Biography of Norbert N. Gebhard

CCCMan, Enrollee, Company 3683, Camp Alvin, Wisconsin

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)

Experiences of Norbert N. Gebhard

   I was born on November 20, 1920 in New Holstein, WI. I graduated from high school on June 10, 1938 in Sheboygan Falls, WI. I did not have finances to attend college and jobs were not available, so the CCC was an option. At this time in Wisconsin, only members of families that were on relief were being accepted into the C’s. My parents were having a bad time but they were not on relief. I had been working for two brothers on their dairy farm each summer for several years. Their uncle was a member of the board that determined which applicants were accepted, so I was a shoo in. I was enrolled and served from July 1, 1938 to July 1, 1939.

   President Roosevelt’s Tree Army was a God send in the late 1930’s because it gave young men, in the dark days of the Depression, the chance to work and eat regularly. The army discipline in the camps was an excellent training for future military service where over 80% of the CCC’ers spent time when war was declared. We need a similar program today.

   My service in the C’s was at Camp Alvin, Wisconsin, #3683. The closest town for recreation was Iron River, Michigan. The camps were being run by U.S. Army Reserve personnel and the work projects were initiated by the Department of Interior & Agriculture. Our main line of work was in reforestation. The logging companies had denuded acres of forests around the turn of the century. They removed the logs but left the branches and trimmings where they lay. When a forest fire started, it was almost impossible to control or stop. We had to clean up an area first; then either plow a furrow or scrape off an area of the forest floor with a scalping tool; and then plant the trees. We planted thousands of conifers such as spruce and pine. Another job was trying to eradicate the white pine beetle that was killing the trees. In the life cycle of the beetle, they needed the wild gooseberry bush. We would go through the swamps and cut down all the bushes. In the winter, I had a job of snaring snow shoe rabbits. I had a couple of regular routes that I would take with my snow shoes on and set the snares in the rabbit trails in the snow. I would take the dead rabbits from the snares and hang them in what I called my “owl tree”. The owls and ravens would eat the rabbits. We had to kill the rabbits because they were eating the bark from the young trees that we had planted, which killed the tree. Also, in the winter, we would cut down tamarack trees in the swamps to make telephone poles. I had grown and gained enough weight that I got the job of breaking trail in the snow so the other men could bring the poles out with their come alongs. Another winter job was making cedar shakes which were used as shingles on the rustic cabins we built in the state parks. Each shingle was cut by hand with a machete and a mallet. We built roads and parks when the weather was agreeable. Any time the thermometer read 20 below zero, it would mean a day off. In Wisconsin that happens often!

   Some more pleasant memories of the service: on payday, the first day of the month, we would get our $5.00 (the other $25.00 was sent home to our family) and I would take $1.00 and go to the commissary and buy a box of 24 candy bars. There was one for each day of the month except Sundays when we would always have enough cake, pie, or cookies. We didn’t need the candy!

   As a rule, we were not allowed to have firearms in the camp. I had a break down .22 caliber rifle that I kept in my foot locker until Saturday morning, when we had inspection. I would take it out to the back of the barracks where there was a hollow tree. On Saturday night, just at sun down, I would go out to the woods and sky light a line of grouse on a limb and kill two or three. I would take them to the kitchen where the bakers were on duty and they would prepare a late night snack for us.

   I very seldom went to town on Saturday night, because I liked to be up early on Sunday morning for breakfast. These same bakers would bake up the finest cinnamon sweet rolls I ever tasted. Most of the troops were asleep because of their trip to town, so we could have all we wanted of those sweet rolls.

   If we had a chance to go home, we had no money to buy a train ticket. Hitch hiking was not an option, because we were in an area that had very few roads and even less traffic. We had to ride the rails, which meant getting on the tender behind the engine. One time, the engineer was taking on water and purposely ran it over so we had to sit or stand in the water. He thought it was funny, but we failed to see the joke. We were 200 miles from home so we didn’t go home much.

   When it was our turn to work KP duty, it was never a job to be disliked because we always had plenty to eat. Peeling potatoes was not done with machinery as it is in the services today. It was done the old fashioned way - one potato at a time by hand.

   One of our favorite pass times was watching the black bears foraging in our dump grounds. Late in the afternoon, we would get up on the roof of the barracks and watch the bears digging around in the dump to get something to eat. One of the forest rangers in our camp saw a bear digging a den for his winter nap. When the season opened, he shot the bear and we helped to drag the bear out of the swamp. After this bear was dressed, hung in a tree, and frozen, the ranger could just touch the bear’s nose standing upright. The bear weighed 560 pounds. After being field dressed!

   I was honorably discharged on June 30, 1939 and was ineligible for reselection for a period of six months.

   The CCC had a life span of March 31, 1933 to June 30, 1942. It took young men off the street and taught them responsibility. They learned social and employment skills that they would never have had a chance to obtain prior to the CCC. It is a shame that there is not a similar program for today’s youth. We should learn from other countries where boys and girls, when they graduate from high school, spend on year in the military.

----- Norbert N. Gebhard

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