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.