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Back to the 1930s

“This,” says Neal, as he pushes open the door of the Sanitation Building at Norris Camp, built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1935, “is what they called a 14-holer.”

In addition to the double back-to-back lines of seven latrines each, there is one wall for a collective urinal, another for washing and shaving and a back room for showers. Except for the occasional cook, the CCC camp was all men, and run with military discipline. There is a blacksmith shop, an ice house, barracks and a mess hall with a gigantic wood-fired stove. It is August 2011, but it’s not hard to imagine the place teeming with fresh-faced young men who fanned out through the Forest Area, building lookout towers, constructing dams and planting trees.  

People liked the CCC boys, says Leila, our guide to the world that existed here then. It was the assessors, with their calculations of the worth of each homestead, who no one wanted to see. She grew up in one of the villages of what is today Beltrami Island Forest. Her family was the last to come out, some seven years after the relocation began. 

Survival required hard physical work, for men and women. With all the chopping of wood, severed fingers were common. One man lost two. Try as he might, he could not cure his hand. Finally he convinced friends to go find the now-frozen digits. He thawed them and gave them a proper burial. His hand healed.

The settlers also knew how to have fun. Leila’s mother had a piano, perhaps the only one in the area. It sat in the family lath mill, where it marked the boundary between workplace and home. And it was a traveling piano that got hauled to wherever people had set up a dance floor—sometimes a wedding party that would go straight up to morning milking time.   

Some of the dancers who waltzed their way through Saturday nights now lie under soft moss and tall pine trees at the WildwoodCemetery. But the woods hold their stories, and as long as we tell them, they will not die.


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  1. I worked at a lumber yard during my grad school years. One of the managers, Elroy, was missing two fingers on his left hand, including his ring finger.

    I never got the story of how he lost his fingers. They were missing as sure as the love that might have landed a ring on the one that comes with a wife, which seemed as sure to come to him as the two lost digits.

    Can’t say that we worked as hard as the CCC boys. Some days were spent, for me, out of the yard/office delivering materials all around Wright County (and sometimes Benton and Hennepin), often with Elroy’s 4×4 Ford F150 pickup that I coveted. Not fancy–not fancy enough to shed the chicken manure I ran it through on very hot summer afternoon, left by the slopping hauling trucks from the megafarm next door to one of our delivery sites. It took a week for the stink to fade–and for a week the joke was that Elroy’s lack of love was due to the odor.

    In the mean time, I could not explain my own aloneness, not to anyone who I thought would understand. In the mean time, the men/boys in the yard and office talked like they worked as hard as the CCC boys, some disposed to calling the CCC and its ilk socialist while others were more attuned to Floyd B. Olson thinking and the Farmer-Laborites. But most tried to stay out of it, preferring to think about the upcoming softball game.

    Who of us know where Elroy’s fingers are buried?

    August 25, 2011

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