It Started with a Coat

and resulted in a journey leading to this blog post. My last blog post was about how working with the military uniforms had me learning about those items. Well the saga continues so to speak. A week ago as I was working through the stock, writing draft listings, researching as usual, and prepping pieces to photograph I came across a piece that was a bit more unusual. It looked like a WWI Swallowtail style overcoat, and there was even a tag stitched to the underside of the back lining that confirmed it was part of the M1917 contracts. But the buttons on the front and belt in back were plain black, definitely not Army buttons of the era and the insignia on the left sleeve are not military. But something rang a bell. So come along with me – but you might want to grab a cup of coffee and sit back to read. This one is long and I hope you’ll find the journey as fascinating and enjoyable as I did!

Somewhere in the corner of mind a bell rang and I began to wonder if this could be a piece from the Civilian Conservation Corps. Little did I know where the moment of hmm was going to lead! The label had a name but the format was the stamp that I’ve found to be more common of the tailor in the company or an inspector. Then I found the map of Michigan in the inside breast pocket that is dated 1932. So off to the internet I went in search of information. Luckily I stumbled across this treasure trove of information . The author, Erik Ledbetter, is a Park Ranger with the Maryland Park Service DNR who spends part of his time as an interpreter as a CCC enrollee. He also was promptly generous with additional information when I was presumptive and sent him an email! From him I learned that the patches are indeed Civilian Conservation Corps insignia. Specifically

* 1671 is the unit number that was part of the first round of enrollees forming in early 1933 and was stationed on Mackinac Island from their start through late 1934 when they moved to Grayling.

* this particular unit was made up of all WWI veterans aka “bonus army men”. The V that is framing the outside of the unit patch likely stands for a Veterans’ unit. Patches varied and were often somewhat discretionary by the unit. They were not officially issued. While many were green and red as was typical of Army insignia of the time period, there are some units that used the gold on black, Can’t tell you why.

* the star above the stripes is a general leader rating. As noted above there was no standard, but one catalog from the time indicates this may denote a Field Leader or senior enrollee with a general supervisory role over other enrollees. There were specific assignments such as clerk, supply, medic, etc but this is not one of them.

* the bars each equal a 6 month period of enrollment, so this individual was in the CCC for 18 months.

Ok, now I knew the basics on this specific coat, but being me I wanted to know more. Back when my son was in college and working on a technical theater degree he took a theater history class and I remember him writing a paper about the theatrical program within the WPA. A quick primer here: the WPA (Works Project Administration) was part of the New Deal implemented by President Roosevelt to get people earning, but also learning. If you want to read more about the program overall you can do so here The CCC was specifically aimed at unemployed single young men between 17-28. It also aimed at unemployed WWI vets and there wasn’t an age maximum for those guys and they remained on the hiring lists for many government agencies as well. They were to be paid $30 a week (about $580 in today’s dollars) but of that, $25 had to be sent home to their families. They received clothing, housing, and food as well. There is a lot more out there on the internet and this is a good read …..which was all well and good. As far as it went. But what about Michigan? And that is where the road trip comes in. As I was sitting there browsing the web my husband Greg suddenly said “Well you know there is a museum at Higgins Lake right?” Um no dear I did not. He was there often for work but I’d only been there once…in 1987…at a specific function…with a 3 week old baby! So fast forward to yesterday and off we went. It was a gorgeous day and of course we had to find a fun local place for lunch and wander some backroads, but we didn’t lose sight of our primary designation at Higgins Lake State Park. It isn’t a huge museum but what is there is great. Here is what we found.

The vistors’ site is actually composed of 2 components. The area dedicated to the CCC and a second portion relating to the Higgins Lake Seedling Nursery. The rest of this blog is only going to be about the CCC portion. Another day I’ll share what we found about the seedling nursery. Mainly because the reforestation of Michigan began well before the CCC and lasted quite a while after the CCC folded at the start of WWII. The building above is typical of the camp buildings where there were permanent camps. A few camps never progressed beyond tents for a variety of reasons. The buildings were built of wood in long open rooms. The outsides had the black and white design because they had tar paper siding (today it is roofing under layer material to get the look) and it was held on with white painted wood slats. But let’s go inside….

