Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy
"Passing the Legacy to Future Generations"  

A Son's Quest by Ken Bober

My Dad, Frank P. Bober, passed away at a very young thirty-nine years of age.  I was thirteen years old going on fourteen at the time.   He took sick when I was about twelve years old. 

Tough, I didn’t have a chance to really know my Dad, but I do happen to recall one conversation I had with him.  I was nine or ten years old and remember asking him if he was ever in the Army.  I recall him saying that he wasn’t, but he served for a year in what he called the CCC’s.  He didn’t tell me much, but I remember that he talked rather fondly about his days in the CCC’s.  He said he was able to see a lot of the Western United States.  He learned how to drive a truck and as a seventeen-year-old, away from home, it sounded like he had the time of his life.   That was the extent of what I learned from him about the CCC’s.  Much to my dismay now, after I heard he wasn’t in the Army, I didn’t pursue any further line of questioning.  At that point in my life I was too young to take a real interest in learning about his time in the CCC's - and losing him so early in life I missed the chance to really pick his brain about his time in the CCC's.

So we now jump ahead fifty two years to 2012 when Mom passed away.  I’m sixty-four years old and had to work through the unpleasant task of going through Mom’s stuff and dealing with donating, disposing or keeping things that will later remind me of her.  That’s when I found Dad's footlocker from the CCC's which included a memory book from Camp Harper, Oregon; two photo albums with all sorts of photos of the western states circa 1940 (pics from Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Montana & Idaho); a cigar box full of additional pictures and his discharge papers from the CCC's.  Fortunately, for me, Dad had the foresight to identify or label almost all the pictures. 

Walking in his footsteps

Finding this treasure trove of history, Dad’s history as a seventeen-year-old, and the pictorial history of United States as a country going through the Great Depression started me on a quest to find out all I could about Dad’s adventure in 1940 in the CCC’s.  I wanted to walk in his footsteps and visit those places that he photographed and experienced as a seventeen-year-old boy back in 1940.

My starting point was Dad’s discharge papers and the Camp Harper Memory Book.  These provided me with the dates and camps my dad served in.  The memory book gave me great insight into his time at Camp Harper where he spent six months of his life.  Pouring through all the pictures which he meticulously labeled I learned that he saw a lot of the great west.  In my hand was period photographic evidence of Yellowstone National Park; Glacier National Park; Grand Coulee Dam; an Apple Blossom Parade in Wenatchee, Washington; a forest fire he fought, and a great train wreck which he witnessed. This provided me with a roadmap to venture on a quest to walk in his seventeen-year-old footsteps to learn just a little bit more about him.

I started my quest by doing internet searches to learn about the history of the CCC’s and to find out additional information on the camps where Dad served. 

I was able to glean quite a bit of information on the CCC’s with my internet search.  I found out that CCC’s was a New Deal program during the Great Depression and was designed to provide jobs at $30 a month; plus uniforms; housing and food.  The program was supervised by the Army, and the quasi-military nature of the organization led to Army careers for many of the young men that joined the CCC’s.

Nationwide, the CCC’s spent nearly $3 billion putting some 3 million youths and war veterans to work in more than 4000 camps during the Great Depression in the program’s 9-year run.  The CCC boys made a great contribution to this country.  They helped reforest America by planting an estimated 3 billion trees. They fought forest fires. They built service buildings, public camp/picnic grounds in over 800 state and national parks.  They built roads, bridges, trunk and foot trails.  They developed range and grazing lands.  They did much to protect and develop natural resources.  Essentially, I learned about the great contribution the CCC boys made to this country and how they helped conserve and enhance our nation’s natural resources.  I learned that many of these accomplishments of the CCC boys survive even today which is a tribute to their high quality of execution and stability. 

However, I wasn’t able to find out much about the location of Camp Harper, Oregon and didn’t have a real breakthrough until I spoke with my neighbor.  Fortunately, he grew up in Oregon and knew of the town of Harper.  He told me it was in Eastern Oregon about a two-hour ride from Boise, Idaho.

Unbeknownst to me my neighbor contacted the owner of a store - Coleman’s Service Station - along the main highway and the crossroad to the town of Harper and spoke to the proprietor, Brian Coleman. He told Brian about my find of CCC artifacts and he asked Brian if I could call him.  He then put me in touch with Brian. 

