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Weekly 150: Camp Gordon Browning

The New Deal in McKenzie (Part I)

Posted 4/6/21

On April 5, 1933, through an executive order, Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC. This “New Deal” legislation was designed to put hundreds of thousands of young men to work on environmental conservation projects. By July 1, 1933, 1,433 work camps were established and employing 300,000 men. It was the most rapid peacetime mobilization in American history.

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Weekly 150: Camp Gordon Browning

The New Deal in McKenzie (Part I)

Posted

Deep in the throes of the Great Depression, the people of McKenzie like the rest of the county and most of the world worked as hard as possible for every available cent. The American Dream was out of reach, while “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” became the anthem of the Great Depression. On November 8, 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President of the United States and was charged with the task of righting the American economy.

On April 5, 1933, through an executive order, Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC. This “New Deal” legislation was designed to put hundreds of thousands of young men to work on environmental conservation projects. By July 1, 1933, 1,433 work camps were established and employing 300,000 men. It was the most rapid peacetime mobilization in American history.

In May 1933, McKenzie was one of the five proposed sites for a camp. According to the Banner archives, there were five 200 men forestry camps to be located in West Tennessee. McKenzie was under consideration by District Forester R.H. Peek, who visited the city.

The two possible locations were recommended, the Burkhalter farm west of McKenzie on the Gleason Highway and the Bethel College property on the Huntingdon Highway just east of McKenzie. Formal approval was given to the Bethel property, the men would be paid $30 a month plus room and board in the CCC camps.

On June 29, 1933, Camp 1470SC-4 (Camp Gordon Browning) located in McKenzie was the first camp to open in West Tennessee. The archives state, “The first contingent of forestry recruits to hit West Tennessee are scheduled to report today (Thursday) at the forest campsite located one mile east of McKenzie on State Highway 22.

Locating the camp to a modern location...travel southeast along Cedar Street/Old McKenzie Road towards Huntingdon. Immediately after what was Smith’s Tire Barn as you moved up the hill starts the location of the camp. The CCC camp was adjacent to the farm of Aaron Bradfield, father of Dan Bradfield and LaRenda Scarbrough. Across the road, near the farm of Ben Everett, were the camp officers for the engineers and foremen along with tool and equipment sheds.

The first group of 185 men under the supervision of Captain B.H. Hensley and Caption W.G. Cambell entrained at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia Wednesday, reaching here this Thursday morning. They will immediately pitch camp at the site selected by the government for this camp.”

At no point were the enrollees part of the U.S. Army. The Army was given certain responsibilities to assist the program, i.e., provide housing, issue clothing, oversee healthcare, discipline and recreation. So in actuality, the first enrollees in McKenzie were under the supervision of the Army officers but working for the U.S. Forestry Service.

In a letter from John Waddle, he wrote, “We arrived at the camp at 4:30 p.m. tired and hungry. Saturday morning we began working on our permanent camp. Our first job was to clean out a space for our tents which were to be our home until a permanent building could be erected.

“While the majority of the 185 boys were clearing off the ground the crew of carpenters started work on the temporary mess hall. We expect to have electric lights and running water within a few weeks.”

In another letter from John Waddle dated July 7, 1933, he wrote, “Last night the merchants of McKenzie gave the camp an invitation to the McKenzie theatre to see the picture show ‘Humanity.’ The entire camp attended and enjoyed the show.”

By July 22, the camp was making great progress. The well was near completion and a fence was constructed along the highway. Garages were being constructed to store nine work trucks and flooring was being put in place in the officers’ quarters. The workers were also constructing a baseball diamond and a volleyball court for recreation.

From the archives, dated October 13, 1933, “The barracks are complete now and soon as the stoves are installed we will be ready for winter. The past few nights have been cold as the dickens and we are anxiously waiting for the stoves. Next week we will get our first issue of winter clothing.

“A great change in eating has been made, departing from the Army style lining up and passing by the cooks and getting a mess kit full. They are now eating out on plates and food is placed on tables. The old Army mess kits were not thrown away, however — when the crews were working in the field which was most of the time after the fieldwork started, food was brought out in large containers and each truck driver made the trip back to camp each day before noon to bring the hot food out to the crews and each man used his mess kit at the time.”

The first winter of 1933/1934 was spent working around the camp and trying to make the rough living quarters more comfortable. Wool Army uniforms were issued along with wool blankets and plenty of wood to feed the stoves in the barracks.

Next week, I will pick up with the spring of 1934 and how the camp began working with the soil.

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