By: Rachel Sicheneder
The original Civilian Conservation Corps represented more than just a job or a way to gain skills for future employment. For most enrollees, my grandfather included, it was a home away from home, a mini sub-culture of 18-25 year old boys who became co-workers, comrades, and family. The camps the enrollees lived in were similar to modern day military bases. Pictured here is a schematic of camp labeling all the buildings which used to stand there. Everything enrollees could want or need was offered in camp. They ate together, slept in the same barracks, and learned together in the schoolhouse. If they were sick they saw the camp doctor, if they needed cigarettes or snacks outside of meal times they were bought at the Camp Canteen.
The sense of community that came out of this style of living has been apparent to me since I first started researching my grandfather’s life in the Corps. His photo album is full of goofy photos from events the boys put on in camp. Pictured below is a photo marked “Rookie Week Dance”. It pictures my grandfather, his camp nickname was 'Spike' Sicheneder, and the rest of his barrack all dressed as women. I learned through reading the Gunflint Trailer that this was part of the initiation process all rookies went through the end of their first week in camp
I’ve also been working this month on gathering anecdotes from my family members who were alive to hear stories my grandfather told. He was a talented raconteur so even after his death it is often hard to tell truth from fiction with his stories. However, I’ve found this only adds to my fascination of different individual experiences within the Corps. Everyone, even today, boasts about their work differently and what was a tall tree when it was felled achieves a size close to god-like enormity when retold to other Corps members. Thus I am left with my grandfather’s tales of barracks members being short sheeted, men to walking into the woods to encounter the fabled “camp full of women”, and countless tales of the cigarettes he hoarded until other boys ran out; leaving him able to peddle the ones he had for ridiculously high prices.
What is most apparent out of all the stories I’ve collected, be they truth or fiction, is the sense of family men found in the Corps. My grandfather was more than 200 miles away from his family farm in Waverly, MN but he was able to find a home up north with people who had his back no matter what. I am living near 200 miles away from the family house where I grew up. Even though the Corps no longer houses its members in barracks, I know that if I ever got into trouble the guys I work with would be there for me. The living styles and tools might have changes since my grandfather’s time but the sense of camaraderie has and will continue to endure. The stories that remain, the ones the get told over and over are not of skills and lessons learned, but of people. For if it is hard work and grit that keep the Corps going it is the people that give it substance.