Biography of Morris Grodsky

Enrollee, CCCMan, Camp BR-59-C, Vallecito Dam, near Palisades, Colorado and Grand Junction, Colorado



Morris Grodsky

   In a mood of nostalgia, I have decided to write about the Civilian Conservation Corps, known in its day as the CCC, the three C’s, and by those who participated in this program, simply as the C’s. As I indulge in this exercise, I become, for the time being at least, an historian. And as I think of it, there are at least two kinds of historians. There are scholars who write of the broad sweep of events, of international or national causes, effects, and relationships. And then there are what I would call micro historians. These are the people who write of events from the perspective of a participant. An example that comes to my mind now is World War I. The scholar-historian writes of the broad sweep of events, of generals and kings, of nations and entire populations. The micro-historian, perhaps a soldier in a trench, writes of his war that encompassed no more than an acre of land, of the rats, of the gas, of the mud, and of the agonies of fallen comrades.

   As I was a CCC boy who later in life had pretensions of being a scholar, I shall indulge in both kinds of history.

   Perhaps this will arouse nostalgic memories in people of my vintage. It may provide insights to people of later generations. And, most certainly, it will be an enjoyable project for me.

   Now, about the CCC. This was to my mind one of the truly best programs ever initiated by our federal government. It was born in a time of deep economic depression. Unemployment was rampant. The nation was near panic as the newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, introduced measures to bring us out of the economic and mental depression into which we had been plunged. Introduced early in the presidency, in what was later known as "The Hundred Days", were many programs including the Emergency Conservation Work act, (ECW), which soon became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. This program was intended to salvage two valuable national resources of this country, its youth and its land.

   The program was put together with remarkable speed. Between the presidential inauguration and the induction of the first enrollee only 37 days had transpired. Coordination of various governmental agencies was essential and the system functioned amazingly well. The Labor department was responsible for selection and enrollment of applicants. Agriculture and Interior had the responsibility of planning and organizing the work projects to take place throughout the entire country. The Army was responsible for arranging transportation to the work camps as well as providing its own officers and those of the other military services to function as camp commanders. This was a truly cooperative endeavor. There was no book of rules. The miracle was that there was little or no red tape.

   Popular support was enormous. The opposition Republican party had a 67 percent support for the program One of Roosevelt’s most dedicated enemies, Colonel McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, gave his support. The Soviet Union praised the program, and a Chicago judge credited a 55 percent reduction in youth crime to the CCC program.

   After a year, the program was well established. The young enrollees worked hard, were eating well and putting on weight, and carrying out improvements on millions of acres of land across the nation. The beneficial economic impact was enormous. Enrollees received a salary of $30.00 monthly. ( I recall that at this time, the base pay for privates in the army was only $22.00 per month.) However, $25.00 of the enrollee’s pay had to be sent to the family. This money, of course, was spent in and helped support the economies of communities across the country. Families also had one less mouth to feed. Even the modest $5.00 which the enrollees received each month helped to support the economies of small towns located near the work camps.

   The later addition of an in-camp training and education program helped thousands of young men to gain work skills and overcome illiteracy.

   The army, which had no war going on at the time, had the opportunity to provide its junior officers with command assignments which must have been of great value in the development of administrative skills. Although not a consideration at the time, the nation was also accumulating a great reserve or pool of young men who could be readily absorbed into the armed forces and would leave the CCC already partially prepared for a military experience which, unbeknownst to us, was looming over the horizon.


   I graduated from high school in January of 1940 in Denver, Colorado. There were no jobs for me, nor did I have a family. I grabbed the first opportunity to enroll in the CCC. I was 17 and they were accepting men from 17 to 21 years of age. On the day assigned, I met the bus. It was full of guys from the Denver gullies, all Mexicans. There was a kid from north Denver by the name of Vic Tenhoff. He and I were the only non Mexicans on the bus. Thank God there was a guy there who had been a sort of friend to my younger brother. This guy was Benny Leyva. He was a pretty good boxer and I knew him, so at least there was a little bit of a link with that alien group. The bus took us over the mountains to the western slope of the Rockies and we ended up near a town called Palisade.

   We had a view of the Grand Mesa and were not too far from the town of Grand Junction. Our barracks were half wood and half canvas. We had a mess hall and a recreation hall with a pool table and ping pong table. There was a little cubby hole store or canteen that sold candy bars, chewing tobacco, Bull Durham or Golden Grain tobacco, cigarette paper, etc. Once a month was payday and we lined up at a table to receive our five dollars. The rest was sent home to the family. In my case it was sent to a bank account that was kept for me. On payday, we could buy a coupon book with 5 cent tickets in it. These could be used in our little canteen during the month to buy a candy bar or whatever we needed. I soon took over from some guy who was a real hair butcher and in my spare time became the camp barber. At 25 cents a haircut, I was soon a wealthy man in our rock bottom economy.

   Our routine was simple. Five days a week we would rise up early, make up our cots, shave and clean up, have a hearty breakfast and head for the work trucks. In camp we were under the supervision and command of junior army officers, Lieutenants as a rule. However, once we piled on the trucks, we were under the supervision of government field supervisors. In my camp, our bosses were from the Bureau of Reclamation. Other camps worked under Forestry, Agriculture, Park Service, etc.

   The trucks trundled us up a mountain where other crews had blasted into shale deposits. We arrived with our tools, sledge hammers and chisels. We became expert at hitting those rocks with great precision, splitting them into flat rock slabs. Then we’d raise these over the head, march down the mountain and load them on the trucks. Shirtless, exposed to the sun and to the elements, we took on the color of dark leather, and our body fat content dropped to the lower limits of whatever it is supposed to be. The trucks took our slabs to another camp group that was constructing irrigation canals, and those guys used our slabs to line the canals which nourished the peach orchards in the valley.

