Many W. Pa. men provided brawn, muscle for the Civilian Conservation Corps
Editor's Note: This is the final of four articles about the Civilian Conservation Corps and the impact it had on the region.
“I helped build this bridge when I worked for the CCC.” That's what Mike Whoric of Vanderbilt always said, proudly, when he and family members crossed Jacobs Creek near Scottdale, according to his great-nephew, Russell Helms.
Whoric, who passed away several years ago, would be 103 today. His family keeps his memory — and the memory of the Civilian Conservation Corps — alive as vibrantly as if he and the federal conservation program happened yesterday. Dozens of state parks, bridges and other infrastructure remain solidly intact in 2013 on the CCC's 80th anniversary — and many local men provided the muscle for those projects.
Founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the CCC paid $30 per month to young men ages 18 to 25. They earned their keep and helped improve an America stricken by the Great Depression. Twenty-five dollars of CCC workers' $30 monthly pay was sent home to their hungry families, leaving the workers $5 to purchase “extras” beyond the room and board that the CCC provided.
Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed more than 2.5 million young men, including thousands from Southwestern Pennsylvania. The Great Depression had idled industries, including the coal mines and steel mills that were so vital to Pennsylvania's economy.
Many local ties
Among those CCC workers was a young Ted Sholtis, a longtime Anchor Hocking Glass worker of Connellsville who grew in the nearby coal “patch” of Leisenring. Interviewed in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima, during which he served aboard the USS Cache, Sholtis remembered the CCC with gratitude and affection.
“(The CCC) was a good program. It put a lot of people back to work,” said Sholtis, during that 1995 interview.
He worked with the CCC from 1938 to 1941 in Maryland and Virginia, including the construction of Swallow Falls State Park near Deep Creek, Md. “So many families were hurting ... There just weren't any jobs.”
Sholtis' photo was provided by his daughter, Janet Hall of Connellsville, who is proud of her father's legacy; he passed away in 2007 at age 85. When interviewed in 1995, Sholtis remembered his CCC years fondly.
“We lived on $5 spending a month (at the camp),” he said. “There was even enough money left over sometimes to go to the movies.”
The late Paul Batta of Connellsville was with the CCC in Harwood, Md. His son, Bill Batta of Dunbar Township, has his dad's CCC papers — along with the memories of his father's years with the CCC and World War II. The elder Batta served as a medic with the U.S. infantry during the invasion of Italy. When he returned home, he raised his family, supporting them as a dairy worker and milkman.
“Dad never talked about World War II until later in life,” said Bill Batta, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War. “The war wasn't something that he wanted to talk about.”
Batta: CCC memories
Over the years, Paul Batta shared a few CCC memories with his son and his daughter, Virginia Batta Dodds, who now lives in Winchester, Va. Before Batta passed away (in 2011 at age 89), Dodds chauffeured him to Laurel Hill State Park near Somerset.
“Dad wanted to see it (Laurel Hill) again because he helped build it,” Dodds explained. “It was a time of great reflection for him. He enjoyed revisiting his CCC days.”
Batta's CCC nickname was “Babe,” for a good reason.
“He was practically a baby — he lied about his age to get into the program,” said Bill Batta. “He left school in 1937 to sign up — he was only 15 years old.”
“Dad saw it (the CCC) as a good opportunity to make some money. His father was not in good health, and he had four younger siblings,” Dodds said. “He had to support his family. He learned a lot from being in the CCC. I think he felt that with the CCC he made a contribution to his country.”
Agnes Osler of South Connellsville recalled the CCC experiences of her longtime companion, the late Harry Wood, who spent time with the CCC at an Idaho camp starting in 1939 when he was only 16 years old.
“Harry said they got the workers up early and gave them so many trees to plant each day.”
The CCC, which planted more than 3 billion trees to reforest America between 1933 and 1942, was nicknamed “The Tree Army.”
Went to Idaho
“He (Harry) said that one group would dig the holes and another group would plant (the seedlings),” said Osler, a widow who was Harry Wood's companion for more than 20 years; he passed away two years ago at age 87. “It was a good experience for him.”
After working with the CCC, Wood served with the Army during World War II in the China/Burma Theater of Operations and afterwards worked several jobs, retiring as a custodian at the state unemployment office in Connellsville.
“It was my first opportunity to make something of myself,” said John Livengood of Somerset about the CCC. Livengood's comments are on a video that can be seen at Laurel Hill State Park, which is off Route 31 near Bakersville, Somerset County. He is one of several CCC survivors who helped to construct the state park in the 1930s.
On the same video, Johnstown-area brothers Adolph and Ed Semich recount their days with the CCC.
“We were hungry, but we never starved (during the Depression),” said Adolph Semich, recalling how his $30 CCC paycheck aided his family through those bleak years.
“I did a lot of growing up (in the CCC). I learned to live in a group setting and I learned respect. I never asked ‘Why me?' when I was told something. I just did it. I learned self-confidence,” said Ed Semich.
“I still carry that respect with me — and neatness,” added John Livengood, who — along with the Semich brothers — will be honored for their CCC service on Saturday at Laurel Hill State Park's annual Bluebird Festival.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.