I called Brian and he became my point person and helped me put together my trip to walk in my Dad’s footsteps.   Though he didn’t have information on Camp Harper, he told me the Camp was up the road from his store. 

I sent Brian a copy of the Camp Harper memory book and a letter addressing the people of the community around Harper.  Brian shared it with the people of the town of Harper.   Apparently, the memory book and letter got around to a number of people in the community which led to a call I received from a chap whose brother was the editor of the Malheur Enterprise, the local area newspaper. He wanted to put me in touch with his brother because he felt that it would be great if he was able to do a news story on the camp as it is a part of the history of the Eastern Oregon area.  

My quest came together serendipitously after that.  Rick Nelson, the then editor of the Malheur Enterprise contacted me. Rick had a chance to read the Camp Harper Memory book and my letter that his brother passed on to him.   Rick was very interested in doing this story about Camp Harper and the CCC’s as he felt it was a piece of history that many people in the area just didn’t know about.   Rick and I had a couple of long phone calls after our first introduction and he basically interviewed me over the phone and put a newspaper article together entitled “Old Memories Of New Deal” which ran in the September 9, 2015 issue of the Malheur Enterprise.  After that article ran one thing led to another and all of a sudden, my trip out to Harper, Oregon began to take shape.  

Brian put me in touch with the owner of the land that once held Camp Harper, a rancher by the name of Brett Marchek.  I made contact with Mr. Marchek and he agreed to take me to the site of the old Camp Harper if I made it out to Oregon.   A gentleman by the name of Gary McClellan, a Board Member of the Malheur County Historical Society contacted me and asked if I didn’t mind if he joined me on my visit to the site of Camp Harper.

But before I made my way out to Oregon I began my walk in my Dad’s footsteps, by starting out where he started his adventure - Camp McCoy in Sparta, Wisconsin.  I wanted to see if I could find any records of his presence there.  I learned that the Camp didn’t retain any records of the days when Camp McCoy functioned as a point of embarkation for the CCC’s.  I did, however, have the opportunity to take in the Camp museum and see some examples of life in the CCC’s/Army back in those days as much of the CCC’s camp life was patterned after the Army.

Then on October 6, 2015 I flew to Boise, Idaho rented a car and the morning of October 7th and drove from Boise to Harper where I met Brian Coleman, Brett Marchek and Gary McClellan at Coleman’s Service Station.   Brian is the owner and proprietor of Coleman’s Service Station.  It is a three in one facility.  It serves the Harper community as a gas station with one gas pump; a small grocery store (kind of a rural 7-11) with the added benefit of a bar.   Outside the store is a phone booth that is used by the locals because cell phone reception in this rural area is spotty at best.

At first, I felt a bit intimidated by Brett Marchek, the rancher that owns the land on which the former Camp Harper resides.  Brett was a tall and stocky individual with a cowboy hat and hip boots, a real exemplification of what I envisioned as a modern-day cowboy.  I worried that I was taking him away from his daily rancher chores and felt I was an imposition to him. I presented Brett with a framed picture of Camp Harper, circa 1940.  This picture broke the ice.  It was the first time Brett saw a picture of the former camp.  It stimulated a lot of conversation between the three men as I stood there in awe and listened to them.  It was like I wasn’t there.  They commented on the vantage point from where the picture of the Camp was taken. They pondered who owned the land at the time?  Was it privately held, or government owned back then?  They pointed out the way the land looked back then versus now and if the camp was illuminated at night by electricity and where they drew their water from? The three of them went on for at least 20 minutes before they re-engaged me in their conversation.  Then the four of us talked for about 40 minutes in Brian’s store before we left for the site of Camp Harper.   

Gary and I followed Brett up the road to the site of the camp.  The site of the former Camp Harper is about two miles east of Brian’s store just across the Cottonwood Creek Bridge on the highway.  I actually passed it by in the morning on my way to meet at Brian’s store, but one would never know that a CCC camp existed there at this site which was now blended into the terrain that borders this main highway.

Brett unlocked the gate that guarded the property.  There was not much of a sign of the former camp.  Faint outlines of the footprints of the camp buildings were able to be discerned on the grounds.  The entry gate stanchions that welcomed visitors to the camp were still present as well as the remnants of a fountain that the CCC boys from the camp built alongside the highway.  Back in the day I imagined this fountain welcoming visitors to the camp.  I’m sure the boys were proud of their creation.

