As a park official handed out shovels, 94-year-old John Stopka from Montrose and 93-year-old Dr. William Dewar from Paupack prepared to plant a red maple.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to dig the hole this year,” Dewar said with a laugh. “Last year, we had to dig 6 feet.”
Carissa Longo groaned. She’d helped organize the recent, third annual Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Festival at Promised Land State Park, and she hoped people would know Dewar was just kidding.
For these nonagenarians, who worked as “CCC boys” when they were in their teens, turning a single spade-ful of dirt would be enough for the ceremonial tree planting, Longo insisted.
Just as Stopka and Dewar were about to start piling dirt on the red maple’s root ball, which had already been placed in a hole, a third CCC veteran hurried to join them — and he proved to be another jokester.
“Not another tree!” Cornelius McHugh, 92, from Lehighton said with mock indignation.
But soon all three men were shoveling dirt and pressing it down with their feet, commemorating the 2.3 billion trees the young men of the CCC planted so long ago.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, Longo said, the country faced the severe unemployment of the Great Depression as well as a country “scarred by poor land practices.”
Using one crisis to solve another, she said, the president persuaded Congress to authorize the Emergency Conservation Work Act, which eventually provided jobs for close to 3 million young men from poor families. The men earned $30 a month, most of which was sent home.
“We got to keep $8 a month,” said Dewar, recalling that wasn’t bad because, if a truckload of CCC workers could get a ride into town, they found beer cost 5 cents and the bars would put out snacks. “You could get quite a bit for a nickel.”
Dewar was assigned to a camp that cleared brush for the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, but ended up working as a cook and in the infirmary, which inspired him to study medicine and become a general practitioner.
Stopka, who joined the CCC after graduating from Throop High School near Scranton in 1937, worked as a CCC clerk in Maryland.
“I was too light for heavy work,” he said.
Outdoor work involved building roads, dams and drainage ditches as well as fighting fires. It could be dangerous, Stopka said.
He was in the infirmary once, suffering from a high fever, when a fellow CCC worker came in with a leg almost severed by a brush hook.
As for McHugh, his main CCC duty was driving trucks at Camp Pocono, near Greentown in Pike County, where visitors to today’s Promised Land State Park can still see the results of CCC work.
“Promised Land was not always the beautiful place it is today,” Longo said. “It was once part of ‘the Great Pennsylvania Desert,’ a huge swamp. The land was cleared at the turn of the last century and left to burn.”
“If you slept in a cabin,” Longo said, addressing overnight park guests, “you can thank a CCC boy. If you drove in on Route 390, thank a CCC boy.”
Visitors to Promised Land’s Masker Museum will find CCC artifacts ranging from mess kits, shaving kits and axes to the “Indian canister” a worker could carry on his back so he’d have 60 pounds of water to fight fires.
“Everything was like the Army,” museum volunteer David Heiney said. “But they didn’t have guns. They had shovels.”