Often, when I hike through Mohican Memorial State Forest or the state park, I marvel at the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The trees they planted and the roads, trails and structures they built in the 1930s have stood the test of time. So has Alex James, one of the CCC workers who helped make Mohican what it is today.
In early August, I had the privilege of interviewing him — along with his son, Jeffrey L. James. Here is the article I wrote as a result of that interview. It was published in today’s Loudonville Times.
Post Script: I was saddened to learn that, on April 14, 2016, Alex James passed away. He was a colorful man and a part of Mohican history.
COLUMBUS — Alex James lived in the Loudonville area just a short time during the 1930s, but his legacy lives on in Mohican Memorial State Forest and Mohican State Park. At the age of 97, the one-time Civilian Conservation Corps worker still radiates the spirit and attitude of a generation that made the most of difficult times and built a better world.
“I was 16 years old, youngest guy in the group,” James said of his CCC service.
James wasn’t old enough to sign up for the CCC. He lied about his age and was accepted. After going through basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, he was sent to Camp Mohican to help reclaim agricultural wasteland adjacent to the mature forest that remained on the steep slopes of Clear Fork Gorge. Ultimately, the entire area would become a state forest and state park and transform the area into a popular tourist destination.
During an interview last month, James described what Mohican looked like when he arrived in 1933.
“It was bare, like a baldheaded guy who has hair around on the sides,” he said, describing the combination of forested and deforested land.
James’ duties included control of harmful vegetation and organisms, planting pine seedlings, digging ditches and building roads.
He recalled that his Camp Mohican days were difficult — mainly because of a particularly brutal winter. The drafty barracks were heated with coal stoves located at the ends of rows of bunks. There were half-inch gaps between the floorboards.
“When the bugler came in and blew his horn, we’d hurry up and get our clothes and get to the warm stove where we could get dressed,” James said. “I woke up to get my shoes one morning and they were frozen to the floor.”
While on a road-clearing detail, James lost the feeling in his toes. He spent a month in the infirmary recovering from frostbite. In his autobiography, entitled “Ripples on a Stream,” James wrote: “I kind of enjoyed it, listening to a radio, perusing a Sears & Roebuck catalog to pick out things I would buy when I left the Three Cs and got a good job.”
In 1934, Camp Mohican closed temporarily. It would later reopen, manned by World War I veterans. James returned to Fort Hayes in Columbus, where he was born and raised. He was one of nine children of Macedonian immigrants who eked out a living and taught their children the value of thrift and hard work. In order to continue providing money for his family, he reenlisted in the CCC and worked at camps in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
James said that, during his stay at Camp Mohican, he didn’t get into town very often. In one letter he wrote that, while the townsfolk didn’t care for these strangers from the big city, they did like their money. CCC workers were paid $30 a month. All but $5 of that was sent home. James indicated that, during his CCC days out west, he got out more often and did partake of some light-hearted shenanigans with his buddies from the camps.
James also worked in Columbus restaurants and bars as a busboy and bartender. He continued to improve his lot in life, landing a job in 1941 in a defense plant building military aircraft.
In 1942, he received his draft notice and once again found himself in basic training at Fort Knox. In his autobiography, James said his CCC experience made that transition easier. He was classified as a non-combatant due to a childhood eye injury. But James — the guy who lied about his age to get into the CCC to earn money to help his family — wasn’t about to let that stop him. When the guys in his company shipped out for combat duty, James grabbed his duffel bag and climbed aboard the truck with them. His sergeant caught him and ordered him off the truck.
He was saddened when he learned that many of the guys in his outfit were killed in action by Rommel’s Panzer Division.
After being discharged from the Army, James returned to Columbus and worked for a while at the military supply depot, where his duties included guarding German prisoners of war. He dozed off one night while on guard duty. However, the German POWs realized they had it good there and were inclined to stay put.
“You couldn’t chase those guys out of that place,” he said.
James later worked at the Curtis-Wright aircraft factory. In 1948, he landed a job at Lustron, a manufacturer of prefabricated steel houses. James had high hopes that the low-maintenance, porcelain-enameled homes would fulfill the housing needs of post-war baby boomers. However, he was bitterly disappointed — heartbroken in his words — when the company failed and production halted in June 1950.
The experience inspired him to write a book, “An Employee’s Perspective of the Lustron Home: The Real Reason Why Lustron Failed!” The company reportedly failed because, by the time the prefabricated homes were in production, America’s housing stock had grown substantially, the houses took longer to build than advertised, they ultimately cost too much, and they didn’t meet local building codes. In his self-published book, James argues that the real reasons for Lustron’s downfall included political corruption, labor unions, special interest groups and selective building code enforcement. The book, published in 2003, is available through Amazon.com.
After a stint with the Defense Supply Center Columbus, James went to work for Westinghouse doing sheet metal work. He later worked at maintenance for the City of Columbus, retiring in 1980.
He and his wife of 69 years, Polly, live in Columbus. They have two adult children and two grandchildren.
He returned to the Loudonville area several years ago, but it was a different world than the one he knew in 1933. He didn’t recognize much of it.
“I made a trip down there and I stood near that church that was below our camp,” he said, possibly referring to the Memorial Forest Shrine on Ohio 97.
James has a gleam in his eye when he shares colorful stories of his CCC days and other parts of his eventful life. He sometimes chimes in with a few bars from songs he sang back then.
James explained the significance of the title of his autobiography.
“Our lives are like leaves in the stream,” he said. “We bump into one another. Some die of natural causes, some accidentally, and the stream takes us along the riverbed and some end up on the riverbank and wither. That’s my idea of how this life is. You’re given so much time on this earth. I think time means more than money.”
Alex James, second from the right in the back row, with CCC crew at what would become Mohican Memorial State Forest and Mohican State Park. (Photo courtesy Cleo Redd Fisher Museum in Loudonville.)