Pete Chitwood is on the third row of four total rows and the third from the left. Snapshot of part of an elongated group photo taken in November 1933 of Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Cordell Hull Company 1472.
Eighty years ago one of the nation’s and state’s first Civilian Conservation Corps units, which aimed to revitalize the environment as a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, set up camp near Limestone Cove in Unicoi County.
Organized at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., near Chattanooga, the first men to stay at the camp arrived on May 27, 1933, in Unicoi County with the mission to protect, preserve and conserve forest lands and all life therein.
During the first year or so, members of Camp Cordell Hull (Camp F-5 in District C) lived in tents. Units stationed at the camp included companies 1455, 1472 and, briefly, 1457. Eventually, the camp would be home to about 400 men at a time with the construction of barracks on land where the Unicoi County Cherokee Hotshots facility is currently located.
In June 1933, the camp was dubbed Cordell Hull, named after the former secretary of state and Tennessee senator, and was placed on Johnson City Water Co. land at the foothills of the Unaka Mountain range, which had severely burned seven years prior, according to the Erwin Record.
Prior to the first unit’s arrival at the camp, East Tennessee CCC enrollment, which was managed out of Bristol and included Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Washington, and Unicoi counties, was advertised as 40 hours of work during each five-day week. After training, an exam and vaccinations, the men were outfitted with military clothing and expected to send home $22-$25 of their monthly wages.
By May 3, 1933, the Erwin Record reported that Unicoi County reforestation service registrar Frank E. Broyles calculated 115 men in Unicoi County signed up, but only 25 Unicoi Countians were used at Camp Cordell Hull — the rest were still registered and placed in other camps.
The fear that locals would go A.W.O.L. on the weekend if they were placed in camps near their homes was the reason many of the men were sent elsewhere.
However, Unicoi County native Pete Chitwood, 98, was one of the lucky locals who served at Camp Cordell Hull in Company 1472.
“They put me on a train and sent me into Knoxville,” said Chitwood, who was about 18 years old at the time. “I got there and I asked, ‘Where are we going now?’ and he said ‘You’re going to camp.’ ”
While he was riding in the back of a military truck to his new home, Chitwood said he realized just where he was headed.
“I said, ‘Is this where we are going? This is my home here,’ ” Chitwood said.
Chitwood said he loved everything about serving in the CCC, which included a lot of hands-on labor, but also meals, paychecks and chasing after pretty ladies during leisure time.
While he wasn’t admiring the ladies in town, Chitwood said the CCC put him in charge of using a jackhammer to drill holes for dynamite while the boys were building roads through mountains in and around Erwin such as Unaka Springs Road.
Chitwood said he also had a hand in building Rock Creek Park and has since taken family there to make even more memories.
“We made the pool that was there,” Chitwood said. “We took dynamite and blew everything out of there.”
Marsha Edwards, Chitwood’s daughter, said she remembers him taking her there to swim when she was a child.
“It was freezing,” Edwards said. “We used to go to Rock Creek for picnics. That was our favorite thing. We would go up there, get in that pool and we’d turn purple because that water was runoff. When the snow would melt and fill that pool, you talk about cold.”
Some of the other work in the area that each company was involved in included placing rock for local roads, building and maintaining the telephone system, planting spruce and white pine trees in badly burned areas and handling fires.
According to Heritage Museum Curator Martha Erwin‘s copy of a CCC pictorial review pamphlet, CCC boys helped maintain “practically all the fires in this area” spanning “about 40 miles by 100 miles” with six lookout towers.
Chitwood said Unicoi’s Pinnacle fire tower, which was built in the early ’30s, was one of the lookouts used by the CCC.
According to the pamphlet, some of the boys at Camp Cordell Hull were also involved in building and maintaining four local picnic grounds — the Laurels or Pines and Dennis Cove in Carter County, Rock Creek in Unicoi County and Horse Creek in Greene County.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said they remember their father Ted Lynch, who was enrolled and stationed at CCC Camp Cordell Hull and also friends with Chitwood, would attend local CCC reunions at the Laurels.
Johnny Lynch also said that a bath house at Rock Creek Park was reopened and rededicated in 2008 and the history of the CCC boys at Camp Cordell Hull was on display.
Although the work the CCC boys were doing was and has been commended by locals, it was natural for some of the enrollees’ attitudes to clash with locals when they were stationed in different cities back then.
According to a May 30, 1934, issue of the Erwin Record, it was during a South Unicoi spring wienie roast that two CCC men were arrested on charges of “assault and battery with intent to commit murder” of a man. The two assailants, Gordon Creech and Heard Mills, were involved in a verbal disagreement, which led to a fist fight that then escalated to Creech pulling a pocket knife on two juvenile victims, according to the article.
One of the victims, Dave Hix, was stabbed multiple times in the chest and was rushed to the American Legion hospital. Hix was at first thought to be in critical condition, but the report said he had improved and the preliminary hearing was reset by Sheriff M.F. Parsley and assistant attorney general DeWitt Tucker.
Despite this conflict, Chitwood said the work the CCC was doing was regarded as positive and necessary for the future success of East Tennessee lands.
“Everybody was friends,” Chitwood said about the relationship between locals and the boys in the camp.
One of the more important roles the CCC camp played in the local community was educating the public about how they can help take care of the environment along with them.
According to a June 14, 1933, issue of the Record, the Erwin Kiwanis Club hosted a Captain Page and Sergeant Hanner of CCC Camp Cordell Hull. Page outlined “the work planned at the camp” and told those in attendance that they expected the camp to be in “excellent running condition within six months.”
In November 1933, the Erwin Record reported that nearly 40,000 carpenters were rapping hammers in four states to complete 1,400 CCC camp living quarters before the onset of cold weather.
And by 1942, Camp Cordell Hull was decommissioned, which was the same year the entire CCC program was phased out in order for more men to enlist in the military during World War II.
It was also reported that Major E.A. Goldman, a U.S. Biological Survey senior biologist, had published a report, which determined that developments like limited cutting of certain trees by the CCC boys would improve conditions for the future.
Overall, Chitwood said he is proud of the work the local CCC camp accomplished because they helped to improve the area for future generations.