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History's Headlines: Working in the general's woods

April 4, 1937 in the Lehigh Valley was a day of rising temperatures but also moisture laden clouds. But even the threat of rain did not slow down the long line of cars that for a few hours were about to get a glimpse at the newly re-furbished Lehigh-Trexler Game Preserve. Acquired by Lehigh County in the will of General Trexler, following his death in an automobile accident in 1933, it had been closed since 1935 while the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program of the Franklin Roosevelt administration designed to employ men who could not find a job, worked on improvements. Now after two years of waiting the public couldn’t wait to see the changes.

“During the period of public inspection,” noted the next day’s Morning Call, “a seemingly endless caravan of automobiles, traveling at intervals of less than 10 feet, passed slowly over the winding eight mile tour that stretched deep into the heart of the preserve.”

Shortly before dusk, with cars still encircling the preserve, Corporal Austin Stewart of the State Highway Patrol estimated that more than 1,200 automobiles, many of them with seven passengers, had passed through the reservation. The press noted that the changes were considerable. Particularly they were impressed with the improvements on the roads, the many planted seedlings and well-kept grounds provided for the buffalo, elk and deer. They gave credit to the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and in particular the Civilian Conservation Corps.

But what the press did not report, perhaps because it did not know it, was the unique nature of CCC Company 2313 at what was officially called SP 13. “Trexler-Lehigh,” writes Joseph Speakman in his 2006 book, At Work in Penn’s Woods: The Civilian Conservation Corps in Pennsylvania, “was the only black camp in Pennsylvania that had all black technical personnel. The project superintendent, two civil engineers, two foremen, two mechanics and one clerk were all African American.” Almost all of them were from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.

How this came about is not clear. But figures speak for themselves. Out of the 2,500,000 young men who served in the CCC, 250,000 were black. And by 1935, the year the Trexler Game Preserve project began, Pennsylvania had 2,000 African Americans working in its CCC camps, more than any other state.

Originally in 1933 the CCC camps were integrated. But it went against the grain of a country where the South had legalized segregation and the North had de facto segregation. Even the popular New York nightclubs of the day like the Cotton Club in Harlem, that featured black orchestra leader Duke Ellington’s band, did not admit blacks as patrons. In this sort of environment an integrated CCC would not last long.  By 1935 there were black camps and white camps. It was in 1935, recalls Nolan Benner, the former right-hand man to Trexler, and then the administrator of the Trexler-Trust, that Donald Ruhe and Charles Kuhns, representing the Lehigh County Commissioners, came to him with a request.

They had been delegated by the commissioners to go to Washington to look into having a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at the preserve. The reason apparently was that in the middle of an economic crisis the county had no money to spend on it that it could spare. “I told them the National Park Service would probably have charge of that,” Benner recalled. He suggested two individuals there, Conrad Wirth and Herbert Evison, who had worked with Trexler, be contacted. On May 16, 1935 the government sent Major George C. Donaldson, who was in charge of CCC camps in the region, to the Lehigh Valley. After a morning look at the preserve, he made his decision. Donaldson announced where he wanted the camp’s location to be and said with a smile, “Well, I can see I will be visiting this spot at least once a month for the next year or two.”

It was probably Donaldson who made the decision, working with Washington, state and Lehigh County officials, that decided an all-black company be assigned to the game preserve. As the men were located far (by the standards of that time) from Allentown and living in a camp, most of the public apparently had very little contact with them. But two photographs in the Lehigh County Historical Society’s Lehigh County Archives of the black CCC members at the game preserve were donated by the late Sarah Thompson, a well-known member of Allentown’s African American community. This suggests contacts between the CCC men and local black folks took place.

The CCC was founded on April 7, 1933, only 37 days from FDR’s inauguration on March 4. The U.S. Army was put in charge of the process of moving the young men from the Eastern cities where most of them lived to the sites in the western states where most of the camps were located. It took time, as one authority noted, for the CCC to get past the “early days of drafty tents, ill-fitting uniforms and haphazard work operations.”

There were some modifications of the program. It was not only young men who were part of the CCC. Nearly 225,000 veterans of World War I were a part of the CCC, as were 85,000 native Americans. The CCC was also called on to provide help during natural disasters. They contributed many man hours during floods on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as well the floods that ravaged Vermont and New York in 1937, and the New England Hurricane of 1938.

Unlike some New Deal programs, the CCC was generally popular across party lines. On April 18, 1936 Gallup took a poll asking the question: “Are you in favor of CCC camps?” Eighty- two percent of the respondents said yes: 92% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans. There was something about having the participants work out in nature, restoring land that needed it after years of abuse and bringing it back to a useful state that everybody could agree on. The average worker received $30 a month, the equivalent of $570 today. Of that they were to send $25 home to their families. They did of course receive food, clothing (in the form of a uniform) and housing. They also learned good work habits and felt they were serving their country.

But not everyone was pleased with the CCC. The first opposition came from labor union leaders who feared the CCC was creating a workforce designed to undercut union labor and force down wages. Eventually they were assured when they were told that members of the CCC would simply be doing labor and not learning a trade that would make them undercut unions.

There was much distrust of the program in the South, among politicians and others, that it would undermine segregation. But, with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, who organized camps based on the CCC idea for young women, and after much political fuss got Congress to fund them, and one or two others, the New Dealers were not about to create a fight over the issue with the Democratic power structure south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The CCC left Lehigh-Trexler Game Preserve in 1939, when “Camp Buffalo,” as it was nicknamed, closed. According to Speakman, an attempt to move the African American unit to Promised Land State Park to perform work was met with a firestorm of protest from locals, who claimed unmarried black men would threaten their daughters and property. The idea was quickly scrapped.

With the outbreak of World War II in Europe the CCC shifted its focus to military type of training. Many years later some former CCC members speculated that the government created the organization to prepare for a war. Although this may have been a partial motive after war came to Europe, it seems hard to imagine that it was on anybody’s mind in 1933.

Today some of the works of the CCC, that included 46,854 bridges, 3,980 restored historic structures and over three billion trees, remain with us, reminders of a different nation in a different time.

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