NEW CASTLE —
It started with a dare and a little white lie.
What began as an opportunity for a young New Castle boy to make some much-needed money turned into a lifetime affiliation with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Civilian Conservation Corps celebrates its 80th anniversary this year and East Side resident Angelo Nocera has been a part of it for nearly all of that time.
It was 1938 and Nocera was going to ninth grade at Ben Franklin Junior High School. He and a group of five friends were sitting outside his home on Weaver Street on the South Side talking about how they wished they could make some money for themselves and their impoverished families.
“It was the time of the Great Depression. There was no work, families couldn’t make ends meet,” Nocera said. “St. Joseph’s Church would give us milk, or otherwise we wouldn’t have had any. One of the kids said, ‘You know, we can join the CCC and make $1 a day. I think we should do it. We all looked at each other said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’
“Sign-ups were being held at the old skating rink uptown, so we went there together. The first thing they asked me was how old I was. You had to be 17 to join, so I told them I was 17, even though I was only 15.
“In those days,” he added with a chuckle, “they didn’t check, they just took your word for it.”
FDR’S TREE ARMY
The Civilian Conservation Corps was a federal agency that existed from April 5, 1933 to June 30, 1942. Nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” it was established as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, created for the conservation of the country’s natural resources and to provide employment for young men during the Depression.
Nocera and his four friends were sent to Camp Orinoco, in Lexington, Va., where they fought forest fires, built roads, planted trees, installed telephone lines and developed recreational facilities. CCC employees were allowed to keep $5 of their monthly stipend for their own use and mandated to send the other $25 home.
He spent one year with the CCC, meeting his wife of 70 years, Katherine “Kay,” when he was 19 and she was 15 when he drove with her cousin to New York to bring Kay’s parents and siblings to New Castle, where they had other relatives. They met in February 1942, were married that July and Angelo was drafted to fight in World War II seven months later. Daughter Antonette was born nine months and three days after Angelo and Kay were married. Upon his return from the military, Angelo spent 42 years working for B&O Railroad.
More than 3 million unmarried, unemployed men ages 17 to 23, went through the CCC ranks (perhaps its most well-known member was actor Raymond Burr, in Camp Whitmore, Calif.) There were a total of 4,500 camps, with an average of 1,643 operating per year. A total of 125,000 miles of roads were built, 89,000 miles of telephone lines strung, 13,100 miles of foot trails built and between 2 to 3 billion trees planted.
Following the Pittsburgh and Johnstown floods, CCC camp members mobilized and served as first responders. Many of the projects CCC workers built 80 years ago are still standing, including two dams — Jones Mill Run in Somerset and Spruce Run in Clinton, N.J. The CCC is credited with helping to develop many of Pennsylvania’s 120 state parks.
Even though the CCC was abolished by Congress in 1942, it never died, with groups across the country remaining intact to do work as nonpaid volunteers and otherwise keeping its memory alive.
Nocera remained in contact with many of his CCC buddies and, in 1985, those remaining in New Castle began to meet as Chapter 125. Nocera joined the group officially in 1990, the same year he was elected president, a position he has held ever since.
Chapter 125 spent the next 20 years volunteering its time in the region, although most of its concentration remained in New Castle, where it worked for the city of New Castle under five different mayors. Much of the volunteer time was spent at Cascade Park, where local chapter members planted flowers and trees, cleared leaves, painted and made general repairs.
“Whatever the need was, we were there to take care of it,” Nocera said. “We worked traffic at parades, parked cars. We were a very visible presence for a lot of years.”
The group also spoke to groups of young people about the history of the CCC when asked.
“I was always worried they might be bored, but the kids seemed really interested and asked a lot of good questions,” Nocera said. “It made us feel pretty good.”
Alas, age has taken its toll on the local group, which no longer is able to perform manual labor, although it still meets monthly to keep up on CCC news and reminisce.
Kay also has been involved with Chapter 125 and now serves as its secretary.
Although the CCC has several museums across the country — including one in Harrison County, W. Va., just off Interstate 70 about 45 miles south of Morgantown — the Noceras’ home is filled with CCC memorabilia, with an entire shrine devoted to the CCC in their basement.
Since Angelo, now 89, needs a walker to get around and no longer is able to visit the basement, Kay readily fetches anything he would like to see.
“He is a walking history book on the CCC,” she says proudly. “There isn’t much he doesn’t know.”
In 2000, Chapter 125 unveiled a monument next to the dance pavilion at Cascade Park. It shows a shirtless CCC worker with his ax.
The monument, which cost about $31,000, was aided by funding from the city, county and state. The remainder was raised by Nocera, who spearheaded a fund-raising effort that included donations from local business and individuals.
When party-goers began to throw garbage onto it, Nocera and his group decided to move it to its current location, near the site of the old merry-go-round in 2006.
Chapter 125 had more than 200 members strong at one time, but many have died. Of the 49 current members, many of those are associate members, including the Noceras’ children and some of their grandchildren, all of whom live out of town. Some members of the New Castle Area Honor Guard also are members of Chapter 125.
In addition to Nocera, original Chapter 125 members remaining are Amiel Attisano, Angelo Barletto, Tony Elisco, Sam Froella, Anthony Galiano, Donald Kennedy, George Lamorella, Bud McCracken, Daniel Micaletti and Steve Zavaky.
One of Nocera’s lifelong regrets was that he never received his high school diploma since he did not return to school after joining the CCC and then the military. Yet, although he was past the age of 80, he took classes at Grove City High School and in, 2005, received his General Equivalency Diploma.
“I’ve had a good life,” Nocera said. “One of the best things I’ve done was being able to help keep the memory of the CCC alive. It really means a lot to have been able to be a part of something so great.”
NEW CASTLE —
It started with a dare and a little white lie.
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