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CCC experience 'one of the best'

LeRoy Czeczok today. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

When author Barbara Sommer arrived to share her research on the Civilian Conservation Corps in Minnesota, a member of her audience was revisiting his own history in the CCC.

"Hard Work and a Good Deal," CCC veterans sharing stories of their experiences, tapped fond memories for Park Rapids resident LeRoy Czeczok, 91.

"It was one of the best - and the first - jobs I've had," he said of his tenure that spanned more than three years.

"Those were hard times," LeRoy, one of eight children, recalled. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression. A quarter of the national workforce was unemployed.

"The CCC was the talk of the town," LeRoy said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program, instituted in the first 100 days of his administration in 1933. Sixty-one camps were to be established in Minnesota, housing about 200 men each.

The men were required to show "need" for the program that was to be under the jurisdiction of the Army.

The pay was $30 per month; $25 was sent home to families.

"My parents encouraged me to go. I'd never been away from home," he said of his family farm near Tripp Lake in Badoura Township. The home held no amenities, no electricity and it was heated with a wood stove. "The telephone hadn't even been thought of."

There were no jobs, he said. His only source of income was rowing boats for fishermen, a precursor to his father developing a small resort on the lake.

So at 17 (although 18 was the designated minimum age for enlisting) he headed to Fort Snelling for a physical. He was employed Oct. 10, 1935. His first destination: Ely, where he was about to sample grapefruit for the first time.

"We felt like royalty."

AWOL derailed

"The CCC's impact on the environment was perhaps greatest in Minnesota's forests," Sommer states in her book. "Most camps in Minnesota were located on federal or state forestlands. CCC work programs focused not just on developing new state forests - 13 were established in 1933 alone - but also on protecting existing ones."

"We planted a lot of trees," LeRoy recalled.

His first assignment in Ely was transplanting Norway and white pine seedlings until winter set in. Crews then began cutting dead trees to minimize fire danger. "We worked through all kinds of weather," he said.

"The food was always good," he recalled. Some of the young men arrived underweight, the condition soon cured.

A Christmas dinner menu included fruit cocktail, a puree soup, turkey a la king with sage dressing, cranberry sauce, potatoes and giblet gravy, sweet potatoes en casserole, lettuce and tomato salad, olives, raisin and white bread, apple and pumpkin pie, coffee and beer, candy and nuts and cigarettes and cigars.

But food doesn't cure homesickness.

By late fall, LeRoy and two of his Akeley pals decided to go AWOL, deserting camp in the dark of the night to begin a journey home on foot.

"We were tired," he recalled of the impetus to flee. "And had no money."

But the desertion was short-lived. Early the next morning, with just a few miles under their belts, the cold and hungry lads hopped aboard a milk truck bound for camp, crawled into bed "and no one was the wiser."

They were back at work with the crew that morning.

Military ready

Six months later, he headed home, but with no work available, he decided, "better get back to CCs."

The Paul Bunyan Camp, located in the state forest north of Nevis, was his next assignment, building trails and firebreaks and planting trees his primary duties.

Nearly all the camps had at least one newspaper, at Roosevelt's behest, and Paul's was no exception. The Blue Ox kept the young men informed and entertained. If a CCC recruit arrived from the metro, he might bring along a radio, the men huddling around it when evening came.

"But that was a rarity."

His next stop: Badoura, three miles from home turf. The nursery was in its infancy stages and LeRoy, living in a side camp, assisted with its implementation.

Meanwhile, wife Louise (with whom he'd not yet crossed paths) looked forward to Saturday Catholic confessions in Akeley with rapt anticipation. Not that she had egregious sins to admit, but the CCC guys headed into town via truck.

After church, while her parents chatted with friends and neighbors - their only social time - "we'd sneak to the corner to watch - and wave." (The couple would not meet until after World War II.)

After Badoura, LeRoy was assigned to Lovelis Lake Camp in Arago Township, the assigned work area, Itasca State Park.

"I kept the fires going," the night "fireman," a member of Company 2703, said of his winter duties. While the camp slept, he roamed from barrack to barrack, stoking the fires. At 4 a.m., he'd ready the kitchen for the cooks to begin breakfast.

Come summer, he did roadwork or created firebreaks. He'd often precede the Caterpillar on foot, to move items or alert the driver to obstacles.

He fondly recalls superintendent George "Haywire" Wilson, known for ignoring bureaucratic directives.

"He had a good sense of humor," LeRoy recalled, "and I liked working with him better than cutting brush."

The camp's newspaper was "The Timber Wolf's Howl."

After leaving the CCC in March 1939, LeRoy headed to California where he went to work for the Red River Lumber Company. He was drafted two years later.

"The guys said Roosevelt trained an army," LeRoy said of the physically fit and healthy CCC men who headed off to fight in World War II.

Today, the local Paul Bunyan chapter of the CCC continues to meet on a monthly basis, but numbers are dwindling. They are regular guests at Itasca, where, after a CCC book signing at the Old Timer's Cabin, people linger, asking for more stories.

"During the years of its operation, the men of Company 2703 built over 100 miles of forest roads, three forestry headquarter facilities and completed other forestry projects," an historical plaque for Lovelis Lake Camp states.

"Much of Highway 113 was created by men of Lovelis Lake Camp and, if you look closely, you may be able to spot sections of their earlier roadbed... The CCC transformed Minnesota's state parks and left a legacy in log and stone for future generations..."