Searching for a Phantom Uncle in Depression Era Records

Dinnertime at Fish Creek Pond CCC camp circa 1935.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps.)

There’s a mystery man in my family’s past and I aim to find out more about him.

His name is Mathew Donar, my mother’s younger brother. He was only 21 years old when he died in 1936, almost 20 years before I was born. There’s nary a hint about Uncle Matt’s brief life on this earth save for the 1920 census where he’s listed as a 5 year old. My mother, long gone, rarely spoke of him. But he did exist and I will find out about him—though it will probably require the help of the U.S. government to do it—specifically, federal records from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Here’s the backstory:

In the early months of 1929 my grandparents, Peter and Mary Agnes Donar, were living at 1131 Oakdale Avenue on the north side of Chicago. Peter, 62, was working downtown as a baggage agent with the Parkway Hotel and his wife, Mary Agnes, 57, as seen so often on the census, was “keeping house.”

Most of their five children had reached adulthood. Jack, 27, was married and out of the house; Helen, 24, was preparing for her July wedding; George, 20, was a sailor in the U.S. Navy; and Dorothy, my mother, was just starting a modeling career with Saks Fifth Avenue. The youngest, Matt, 14, was probably still in school.

It was the Prohibition era, the age of flappers. In Chicago, Eliot Ness and his G-men were going after gangsters and bootleggers like Al Capone. It was a heady, exciting, often violent time. But for the nation, the end of the ‘20s also brought The CrashThe Great Depression—two terms which signified one thing to America—economic collapse—but something else as well to the Donars: crushing changes to family dynamics that would forever change their futures.

In May of that year, the Donar’s eldest son Jack, 27, died quite unexpectedly from nephritis, a kidney disease; leaving behind a wife and his family of origin. His parents were heartbroken. But the sorrow was not over for the Donar family. In early October, just weeks before Black Tuesday, Jack’s father, also died suddenly of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. There’s a gravestone for Jack up at All Saints Cemetery, simply carved with the birth and death dates delineating his brief life. Not so, for his father, Peter. His grave is unmarked—no money for something as frivolous as a tombstone in 1929.

These losses, combined with a son away in the Navy and a newly married daughter left only Mary Agnes; her daughter Dorothy, 18; and son Matt, 14; at home.  How would they ever get by? Who would support the remaining family members, particularly during such hard times? The answer, for now, is unclear.

Fast forward though, about seven years. The Depression was still on, but by then, Dorothy had been married for over a year and was fully eight months pregnant, ready to deliver her first child. Only one Donar sibling remained at home with my grandmother. Which brings me to Matt, what little I know of him, and just how I intend to learn more.

Just one of the thousands of park projects completed by CCC workers in the 1930s.
(Photo courtesy of CCC.)

In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt was commander-in-chief charged with uplifting the country’s economy and collective morale during a financial crisis that left no one untouched. His New Deal offered a variety of programs to Americans in the form of recovery, reform and relief. It’s believed Uncle Matt took part in FDR’s relief program through the Civilian Conservation Corps.

I learned about his possible association with the CCC from Barbara Schmitt, my cousin’s wife in California whom I’ve renewed contact with recently. When Matt’s name came up, she casually mentioned that he may have worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Later she mailed me some documents she had that related to various family members and I added them to my growing collection of family history memorabilia.

Upon perusing them I found an undertaker’s receipt made out to my grandmother showing “expenses from California” for dates just prior to  Matt’s burial in another unmarked grave, close to his father and brother in Illinois.

While the statement doesn’t mention Matt by name, clearly the bill had to be for Matt’s funeral services. Why else would my grandmother be billed for a funeral at the time she’d lost this son? This clue, coupled with the comment from my cousin stating Matt had been with the CCC leads the detective in me to surmise that Uncle Matt most probably was one of those young men in the 1930s who took up Uncle Sam’s offer for food, lodging and a modest paycheck to help the folks back home.

Two workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps construct a road in 1933.
(Photo courtesy of CCC)

According to research I’ve done thus far here’s what I know about the CCC:

The average enrollee was about 18 years old (Matt was 20); who had unemployed parents (like my widowed grandmother); and had not completed high school. Matt, only 14 when his Dad died and the Depression began, was the only “man” in the house. It’s speculation of course, but I wonder if he may have dropped out of school after his dad’s death to seek whatever odd jobs he could find to earn what he could for the family.

