Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
David Schmidt, curator of the Florida CCC Museum at Highlands Hammock State Park, gives his talk Tuesday night. At far left is a Civilian Conservation Corps veteran, Norman Welch, who was 15 in 1939 when he joined the CCC and was stationed on Ramrod Key.
SEBRING — A lecture given by the curator of the Florida CCC Museum at Highlands Hammock State Park on Tuesday night was enhanced by the quiet presence of a 90-something gentleman sitting in the audience.
David J.W. Schmidt, who’s also a Roosevelt scholar, began his audio/visual presentation at the state park’s recreation hall in the campgrounds at Sebring by introducing Norman Welch, 95, who lives in the area.
Born in November 1923, Mr. Welch was just 15 in early 1939 when, living in South Florida at the time, he yearned to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. (You actually had to be 16; but because of a little white lie his mother signed off on, he was able to do so.)
The CCC had been established in March 1933 when, in lightning time for the Congress of the United States of America — spurred to action by the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, within hardly a month of his taking office — it authorized the agency’s creation. The storm clouds of war were gathering on the far eastern horizon, as Hitler had just invaded Czechoslovakia the previous year and Nazi troops were ravaging the country following the Anschluss of Austria to Germany, when young Norman was assigned to Ramrod Key. FDR intended and sold the conservation corps idea to form the underpinnings of what would later become the greatest fighting force ever assembled on Earth. Three million young men served — and the salaries paid them, in many cases, built stronger soldiers out of boys afflicted by poverty and hunger due to famine and the Dust Bowl.
Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Many of the CCC workers in Florida were put to work building roads, various structures and observation towers in national and state forests that later were converted to parks, then ended up fighting wildfires themselves. A collection of historical photos is on display in the park campground’s recreation/meeting hall.
Mr. Welch began as an exterminator, helping to kill tropical insects in the Keys to enable one of the biggest CCC projects. His colleagues were assigned to construct the Overseas Highway after the partial destruction in 1935 of the Overseas Railroad in the Florida Keys, built by Henry Flagler.
“Eventually they sent him up to work on the re-decking of the Seven-Mile Bridge when they built the Overseas Highway, and he has wonderful stories about how on Saturday nights they’d go down to Key West and sit in front of the La Concha Hotel and watch the girls go by,” Mr. Schmidt related.
Mr. Welch stood and bowed as the audience warmly applauded. He did not speak, but shared a little of his personal history and remembrances later after he slipped out, mostly unnoticed. He said he later had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the Air Force) and that he’d just lost his wife months previously.
Mr. Schmidt’s talk gave a comprehensive and fascinating look at how FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps created a legacy eight decades ago that still is enjoyed by citizens all over the U.S. today.
The CCC was directly responsible for the development of eight state parks in Florida — Highlands Hammock, Myakka River, Hillsborough River, Gold Head Branch, O’Leno, Fort Clinch, Torreya and Florida Caverns — and hundreds of others nationwide, among many other concrete remainders of its legacy.
To learn more, you can visit the CCC Museum, located in a building constructed in 1939 by the CCC, which opened Nov. 5, 1994. The CCC’s legacy is also celebrated in an annual event in November at Highlands Hammock — which is Florida’s oldest state park, in case you didn’t know.
One week after the CCC had wrapped up its final work in Florida in late November 1941, Pearl Harbor brought those war clouds to the United States, and Mr. Welch and millions of other young CCC veterans put down their tools and took up arms.
Chris Felker can be reached at email@example.com.