like finding a lost person, fighting forest fires, helping with flooded roads and snow removal after blizzards. Keeping 200 men busy was a daunting task that required planning, supervision, and the cooperation of many.
Keeping 200 men fed was another daunting task. Twenty-five men worked in the kitchen and mess hall. Six days a week, breakfast, a packed lunch and dinner had to be provided, and on Sundays three meals a day were available at the camp. Universally the men said that the food was “damn” good, and there was always a lot of it.
Keeping 200 men occupied when they weren’t working was another daunting task. The officers knew that these young men who came from poor, urban environments were going to be restless. Left to their own whims, things could have gotten out of hand very easily. The camp had a large rec hall and canteen in one building and in another, an educational room complete with a library of 2000 volumes, a printing press, and a mimeograph machine where the camp newspaper, The Incinerator, was printed. The school gym was made available for a CCC basketball team, and a camp baseball team used the school’s athletic fields. Considering the distance from the camp to town and with earnings of $5 a month, the men couldn’t get into too much trouble in the local bars. Many journals refer to the kindness of Mary Drube, a young waitress at Alex’s Restaurant . Not only did she befriend the young men, she made sure they got back to camp safely if they had been over-served.
Often the men from camp would hitch a ride into town. The citizens of Bolton Landing were a little wary of the poor, street-tough, city men and often would not allow their children to interact with them. It was a love – hate relationship since the camp purchased over $5,000 a month in supplies from local merchants. Invariably many men did meet, and marry, local girls. Earl Dudley was the local policeman, and he delivered ice to the camp. His daughter Verna married Howard Barnes, a member of the first group of 28 men who moved into the tents in May of 1933. Joe Morabito married Doris French. Fred Lethbridge married Angeline Bantham. Nick Forte married Belle Bentley, and Frank Leonbruno married Betty Weller. The families of these unions continue to live in Bolton to this day.
The last man I mentioned, Frank Leonbruno, was an Italian American from Whitehall, New York. In his own words, he had been running with a tough crowd. He was a 16-year-old kid from a big family living on the edge of poverty. When he turned 17 he signed up at a local relief agency, and on October 17, 1935 he joined 16 other men from Whitehall and headed to the Bolton camp in the back of an Army truck. He recalled his first meal – spaghetti – and a physical exam that required little more than a pulse. In the supply room he was issued a sewing kit, blankets, fatigues, long johns, socks, shoes, rubber overshoes, toiletries, hats, gloves, an olive drab uniform, a jacket and a mess kit and cup. He began his first assignment the next morning – Gypsy moth control. In October there are no Gypsy moths, only their elusive egg masses, and Frank was frustrated by the boredom of the task. Later, he was part of the blister rust crew and wandered the forests looking for diseased trees to remove – another task that seemed more time-filling than useful. Finally he found his niche and moved to the kitchen where he served as first cook, second cook, and finally mess sergeant.
In 1941 Frank was the last person there to oversee the closure and dismantling of the camp. Through his CCC contacts he got a job with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation where he worked for over 40 years. He served on the Bolton Town Board and as Bolton’s Town Supervisor, and wrote a wonderful memoir about his beloved islands. The CCC truly changed his life, and he was forever grateful.
In its 8-year existence, approximately 3,000 men cycled through CCC Camp S-82. Most moved on into employment relative to the military industrial buildup prior to World War II. All were grateful for the monthly checks received by their families, and nearly all appreciated the structured life required of the CCC. Today there are very few remnants of the once bustling camp. The bridge across Northwest Bay Brook is gone. All of the buildings were dismantled by late 1941 although the fireplace of the officer’s quarters refuses to fall apart. Excavation sites are obvious where barracks and other buildings once stood. A slab under part of the mess hall remains as does the cellar hole from the Burgess farmhouse and the incinerator. Parts of the water distribution system remain and two circles of stones show where the men had small gardens.
Although a few remain, the men too have passed on. These men who grew up in terribly hopeless times used their experiences at Camp S-82 to radically change their lives. They participated in a great experiment, a miracle of cooperation among all branches and agencies of the federal government, a mobilization of men, materials, and transportation on a scale never before known in times of peace. Franklin Roosevelt made a campaign promise in the summer of 1932. Thirty-four days after his inauguration his promise became a reality, and it helped save a nation. “The wastage and neglect of our natural resources plus the wastage and despair of our human resources, our youth,” created the need for the CCC. The great experiment worked.
Ted Caldwell is the Bolton Town Historian.