Byline: Patti Levine-Brown, Times-Union correspondent
Smiles cross the faces of Westside residents Lewis Turner and O.E. Kelly, both 85, when they talk about their days with the Civilian Conservation Corps, even though it was during some of America's darkest years.
Over time, Turner and Kelly say, many people have forgotten about the program. But they and other Jacksonville members of a local organization want people to remember the CCC and what it did to help this country in a time of widespread need. This week, they'll attend a 70th anniversary celebration of the CCC in Sebring, a national event expected to draw many CCC alumni.
"Those of us who were part of the CCC are all getting up in years, and we want people to remember that this was one of the greatest programs ever," said Horace Williams, 82, president of the local alumni chapter. "It helped this country recover from the Great Depression, and played a key role in the development of state parks in Florida, including Gold Head Branch State Park in Clay County."
In 1933, the United States' economy was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. That year, President Roosevelt called an emergency session of Congress to authorize the Emergency Conservation Work Act, the part of his New Deal that was designed to recruit thousands of unemployed men to combat the problems of soil erosion and declining timber resources across the country.
These men became part of a peacetime army known as the Civilian Conservation Corps, often referred to as "Roosevelt's Tree Army," "Tree Troopers" or "Soil Soldiers."
Before the program ended in 1942, it had provided jobs for nearly 3.5 million men across the nation.
"This was the greatest job I ever had," said Turner, who, after leaving the CCC in 1939, went on to a career in the military. "I cooked coffee in the morning, served it with food to the men, and then went about learning things that interested me. Putting up fences and building roads and dams may not seem interesting to some, but I was fascinated by all the things the CCC was training men to do."
Turner and several other former CCC members are active in the Jacksonville chapter of the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. Several of the men plan to travel to Sebring for the anniversary event, with many of the activities taking place at Highlands Hammock State Park, home of the state's CCC museum.
Recently, a local group of CCC alumni in their 80s gathered to talk about their experiences with a program that became one of the most popular experiments of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Westside resident Horace Williams, 82, serves as president of the local alumni chapter, and vividly recalls what life was like during those times.
"You can't understand something like the Depression unless you lived through it," he said. "People couldn't find work, they had very little food, and many had no place to live. It was a tough time."
Born and raised on a farm in rural North Florida, Williams roamed the fields hunting and fishing, not just for pleasure or sport, but because he had 14 other brothers and sisters, and they all needed to eat. …