The primary goal of the CCC was to bring poor, unemployed young men (like Matt); out of urban centers (like Chicago); to improve their health, boost their morale and contribute to their families’ financial well-being (which Matt’s family so desperately needed). The secondary goal of the CCC was to improve the infrastructure and conservation of America’s parks and forests.

All of these factors would certainly have qualified him for acceptance into the Corps.

Young men like Matt were put to work across the land on state and federal projects building roads, bridges, and nature trails; planting trees; developing park buildings; and working on flood control projects. More than 3 million of them were employed in the program between 1933 and 1942 by the time the program ended.

Dinnertime at Fish Creek Pond CCC
camp circa 1935.
(Photo courtesy of CCC)

They lived and labored in camps nationwide and were rewarded with a dollar a day and “three hots and a cot” (bed and board).

In California alone, 168 camps employed over 33,600 men over the course of the program. Of the $30 per month each man earned, $25 was sent directly home by the federal government to the workers’ families as a form of financial support.

In today’s economy that would amount to about $416 that was sent back home and $83 which remained in the workers’ pockets for their own personal expenses.

The CCC camps were regimented, disciplined and ideal training grounds for those who would go on several years later to serve in World War II.  As fate would have it though, Matt didn’t live long enough to be a part of that history. Family lore has it that he died of a burst appendix, probably while he was working at a CCC camp in California, far from his native Chicago.

So how can I verify that Uncle Matt was a CCC worker in the 1930s? Where do I go from here? A couple of options:

Aside from Googling “Civilian Conservation Corps” for general background information and looking it up in a couple of history books I have on my genealogy bookshelves, there’s a video about the CCC produced by PBS that I hope to pick up at a local library or view online. I’ll also be perusing some books on the subject available through online booksellers.

Most valuable though will probably be the leads I obtained through a webinar I caught earlier this week that was devoted to the topic of CCC records and how to obtain them.  It was sponsored by the Friends of the National Archives, Southeast Region, and was presented by NARA archivist Maureen Hill. (Maureen.Hill@nara.gov)

Her webinar handout highlights three NARA record groups that could prove useful to people like me who are researching the Civilian Conservation Corps:

  • CCC Work Projects with Federal Agencies (Forest Service, National Park Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, etc.) where CCC work was completed. Records they have include inspection reports, camp histories, work agreements, disability claims, maps and project files. They can be ordered from the NARA regional facility closest to where the work camp was located (http://www.archives.gov/locations/)
  • CCC Record Group 35 These records include a variety of administrative documents related to the functioning of the camps: inspection reports, accident reports, general correspondence, etc. This record group is located at NARA’s facility in College Park, MD. Additional information on those records can be obtained by contacting Archives2reference@nara.gov
  • CCC Enrollee Records located at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. These records may prove to be the most valuable of all to family historians as they contain individuals’ applications, enrollee cards, medical histories, cumulative records, and records of classes each worker completed in safety and the building trades. It’s this record set where I’m hoping to find details on the final days of my Uncle Matt’s life.

Based on information I’ve obtained thus far—including an undertakers bill, a cemetery record, and yes, family lore—I’m thinking my uncle probably did work at a California CCC camp before he died when his body was shipped home to his widowed mother in Chicago for burial near his father and brother.

Though I still don’t have much hard data on the life of my Uncle Matt, because of what I’ve researched thus far, I know much more about his family’s circumstances and the times they lived in.  I’m hoping that through further research of CCC records—perhaps a personnel file or a report from a camp he may have worked at—I’ll be able to learn a bit more about this phantom uncle who, until this point, has been a mystery to all of his fellow family members who’ve descended from the Donar line.

If you have an ancestor who may have worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, you too, may be able to utilize the tips above to find out more about his life—a life that was, undoubtedly, exceedingly difficult for him and other everyday Americans like those in the Donar family in the early part of the last century.

