If a belt buckle could talk, here's what it might say...

When I began researching my family's history following the death of my grandmother, I never knew what twists and turns that my journey would take me through the history of our nation and its archival collections. Today's blog post focuses on my paternal grandfather's role in one of the most significant public works programs in American history -- The Civilian Conservation Corps. It's a fascinating story, at least from my perspective. I hope it is for you as well.

Throughout my life, I had heard stories about my grandfather's service in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). I really wish I had paid more attention to those tales at the time, and asked questions about his early life, and his service in Franklin Roosevelt's "Tree Army." Since I began researching my family's genealogy, I have had to rely on the memories of my parents, and the archival record, held in family albums and shoeboxes, as well as in state and national archives. I regret that I did not start this process sooner while my grandparents were still alive, but I am grateful that I have these memories and records so that I am able to learn as much as I can about my ancestors and their connections with history.


My grandfather's CCC Co. 420 belt buckle.
One day while going through some old boxes, my dad found a belt buckle that belonged to my grandfather. This belt buckle -- embossed with the letters "C.C.C. Co. 420" -- became the source of a genealogical investigation that has led me from the top of Lookout Mountain, to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, to National Archives' Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and all points in between.

I knew in talking to my father that my grandfather enlisted in the CCC back in South Carolina, where his family lived, and he then moved to the Chattanooga area where the CCC was involved in work clearing roads and trails along Lookout Mountain. I decided to take a trip to the Tennessee State Library and Archives to see if I could uncover some information about CCC Company 420. There I found one piece of the puzzle that confirmed much of the information that I knew anecdotally through the conversations with my father.

According to a "Pictorial Review, Civilian Conservation Corps, District C, Company 420, Tenn. SP-12" held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, CCC Company 420 had quite a nomadic history...

Company 420, Camp Tenn. SP-12, Bristol, Tennessee, was organized at Nichols, South Carolina. After a short time at that location the company was moved by train to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. From which point the men traveled daily to historical Lookout Mountain where they built roads, truck trails and bridges. The distance from the work project prompted the moving of the company to another new camp site. This time it was situated about half way up the western side of Lookout Mountain, four miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee. The move was made in September, 1934. Work carried on by the Using Service then consisted of building a stone museum alongside of famous Umbrella Rock, overlooking Moccasin Bend and the city of Chattanooga.

November 1, 1939, found the administrative personnel and the entire company entrained and on the way to Bristol, Tennessee, our present location...

Having lived in Chattanooga for most of my life, I was well aware of the famous "Umbrella Rock" and its unique place in Chattanooga's history atop Lookout Mountain.

The stone museum refered to in the "Pictorial Review" was known as the Ochs Museum, named after Adolph S. Ochs, a newspaper man who owned The Chattanooga Times, but is probably more famous for his ownership of The New York Times newspaper. Ochs was a very influential member of the Chattanooga business community, and was among the city's most wealthy philanthropists. It's not surprising that this museum high atop Lookout Mountain was named after him, since he assisted in the effort to establish the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Military Park, and led a movement to preserve much of Lookout Mountain.

According to the "Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Historic Resource Study," published by the National Park Service...

"Utilizing CCC labor, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park constructed the Adolph S. Ochs observatory-museum at Point Park in 1939 with funds raised by a citizens' group. The building was dedicated on November 12, 1940. Built of local stone laid in random courses, the two-story U-shaped building blends with its location on a promontory of the mountain. The first floor housed comfort station facilities, heating and cooling equipment, and storage areas. The second floor contained a small museum with a parapeted terrace providing an observation point. A circular walkway with stone steps and detailing was also built that connected the original carriage drive at Point Park to the Ochs observatory-museum."

After completion of the Ochs Museum, Company 420 moved on to Bristol, Tennessee, but my grandfather stayed behind in Chattanooga. I could only speculate as to why he did not follow Company 420 to Bristol, and I still could not determine whether or not he had any hand in constructing the Ochs Museum. I needed to learn more, so I wrote to the National Archives' Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, where Civilian Conservation Corps personnel records are held. After providing some identifying information about my grandfather and a modest fee, NARA provided me with a copy of my grandfather's personnel file which gave me even more information to fill in the pieces to my genealogical puzzle.

According to the NARA documents, my grandfather enrolled in the CCC at Camp 420 in South Carolina on October 3, 1934. He had been unemployed since June 1934, and was part of a very large family who struggled to support themselves in the midst of the Great Depression in the small town of Easley, South Carolina. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps gave poor, unemployed young men a chance to lift themselves back up and support themselves and their families, and my grandfather was among those who took advantage of this new opportunity. Soon after his enrollment, my grandfather was put to work clearing trails and roads along Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I learned through the NARA documents that my grandfather had only a fifth grade education, yet he was an accomplished mechanic and truck driver -- skills that were highly useful in the CCC. He sent $25 from each paycheck he earned in the CCC back home to his mother to help support his family. He served in the CCC as a mechanic until his discharge on July 26, 1937 at St. Elmo, Tennessee, located on the foot of Lookout Mountain. The documents indicated that my grandfather's reason for discharge was "OWN REQUEST TO ACCEPT EMPLOYMENT." He had found work in Chattanooga as a mechanic, and shortly thereafter, he met his future wife, my grandmother, whom he married on January 5, 1938. The rest, as they say, is history.

While it appears that my grandfather left the CCC just prior to the construction of the Ochs Museum, I still regard the documents that I found in the archives as a gold mine of information that I'll treasure forever. They provided me with a clearer picture of my grandfather's early life and hardships, and also gave me an opportunity to learn more about the history of the CCC and the city of my birth -- Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In a future blog post, I plan to explore my maternal grandfather's heroic service in World War II, on the front lines of the European theater. Stay tuned!


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Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.