As we entered the building there was a newly updated exhibit that highlighted what I’d read but centered around the Michigan units – planting trees, fighting fires, building infrastructure around the state from a bridge over the Muskegon River near the headwaters at Houghton Lake to buildings at state parks that stand yet today. We went around a divider wall and ahead of us was a display relating to personal effects and living quarters. Those photos are below. There was also a big stove for heat but I apparently forgot to take a photo of that!

There is a second trunk of clothing that kids can try on – a few pieces were of the era but most are modern. Which is fine because…well kids learning through play is always good. I love the comment at the top of that poster about the clothing coming in 2 sizes! Remembering the age of most of these young men I can just see them trying things on and seeing who they can trade with! I was feeling closer to understanding that coat. For instance if you look closely at the back belt it is pulled rather tighter than would have been usual with the new buttons, probably so it didn’t gap so much! And those cut off bits at the hem area of the sleeves SHOULD have been button tabs to adjust the closeness of the sleeve against the cold, but if those sleeves happened to be a bit long you might take the scissors to them so you weren’t catching them on tools or the shift of a truck or something else. I wonder what our CCC enrollee’s reason was? I don’t have his name. I DO have 2 sets of initial written on the inside collar LLP and PLL. Probably first, middle, last and last, middle first or Last, first, middle. Another road trip to the state archives may be in the future as they have more detail we were told by the ranger who stopped in while we were there. But we’re not done here yet. Between the front exhibit and the living arrangements exhibit was the part that really kicked the visit to another level for me.

On a wall was a HUGE map of Michigan with dots all over it. This helped pinpoint where the various camps, or units, started. Note I said started. Camps often were formed in one area but the units then moved to different spots if they were needed to fight a fire or the project they were originally working on was completed for instance. Take a look….

I took the close up photos of the the legend so you could see that there were a total of 126 units, or camps, in Michigan that included 11 African American groups, 8 veterans’ groups, and 1 Native American. The close up of the Mackinac Island area is where unit 1671 was located – the coat’s unit. And Isle Royale because holy cold! There were 3 units that were on that island practically to Canada fighting forest fires by hand in the summer and then 100 of those guys stayed over the winter! Also the name, Camp Windigo, just made me grin.

But then there was the GOLD moment. Along the wall was a series of BIG poster size panels in a frame like a book. Those panels had PHOTOS of the various groups of enrollees. Including Camp Mackinac Island, 1671! The dates on the caption matched what Erik had shared with me earlier and the faces! Suddenly it felt like I was meeting the coat’s owner and his buddies. Not that I know which of those guys had that coat for sure but given that leadership star maybe one of the younger guys in the row with the commander? Oh right an important piece of the puzzle has to do with the fact that the units/camps were run by active military officers. So the balding guy there in the middle of that seated row, second from the bottom is probably the camp commander. It is also one of the reasons it is hard to find information on the people in the units as those records are all held by the Military Personnel Office…and getting those is tricky and can be expensive. But even without that I know one of these guys had that coat.

In addition to this group there were some other groups I had to capture.

Camp Mackinac which was on the mainland near the straights. There was also a Camp Wilderness which is where Wilderness State Park is now located.
Camp Grand Haven – this is an interesting one because the photo is attributed to 1939 and for the most part by 1935 units were segregated. This one is most definitely not! It is also interesting that they are not in the same sorts of uniforms many other units are wearing in photos, but this one looks a bit more casual than most.
Camp Windigo – just because those are tough guys to spend winter on Isle Royale and I was amused by the name. Windigo is part of a Michigan legend.

and finally Camp Muskegon, unit #676, which created Muskegon State Park. Our area owes these guys a debt of thanks for this amazing work!

The curators at Higgins Lake State Park are looking for photos of some units they don’t have as of yet. If you’re reading this and had a relative that served in the CCC in Michigan, please check the list in the photo below to see if you might be able to help fill in those blanks. And that brings us to the end of this post. As I said at the beginning, I know it is long. But it has been an amazing journey over the last week + a few days. Who knows this one may take me further down the rabbit hole. Dealing with all of the wonderful vintage pieces I have the privilege of working with means that sometimes a piece speaks to me and says “learn my story”. So this time I decided to listen, to dig, and to take a trip. I hope you enjoyed this little journey with me!