Dick and I had a few days' gap in our bed and breakfast schedule, so we headed for Ely (Minnesota) near the Boundary waters Canoe Area with a stop in Grand Rapids to tour a logging camp. My goal in Ely was to research the CCC Camp where my father spent time in 1933 when he was 23 years old. (He died in 2004 at the age of 94 and was afflicted with alzheimers for the final two years of his life.) Since there were several CCC Camps in the northwoods at that same time, I wanted to discover which one he served in by locating a roster listing his name and then determine the camp's site. I had no reason to think that I would be successful... I just knew I must try.
A brief history lesson... The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a program established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, to put unemployed men to work so they could support their families. Their task was to replant trees and grass in heavily logged areas because, at that time, the lumber industry was under no obligation to restore lands after harvesting lumber. In addition, the program's goal was to develop and improve the state parks system, which was in its infancy, by building picnic shelters, campgrounds, fireplaces, beaches, parking areas, log cabins, fire lookout towers, bridges, roads, hiking trails, canals, ditches, and dams. Their work provided the rustic look of parks that we know today. Most CCC Camps were abandoned when the U.S. entered World War II. In 1942, the CCC was officially disbanded and the buildings were dismantled and hauled away to be reassembled as Army barracks.
Back to my research... My first stop was the Ely Chamber of Commerce where I was given a list of all the CCC Camps in the Ely area and their location designated by dots on a hand-drawn map. The Chamber personnel suggested I stop at the Ely-Winton Museum of Mining for further information. Enroute to the museum, I phoned my sister Marlene, who has done extensive family geneology, to ask her if she knew the camp's number. She told me that she seemed to recall the number 17 from an old photo. I ran through the list of camps... There were 10 in all, I think. Could it possibly be No. 711 since the other numbers weren't vaguely close to the number 17? She thought so. Upon arrival at the museum, an employee helpfully retrieved a well-worn paper bound compilation of information on all CCC Camps in Minnesota. Upon leafing through the book, I discovered a most wonderful treasure. There before my eyes was a "Roster of Company No. 711 Ely, Minn." There was my father's name, Andrew L. Waltz Canby, Minn. (his birthplace), at the bottom of the 3rd column! (Click on the page to enlarge it and then reduce it to 75%.)
So I now knew the name of his group. This provided the stepping stone I needed to search for the camp's location. Information uncovered at the Ely-Winton Museum of Mining showed that Company 711 was also known as "Portage River" and "F-8" on the map from the Ely Chamber of Commerce pinpointed the location in a gravel pit approximately 23 miles from Ely on a road that is still named the Echo Trail. The pieces were coming together. It was late afternoon when we set out on the 23-mile journey to find where my father had spent time as a young man. The map didn't prepare us for the snake-like curves that lay ahead and the hour it took us to get there. The pavement turned into dirt and the road less maintained. It seemed symbolic of turning back time as we drew closer to our destination. Our research indicated that we should look for a gravel pit. Sadly, we were so intent on searching for a "Portage River" sign, which we missed, and watching our odometer that we never saw the gravel pit. In hindsight, we do slightly remember passing a gravel pit, but it didn't register at the time. The sun was beginning to dip below the tree line when we concluded that we definitely were beyond where the camp might have been. We didn't want to risk being stranded after dark on that desolate road, so we decided not to back track but instead continue on down the Echo Trail where it intersected with a somewhat more travelled road.
Seeing the gravel pit would have probably made me sad... much like returning to my grandparents' farmhouse 1/2 way between Brainerd and Pierz, after they both had died and new owners had abandoned the house to build a new structure next door. However, I will more than likely attempt to locate the gravel pit again... to stand where my father spent his early years so long ago. For now, I will remember what the camp looked like through old photos copied from the museum's tattered book that captured a short chapter in the lives of men who developed and preserved the park system that we know and enjoy today.