Brett then took us to three locations on the property on his all-terrain vehicle.  We went up to a spring where he thought the water from the camp was drawn from.  He took us to a bunker up in the hills where the dynamite for the road building was stored.  It was far enough away from the camp itself as to not present a problem should it be accidentally detonated.  We also explored a gully that was used as a dumping ground where the refuse the camp generated was discarded.  Though the camp didn’t exist as it did in 1940 this experience still provided me with the opportunity to imagine that my Dad walked on this ground in 1940. 

We spent about an hour and a half exploring the property.  Being a working rancher Brett had to get back to his daily duties so after saying thank you and good-bye to Brett for his time and hospitality, Gary and I then drove into the town of Harper just off the main highway.   Harper is an unincorporated community in Malheur County, Oregon with a 2010 population of 109.  It lies just off of U.S. Route 20 or the Central Oregon Highway southwest of Vale, Oregon.  

As a town, it is a shadow of its former 1940 self and today it is basically a main street that spans about two blocks of which gives the appearance of a ghost town.  I see a café and general store that looked boarded up and a sign at a building touting boot making.   At the end of the street with a slight left turn there is still a viable boarding high school that serves children of the valley.   Residents of the town live off a few side streets off the main drag in small ramshackle houses and mobile homes.  Gary then took me up to an area down a road out of town.  He wanted to show me one of the vantage points he remembered from one of the pictures in my Camp Harper Memory Book where the CCC boys of Camp Harper built the road.

After taking in the area we headed back to Coleman’s Store where Brian gave me directions to his Uncle’s house. I spent about a half an hour talking with Frank Coleman, now 87 years old.  Frank was a twelve-year-old boy back in 1940 and remembers his family being invited to the Camp for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that were held in the Camp for the townsfolk of Harper.   He wasn’t able to provide me with a lot of information about the camp except that the meals they served were good and all the people of the CCC camp were real friendly. He went on to say that some of the CCC boys from Camp Harper met girls in the area they ultimately married and settled down in Eastern Oregon. 

My day ended exploring the town of Vale, Oregon where I took up in the Bates Motel (not the one from the famous movie).  I had dinner and reflected on the events of the day I just had the opportunity to spend.

The next day I drove into Ontario, Oregon where I met with Howard and Verle Towell at Brookdale Assisted Living.  Howard was 100 years old and Verle, his wife, was just 2 years his junior. Hoping to jog their memories, I shared with them the Camp Harper Memory book as well as many of the pictures of the area back in 1940.  This worked because it opened them up to talk and this visit with them turned out to be a most charming experience. I have never seen two elderly people so vibrant and with it.  They were married in 1938.  They were 23 and 21 years old at the time.  They lived in the town of Harper at the time and their recall of the CCC boys was memorable.  

They talked to me about dances that were held in town on a regular basis.  They said this provided the means for the boys to have a little entertainment from their rigorous work of the CCC’s.  The boys came into the town to spend their money, blow off steam and meet the local girls.  Verle talked about how the local girls chased the CCC boys.  With a little twinkle in her eyes she even intimated that some of the girls were quite loose.

Howard recognized one of the five foremen that worked at the Camp - a chap named Ed Sheets.  He knew him from the town of Harper.  Reflecting back on this now, Mr. Sheets was probably a LEM or one of the Local Experienced Men – skilled tradesmen that served at Camp Harper and worked as crew chiefs and maybe helped teach skills to the CCC boys of the Camp. 

The Towell’s weren’t able to provide me much additional insight as they never actually visited Camp Harper.  They said they kind of avoided it.  Being just newly married they were more interested in setting up their home.  Verle mentioned that electricity was brought into the town around 1939 or 1940 and she recalled her and Howard purchasing their first refrigerator which was a major luxury for them at the time.  This provided a clue as to when Camp Harper became electrified as well.

They also confirmed what Frank Coleman told me, some of the CCC boys married local gals and settled in the area.  One chap, a former CCC boy Howard remembered by name.  Dick Bashford.  Bashford married a local gal and settled in Vale, Oregon where he ran a tavern called the ‘Golden Slipper’.  The Golden Slipper was established sometime during the Great Depression.  It was sort of an historic landmark in the town of Vale.  The snow during the winter of 2017 proved to be too much of a burden to the building and it collapsed under its crush and was demolished shortly thereafter.

