ROSSCOMMON, Michigan This was Benjamin’s idea, using high-tech gear so we finally could visit a place he had been wanting to see for years. “Dad, we’re going to drive right past that sign on I-75 for a Civilian Conservation Corps Museum,” he said. “It doesn’t say where it is, but I can find it this time.”
Benjamin used an iPad to find a State of Michigan website with an address for the museum, which he entered into a GPS navigation unit—a process that quickly took us to someone’s house in Roscommon. Benjamin and I looked at each other and we both rolled our eyes.
Finally, we did this old school: We stopped at a gas station where an old man said, “I know right where it is. You’re not far.”
“Ever been there yourself?” I asked.
“No, I should get over there someday,” he said, “but I’ve sure given lots of lost people the directions.”
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) produced northern Michigan as we know it today. They reforested much of the state left barren after logging. The CCC ranked as one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s proudest ideas to kick-start the country in the 1930s. Within three months of announcing the CCC, Roosevelt had 250,000 young men in camps planting trees, fighting major forest fires and learning the discipline of hard work.
However, when we finally arrived Friday at this particular camp-turned-museum we were the only non-local visitors. I-75 was jammed with campers, but this museum is tucked away in the trees five miles west on Higgins Lake Road.
We thought we’d found a tourist in Robert LeHoy of Farmington Hills, who thoughtfully was examining a display of the meager, boot-camp-style equipment used in the rough bunkhouses.
Turns out, LeHoy was a first-time visitor, but he knew about the museum because he has a cabin in the area. “I’ve always been meaning to stop here,” he said, “because the CCC was so important in my family.”
His father, William LeHoy who died in 1998, “always told us the story of how he rode his bicycle all the way from Hamtramck to the camp so he could enroll.”
William often told his son how much his life working in the woods had meant to him and, now, more than 70 years later, LeHoy was left almost speechless as he talked about his father responding idealistically to FDR’s nationwide appeal.
Roosevelt’s words echoed from a video behind LeHoy, the president’s stately cadence declaring: “Our greatest task is to put people to work, treating the task as we would the emergency of war but at the same time accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.”
The CCC veterans and their families who contributed to the creation of this museum displayed not only artifacts. Their pride in this social experience and FDR is obvious.
Pineniece Joshua, the museum’s guide for the day, said, “They were so proud of what FDR gave them in the CCC that they had the artist put FDR’s face on the bronze statue of a CCC worker that stands outside.”
Joshua explained, “I’m a cultural anthropologist and I can tell you these camps were amazing because they produced far more than labor. They were transformative for the young men. Run by the Army, the CCC was Army life without the guns making the world a better place everywhere they worked. Now, what an idea, hmmm?”
Joshua showed us through the museum and in the final room a banner proclaims: “Bring back the CCC.”
LeHoy took it all in. “I wish I’d come before,” he said finally. “I’m thinking about how, today, I’m standing where my father once stood. It feels—well, it feels very emotion to be here.”
Editor’s note: David Crumm was previously the religion writer for the Free Press. He and his son, Benjamin, are on a 40-day trip across America to explore our love for it. You can read about their journey at readthespirit.com and the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com/americajourney.