The work was back-breaking; the pay, modest. Living conditions were primitive – barracks in the Colville National Forest.
But in the 1930s, many young men considered themselves lucky to have a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Growden. They built roads and trails, fought fires and felled trees for $30 per month. During the Great Depression, when many Americans were hungry and homeless, they had a roof over their heads and regular meals.
“Tonight, we had venison, mashed potatoes, beans and all the pie you could eat,” one CCC enrollee at Camp Growden wrote to his parents.
Today, the former CCC camp is a rest stop on Washington’s Highway 20, about 10 miles west of Kettle Falls. The camp’s military-style barracks, the mess hall and office buildings were torn down long ago. Just one building survived: a log structure that served as changing rooms for CCC recruits who swam in the Camp Growden’s man-made lake.
The structure is being restored this summer as part of a Forest Service archaeology project.
“It’s here for the public to see what kind of work the CCC did,” said Steve Kramer, the Colville National Forest’s archaeologist. “It’s another reminder … of our history.”
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide jobs for unemployed youth in forestry and agriculture. Bob Ledgerwood, of Olympia, joined the CCC a year later. He was 19 when he was assigned to Camp Growden.
The CCCs “were a godsend to most of us as there weren’t any jobs to be found,” recalled Ledgerwood, who wrote about his experience as part of a history project.
Camp Growden was one of 4,500 CCC operations. Hundreds of young men spent stints at the remote forest camp until it was dismantled in 1941.
“They wrote home, they played cards, they worked hard and they were extremely grateful for the work,” Kramer said.
The $30 monthly salaries had the buying power of about $500 today. Each month, the federal government deducted $22 from the men’s paychecks to send home. With unemployment at 25 percent, the money helped sustain their families.
Attending dances in Kettle Falls or Marcus was a rare treat for the CCC employees. To augment the sparse recreation opportunities, they also dammed up Sherman Creek to create an 80-acre lake.
As part of the lake project, CCC workers built the changing rooms for bathers. Constructed from larch logs, the structure was damaged when a cottonwood tree crashed through its roof.
This summer, Kramer assembled a team of summer interns and volunteers to take down the 12- by 24-foot log structure and move it closer to interpretive signs about Camp Growden.
Pack rat nests had to be cleared out of the building. Some of the logs had decayed and needed to be replaced.
Volunteer Bev Moog, of Suncrest, Wash., peeled the bark off young trees to make the supporting structure for the new cedar-shake roof. Her husband, Gordon, used a broad ax to shape replacement logs for the building.
They used the same methods that CCC workers used 70 years ago. After three weeks of labor, the log structure is nearly complete. Only the cedar-shake roof remained unfinished on Thursday.
“It’s been wonderful to follow this for three weeks and see the progress,” said Bev Moog.
New interpretive signs, which will be installed near the log structure next summer, will talk about the lake, which no longer exists.
The CCC envisioned the lake as an enduring recreation resource for the community, with docks and deep-water swimming, Kramer said. But the lake silted in after Highway 20 was built. Two years ago, the dam that created the lake was removed and Sherman Creek returned to its original channel.
Though the lake didn’t last, the CCC’s legacy did. Most of the men who worked at Camp Growden are gone now, but Kramer occasionally hears from someone with ties to the camp.
They remember it as a pivotal time, he said: “The government didn’t give you a handout, they gave you a hand up.”
When the Obama administration announced the federal stimulus package two years ago, some local residents thought it would create a new CCC program. The stimulus money paid contractors to do work on the forest but didn’t result in direct government hiring, said Franklin Pemberton, the Colville forest’s spokesman.
“It was interesting how people made the connection to the Depression,” he said. “Parents called and wanted to enroll their kids.”