Both Howard and Verle said that they were sad when Camp Harper closed.  Though they couldn’t give me a solid date as to its closure, they thought it was sometime in early 1942.  The buildings of the camp were dismantled and put on trucks.  They heard the buildings were being transported to Portland for the war effort.  After the CCC’s left there was not much to hold the town of Harper together.  The town went into an economic slide that it never seemed to really recover from. 

Later that afternoon I was invited by Gary McClellan to make a presentation to the Malheur County Historical Society about my quest to walk in my Dad’s footsteps.  For me, being asked to address this group added a dimension to my experience that I never anticipated when I first talked about my trip to Oregon and Camp Harper.  I really enjoyed talking to the group and watching their reaction to my presentation.  Attending that meeting also provided me with an added bonus experience.  One of the gentlemen listening to my presentation suggested that I visit the site of the former CCC Camp Ontario.  He actually drew a map for me to find this site.  It now houses the Owyhee Irrigation District Maintenance Office.   So, when the Historical Society meeting ended I made the trip to this area.

Much to my surprise some of the original buildings from this CCC camp still existed and were put into use for office space and storage of equipment and supplies of the Owyhee Irrigation District.   I had the opportunity to actually go into these buildings and imagine how they housed the CCC boys back in the 30’s and 40’s.  The main office building of the Irrigation District was repurposed from the original officer’s quarters of Camp Ontario.   On the office wall was a framed blueprint of the layout of the camp.  As I walked this site – the footprints of the buildings comprising the whole camp were easily seen as well as the roads that encircled the camp.  Way in the distance a dilapidated building stood which turned out to be the remnants of the CCC camp bathhouse.  Though this wasn’t the camp my Dad served in – it had all the same trappings of basically most every CCC camp that was built in the United States and being able to tour these buildings added a whole new depth of experience to my quest.  I actually was able to envision some of my dad’s living conditions back in 1940.

I believe my Dad signed up for the CCC’s at a Civilian Conservation Corps Selecting Center at 2547 Archer Avenue in Chicago.  This was the closet center to his neighborhood of Brighton Park in Chicago.   Dad came from a family of nine children and this was a way to do his part to help his family survive the depression.  Making thirty dollars a month and sending twenty-five dollars back to his Mom was his contribution.  Twenty-five dollars went a long way in 1940. 

Dad’s adventure into the CCC’s started out at Camp McCoy in Sparta, Wisconsin.   Camp McCoy’s role with the CCC’s spanned the years from 1933 to 1940.  It initially administered the supply of clothing, subsistence and equipment for CCC camps in Wisconsin.  It also served as a Discharge and Reception Center for new enrollees. 

New enrollees from the Midwest started their service in the CCC’s at Camp McCoy and were also out-processed there until the center closed in the fall of 1939.  After this period, the camp was put on a standby status with a quartermaster detachment and civilian personnel that were left behind as caretakers that still out-processed boys from the corps.

After being indoctrinated into the CCC’s Dad was transported to the State of Washington and Camp Entiat near Wenatchee, Washington.  He served at Camp Entiat for six months and then he was transferred to Camp Harper in Harper, Oregon. 

The CCC Camp Harper was organized as Company 4603.  I learned that the origin of Company 4603, an Illinois Company came to life on July 13, 1938.  Like my Dad, the organization of Company 4603 was completed at Fort McCoy in Sparta, Wisconsin and the full company was entrained for Harper, Oregon July 19th, and arrived at the Camp July 22, 1938.

After his first six month stint at Camp Entiat in Washington State dad arrived at Camp Harper on July 30, 1940 and served there until December 19, 1940. He had the opportunity to walk into a Camp Harper that was pretty well established by the boys from the original ’38 company.  By then Camp Harper was winter ready and said to be an oasis of green grass, flowers and shrubbery that was developed out of essentially sage brush as Eastern Oregon is pretty flat and barren.

Camp Harper, located in Harper, Oregon was the main camp and was known to be one of the better camps in the Boise District.  Camp Harper was designated a G camp (G-90) with the task of ‘grazing service’.  It was in the Ninth CCC Corps Area – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, California and Yellowstone Park and was administered out of the Boise, Idaho District 3.  District 3 was comprised of 2,516,901 acres of public domain, all of which was in Malheur & Harney Counties of Oregon.