   When we arrived at the camp, the guys who were there were mostly from little farm towns in Oklahoma. These fellows were unable to speak without cussing and I soon found that my speech habits had changed accordingly. Later on we acquired a contingent of native Americans from a nearby reservation. These guys hardly spoke at all. The Okie guys spoke the vernacular of their home country. After all, they were sort of rough hewn farmer boys. Most of their terminology referring to other people was , to say the least, disparaging. The Mexicans were called "pepper bellies" and the Indians were known as "blanket-ass". As for my name, they figured that I was from some exotic tribe, and they called me "Chief". The Mexican guys had their own vocabulary, and I learned their most commonly used words. I didn’t understand them, but I recall cabron, chingada, pendejo, and tu madre. They used these a lot.

   We had a young lieutenant who was our educational officer. He had a young wife who was beautiful and whom I loved as though from a distant planet. The lieutenant would give interesting lectures one evening a week. And as I was the only high school graduate among the enrollees in our camp, I was made an assistant and I taught classes in the evening to a number of truly illiterate guys from Oklahoma. It was strictly the three R’s , and I must admit that it gave me real pleasure to see these guys begin to spell out their names and simple sentences.

   When the snows melted in late spring, our entire camp went by train to southwest Colorado. We were in a camp in a remote backwoods area on the banks of the Los Pinos river, a wonderful rainbow trout stream. There had been a huge earthen dam constructed at the narrow end of a valley. The Bureau of Reclamation planned to create a large artificial lake by damming the Los Pinos. The job of our CCC group was to clear all the timber from the valley before it was flooded to create Vallecitos Lake which would have a role in irrigation and recreation.

   We abandoned our sledge hammers and chisels and took up our new tools, double bitted axes and double handled tree saws. Each day we got on the trucks and drove down precarious improvised roads to our work sites. I drove one of the trucks, and if my passengers had known what a scared, novice driver was at the wheel, they would have jumped off and walked. But I learned the mysteries of double clutching on the steep ascents and managed to keep the wheels on the narrow tracks.

  This was a lush and beautiful area. We would trudge over meadowlands where the only living creatures that we saw all day were grazing white faced cattle. Then into the timberland where, with axes and saws, we felled the trees. We’d lop off the branches and cut the timber into logs about 12 feet long. Then pairs of us would shoulder a kind of hardwood yoke with a sort of ice tong attached. Several two man teams would sink their tongs into the log , and with the heavy log suspended between us, we’d stagger to the place where there was a stack awaiting transport to a lumber mill. This was back breaking labor, and it was our daily fare. On rare occasions we would take a break from our timber work and go to help put down some forest fire in the region nearby.

   One sad event that I recall was the drowning death of my friend Vic Tenhoff. It was officially designated an accident, though I am certain that it was no accident.

   We were working at the edge of a lake and were on our lunch break, recuperating from the morning labors. Suddenly we heard a cry and saw Vic floundering out in the water. He was a fine swimmer, and everyone thought he was clowning around out there. Then he went down, and finally a couple of good swimmers stripped and dove off to help him. But it was too late. He was down there, and quite deep. It took about 45 minutes to locate him and bring him up. He was completely dressed in work clothes and heavy boots. So I think it was unlikely that he had jumped in the lake for a swim. The only guy near him was one of the Oklahoma guys known as Circus. Vic had pushed this clown into the shallow water earlier, and I am sure that the guy had retaliated.

   There was an inquiry and some men in suits and ties showed up and took statements, including mine. But no one had seen anything, and no one could prove anything. So it ended up as an accident.

   Saturday mornings were spent in camp and, under the direction of our military supervisors, we policed the grounds and spruced up the camp. Then we had a little close order drill. This was normal army routine, and when war broke out, the multitudes of us who entered the service were already indoctrinated with such routines.

   In the afternoon, everyone cleaned up, splashed on after shave lotion, and jumped on the trucks taking us into Durango. This was a wild town on a Saturday night. Cowboys, miners, and CCC boys all came into town raising hell. The trucks would head back to camp at midnight, so the few of us who went to the movies and drank ice cream sodas would go around collaring our less abstemious comrades, cajoling the drunks back onto the trucks, and making sure that everyone got safely back to camp.

   That’s how it was in the C’s. A period I’ll always remember with gratitude. I got a start in being a man. I learned how to chew tobacco and hated it. I worked at physical labor harder than I would ever do again in my life. I would never again be as lean and fit as I was during that brief interlude with "Roosevelt’s Tree Army"

   I mustered out, returned to Denver, and by pulling political strings at the mayor’s office I was able to get a job as an orderly at the Denver General Hospital. I worked in the operating room and, once more as from a distant planet I fell in love with Miss Brown, my favorite O.R. nurse. But that is a completely different story.

   In a little more than a year, the CCC was to be no more. War had broken out. Unemployment was no longer a problem. the armed services were swallowing up the youth of the country. The CCC boys became part of the nation’s war effort. But the remarkable program in which they participated had left its legacy upon the land; a land renewed and a people revitalized.


   About thirty years after I had worked at Vallecito, I drove there from Virginia with my young teen aged sons. The valley where I had labored was now submerged under a beautiful large lake. It reminded me of a smaller scale Lake Tahoe. A road wound around the perimeter and there were vacation cabins, dude ranches and an entire population where before there had once been only stray white-faced cattle. The lake is an important water reservoir for this region as well as a prime recreational area. I looked at it and smiled as I thought, " We did it.".

----- Morris Grodsky


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