By Lisa Britton

For the Baker City Herald

T o help ease rampant unemployment during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933.

Known as the CCC, the men planted trees, built flood barriers, fought forest fires and maintained roads and trails.

Most of the men were between the ages of 18 and 25. They lived in military-style camps across the nation and earned $30 per month.

One CCC camp was established in Halfway, about 52 miles east of Baker City. Whit Deschner, who lives in Baker City, saved the memorabilia of his father, Howard, who was stationed at the Halfway CCC camp.

Whit believes his father helped build what is now the nordic center at Anthony Lakes — it was originally a Forest Service guard station — and worked on a Forest Service building in Halfway. The CCC crew mainly built trails in the Wallowa Mountains, but members also fought wildfires.

Among the documents that Whit Deschner inherited are letters Howard wrote to his parents back in Portland. In his cursive hand, the young man told tales of his time in Eastern Oregon.

In his letter dated “9th Sunday (Easter) 1939,” Howard recounts how he and a few friends headed out, on foot, to the Snake River 12 miles away.

“We had one pack sack with 1 can of beans, 1 of corn, a loaf of bread and 1 lb. of cheese and a small fruit cake that Grandma sent me and a small can of jam. Just hardly enough for one meal.”

After reaching the river, the boys decided to visit Copperfield, a mining town 16 miles to the north.

“We hiked from 2:30 to 8:30 straight and hiked 16 good long miles of the most deserted God-forsaken worthless ornery piece of country I have ever laid my two eyes on,” Howard wrote.

Along the way they caught and milked a cow to supplement their meager rations. Finally, in the “pitch blackness,” they came upon Copperfield.

(The town no longer exists, but it was near the current site of Oxbow, where Highway 86 reaches the Snake River.)

“No post office, no store, no nothing, just 3 or 4 houses strung out over about 2 miles along the Snake,” Howard wrote.

He and his CCC buddies took refuge in a horse stable “without hay or straw or nothing except horse manure and bats.”

The next day — sore, tired and hungry — they walked back to Halfway.

“In all we hiked 46 miles with barely enough grub for one meal.”

The letter ends with a P.S.:

“It really was a swell Easter in spite of everything.”

When he wrote home on May 14, 1939, Howard told his parents about the infestation of Mormon crickets in Halfway and how the CCC helped save the town.

“The crickets are sure bad up here now. The whole valley is out fighting them,” Howard wrote.

He goes on to tell of the various ways devised to trap and kill the crickets. One of the more successful ideas was to capture the insects in the irrigation ditch, then dump them in a bathtub with gasoline. The dead crickets were tossed in a pit.

“They have filled 3 pits 6 feet deep and 10 feet each direction clean to the top. Those crickets are 2 in. long now and 1/2 thick. Boy are they big. And they bite too.”

Another letter dated June 5, 1939, details a climb to the top of Red Mountain in the Wallowa Mountains.

At 9,555 feet, it is the tallest summit in Baker County.

“Well all I can say is I’m lucky I’m here to write this letter for we just got back from a 2-day hike to the top of Red Mountain,” Howard writes.

He wrote that he and his pals were the 6th group to climb Red Mountain. They mistakenly thought a fire lookout was on the summit, which would have given them shelter after the climb.

“Well 6 of us started out and we climbed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with heavy pack sacks, bed rolls, rope and other climbing equipment till 6 p.m. over the most rugged and dangerous country I ever stepped on and when we got up there expecting to find a nice cabin to sleep in we found a pile of rocks with a record inside of all who had ever climbed the mountain.”

See more in the Dec. 28, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.

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