I gathered from the autographs of Dad’s service buddies in his memory book that he had the opportunity to learn how to drive a truck at Camp Harper.  I'm thinking that his first opportunity to drive was at the camp and that was before automatic transmissions.  It looks like he had a rough time learning to drive a truck and most probably stripped some gears along the way.  He was given the nickname 'Double Clutch'. 

Camp Harper was instrumental in developing the territory around the camp for grazing.

The grazing service drew up specs for standard spring developments which consisted of cement tanks and cement troughs which eliminated all maintenance costs for an estimated period of 20 years.  In areas where no water lines were available they constructed reservoirs and impounding dams to catch the spring runoff and hold it to furnish water for livestock. Located far back in the hills many of these developments couldn’t be started until truck trails were built to reach them. This work was part of the necessary activities in developing grazing lands. This development of the water by the CCC’s opened some of the best range lands in the country for grazing.

Another important task of the CCC’s work in the area of Camp Harper was the building of drift fences to control the grazing of the stock.  As this work covered over 2.5 million acres, some of the projects were too far to cover from Camp Harper – the main camp.

This resulted in the establishment of spike-camps as the distance from Camp Harper to these spike camps was such that daily transportation was out of the question and smaller camps needed to be established. 

G-90 Camp Harper had two spike camps:

The Drewsey Spike Camp was located in Drewsey three miles west of the Central Oregon Highway.  This was a 25-man spike camp and their work consisted of spring development, road & drift fence construction.  It was a permanent camp and had a 5-year program set-up.

Another 49-man spike camp was located at Juntura – Horseshoe Bend.  This Horseshoe Bend Spike Camp was l located on a large bend of the Malhuer River 2.5 miles East of Juntura and 35 miles west of the Camp Harper on the Central Oregon Highway.  This was a 49-man spike camp where the CCC’s completed 8 miles of drift fence, 39 miles of truck trail, constructed 2 reservoirs, cut 8000 posts and developed 8 springs.

  The CCC’s nationwide had a direct and diverse impact on local communities and economies.  Though I couldn’t directly find out the impact of Camp Harper on the local communities of Harper, Vale & Ontario, I’m sure that the CCC’s had an impact on these local communities.

From my discussions with Frank Coleman and the Towell’s I learned that the boys of Camp Harper infused cash into the town of Harper.  Back in 1940, Harper was a very viable town made more whole because of Camp Harper.  Food and supplies for the Camp came from the town of Harper as well as from Vale and Ontario.   Dances were held in town and the boys spent their monthly stipend of $5.00 by treating themselves and the local girls that chased them.   

The money spent locally was a bonanza for local farms and ranches and won over many merchants.  In fact, Eastern Oregon benefitted greatly from the CCC’s as there were numerous CCC camps in the area beyond just Camp Harper. Besides Camp Harper’s spike camps in Drewsey and Juntura there also were CCC camps in Ontario, Nyssa and Vale (Willow Creek).   So, the CCC’s were as an important part of the history of eastern Oregon in the depression era as was the Oregon Trail was as settlers moved west in that earlier era. 

In my search for additional information on Camp Harper I contacted the Oregon Department of Forestry at the Forest History Center in Portland.  I learned that the far eastern Oregon area has been a region that has been extremely difficult for them to obtain CCC camp information because the Eastern Oregon camps were administered in Boise. 

After serving six months at Camp Harper Dad was transported back to Camp McCoy where he was discharged honorably from the CCC’s.

As I look back on this whole experience from finding my Dad’s footlocker with CCC treasures in it to meeting all the wonderful people that had contributed to my quest to walk in my Dad’s footsteps it was both an emotional and a historical journey for me.  Every step of this journey brought me closer to my Dad and I now have a deep appreciation of the contribution he along with all the CCC boys made to this country. 

My quest continued as I had a similar opportunity to visit the site of Dad’s first CCC that he was stationed at – Camp Entiat - in 2017.   So this article is just half of the story.

Note that there’s a great gap in the history of this country.  Many people don’t have the foggiest idea of what the CCC’s were.  We hear of the Greatest Generation in relation to WWII but very little is known or taught about the contribution that a body of ‘depression era’ boys made to this country.  So, I continue my quest and I set another goal – “to gain some recognition for the CCC boys in Our Nation’s Capitol.” 

The CCC boys that built this country were very close to the age of school children that make the annual pilgrimage to Washington D.C.  They should have the ability to learn about the CCC boys and what one is capable of achieving such a young age.

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