Training workers in the trades and workplace safety was an important part of preparing young men to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
(Photo courtesy of CCC)

For more information on the history of the CCC, consider reviewing the following books available through your local bookseller or library or visit the websites below:

Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps by Neil M. Maher

Our Mark on this Land by Ren and Helen Davis

The Tree Army by Stan Cohen

In the Shadow of the Mountain by Edwin G. Hill

http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/035.html

http://www.ccclegacy.org/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/ccc/

http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1586.html

____

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Desmond Biallas

 

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15 Responses to Searching for a Phantom Uncle in Depression Era Records

  1. Jana Last says:

    Very interesting post! So sad about the deaths of Peter, Jack and Matt. Good luck on your further research about Matt.

  2. Meg Biallas says:

    Very thorough, Mom! Well done.

    • Thanks, Meg. As you can see the mystery remains and there is more to be learned. Just got a few old books and a DVD on the CCC out of the Chicago Public Library. Perhaps there will be a few hints in them that will lead me to more information.

  3. Sheryl says:

    Great post! You’ve done a lot of great research on the CCC. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you are able to find out what happened to Matt.

    • Thanks so much for your acknowledgement, Sheryl. Do you have an interest in the CCC? I just finished watching the 2009 DVD by PBS which was quite moving. I’ll also be attending a local lecture next month on the CCC by a genealogist/historian where I hope to learn more. My greatest opportunity to solve this mystery though lies in a trip to St. Louis that I hope to take next month. The National Personnel Records Center holds personnel records for those who served.Here’s hoping they can find Matt Donar among their files. If so, there will surely be a follow-up post to this one!

      • Sheryl says:

        The CCC isn’t from the time period where I focus most of my research, but I have a small book published by the Union County (PA) Historic Society about the CCC in that county. It is interesting how the many of the overlooks and facilities in the state parks and forests were originally built by the CCC.

      • They did a tremendous amount of work across the country on state and federal lands. They were among the first environmentalists before that word was in common usage! Truly a productive program all the way around–for the land, the workers and the workers’ families at a time when it was needed the most.

  4. Doris says:

    I will be really interested in your trip to the Records Center in St. Louis. About 7 years ago, I wrote to them and requested information about a man that I knew had been in the CCC’s. I received a form letter that said the records had burned and what was available was too brittle to research. Added was the fact that the records were not alphabetized.
    I hope your onsite search finds this not to be true and other researchers can benefit.

    • Oh, Doris that is terrible news! I hope they were wrong! Though I do have other research to do in St. Louis I will definitely be calling before I go so as to save time and disappointment. Thanks for the heads up. If you send me a private email with your CCC member’s name and dates of service perhaps I can inquire about him, too. I can be reached at pdbiallas@comcast.net.

  5. I’ll be very interested in hearing about your trip to St. Louis. My Mom’s cousin was in the CCC and a few years later he left New England and was never heard from again. I’m hoping to find out which camp he went to, perhaps he returned to the same area to live. There are also several CCC camps here in New Hampshire that are now “ghost towns” and it would be fun to use some of the other resources you listed to learn more about those camps. Most were logging camps or to build roads in the White Mountains National Forest.

    • Thanks, Heather. I sure hope it’s a productive visit to St. Louis. We shall see…. Do you know the name of the camp where your mom’s cousin worked? His name, coupled with the camp name and perhaps the dates he worked there (if you have all that info) just might net you some success. I’m planning on calling the NPRC prior to my visit to be as prepared as possible for that visit.

      • I have nothing but his name. My great aunt had letters from him during his CCC days, but no one knows where they are now. He died in California, which may or may not be a clue. He had an unusual name, Waldo Emerson Cooper.

      • Was he in the CCC in California or in some other state? Have you tried searching for him in general on Ancestry? If you get any more clues, let me know so I can try to look him up if I can. Do note Doris’ comment re: this post which indicates that what records may still exist may be unsearchable–sure hope not!

      • I have no idea where his camp was or what its name was. His father died when he was young (1918 Flu epidemic) and his Mom remarried, so he wanted to leave home and be on his own instead of with a stepfather. Waldo Emerson Cooper was born 31 October 1913 in Westborough, Massachusetts and died 16 November 1976 in Los Angeles County, California. He served in World War II , enlisting late in 1945 in Connecticut for the Army Air Corps. He married Lee O’Driscoll on 21 December 1944 in Concord, New Hampshire. This was all gleaned from records online and in VRs in New England. I don’t know if he ever had children or what became of his wife. What a shame if the CCC records are unsearchable. They could be National Treasures!

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