While leaving Tulsa, heading west, I passed a hiway sign for Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I had never visited the town but recall hearing some music on archival recordings from the Library of Congress that had been recorded there. It was at a CCC Camp in the late 1930’s that the recordings were made. A young, homesick boy wrote a tune about life in the CCC.
The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) was probably the most successful and popular of all FDR’s New Deal programs. They employed young men between the ages of 17 and 24. They were housed in military like barracks and were supplied room and board as well as $5.00 a month. An additional $25.00 was sent home to their parents. This was a personal favorite of FDR’s. It was designed to encourage job training and conservation work for young men while helping struggling families. There is scarcely a national or state park that does not contain buildings, road work, cabins or hiking trails built by the CCC. During the 1930’s the CCC planted over two billion trees to break the wind and prevent soil erosion. I recall a few years ago seeing long rows of sycamores in Nebraska that were the result of their efforts. There are still a handful of reunions around the country for the, then young, now old, men who participated. I had the privilege of attending one at Letchworth State Park a few years back.
As I drove down Rt 40 in Oklahoma my mind went back to a visit I had with George Heron in Salamanca. At the time I was doing some research under a grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities collecting information on CCC activities in Western New York. Over coffee one morning I mentioned this to my good friend Hugh Dunn. As anyone who knows Hugh can attest, if there is a way to help someone he jumps to it.
He informed me that there had been four CCC camps in Alleghany State Park at one time and that many trails and cabins were completed by the CCC. Without hesitating more than the few minutes it took for me to race home and get notebook and pen, Hugh and I were off to the Park. As a former Director of the Park Hugh was in his element and I was in for a great treat.
The next few ours, for a researcher, were simply amazing. He introduced me to the current Director and several members of the staff. He suggested that they help me in any way. I got the feeling if he had asked them to walk across hot coals in their bare feet; they would have done that too. Before leaving I had an armful of notes, photographs and documents. All of it was relevant to the CCC activities in the Park. It was a real treasure trove. As we pulled away Hugh said. “You should really talk to George. He worked for the CCC.” He was referring to George Heron and within a few days I was comfortably seated with George and Hugh, armed with a digital recording device.
But it wasn’t until I arrived at his house that I realized who this George Heron was. Not only had George served two terms as President of the Seneca Nation, he was, until his death at 92 a year later, one of their most respected leaders.
After George had served his terms in the CCC he joined the Navy serving under MacArthur in World War Two. He returned after the War and became an Ironworker, a job he held until his retirement. When elected President of the Seneca’s he presided over some of their most difficult times. The United States Government broke the terms of a treaty signed with them by George Washington and seized 10,000 acres of land for the construction of the Kinzua Dam. Some of the land seized was in George’s family and was burial ground for his ancestors. George fought with all he could: lawyers, engineers, scientists and petitions. It was a tough fight but the Army Corp had been thinking about this project for many years and, in the end, they won out. Even after George’s personal plea to President Kennedy.
Although my interview with George concentrated on the CCC years we did talk about the Kinzua project. And our friend Hugh kept the questions coming and the dialogue lively. He was much better at it than me. As I recall, when it became clear to me just who I was meeting with, I became a bit tongue tied.
At one point towards the end of my visit I was able to just sit back, with the recording device still going, and just watch and listen. George and Hugh….two great men. Two very old friends. They went from story to story with lots of laughs and lots of memories. With recall sharp as a deer blade they pulled so many incidents out of their past. Some from so long ago yet they recalled then as if they happened last week.
I have done a lot of interviews for various projects but none can compare with a morning spent with George and Hugh. A great day it was.
George passed in May of 2011.
Until next time….