Gene Vance is a hard man to get ahold of. The real estate developer is in his 70s but seems to have a dozen major projects going at any given time. When I go by his office and ask his secretaries when he might be back, they just shake their heads, as if he is a naughty child on the loose. “We never know where he is,” they tell me. “But try back this afternoon.”
When I finally do track him down, he is excited to tell me about his Dad, General George Vance, who served in the Cartersville Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp. He wasn’t a General, that was just his first name. In fact, he came from real poverty. It was the Great Depression, and the Vances had bounced around Alabama and South Georgia looking for work. As with many families, the CCC turned out to be a boon. General George Vance went on to work at Atco after the CCC, and his son Gene, starting with only $200, has developed a real estate empire in Bartow County.
Gene doesn’t tell me all of this to brag, except maybe on his Dad. He is humble about his own accomplishments, telling me that he wishes he had ever gotten to go to college, instead of just working all the time. But he is proud of his Dad’s CCC service. He tells me that his father told him stories of planting kudzu, which the CCC did to mitigate erosion on the gullied fields of the Great Depression. He also tells me that they built roads, especially down toward Emerson, where all of the mining had made the dirt roads almost impassable. His father also served as a cook in the camp.
In my research, I read in a 1940 article in the Bartow Herald that the CCC camp in Cartersville, under the supervision of the Soil Conservation Service, had agreements with 90 farmers in Bartow County to improve their property, which had been ruined by a combination of too much cotton farming, bolls weevils, drought and erosion. According to the Bartow Herald, the Cartersville CCC camp completed 4,134 acres in soil conservation work. They planted 270,248 trees and 129,579 wildlife shrubs; built 35,552 check dams; terraced 553 acres of farmland; built two lookout fire towers, one on Pine Log and one on Signal Mountain; built 6.2 miles of truck trails on Pine Log Mountain; strung 11 miles of telephone lines to the fire towers; and fought local forest fires.
Gene is so proud of his father’s legacy that he actually offers to drive me over to the former Cartersville CCC camp, now the American Legion, and give me a tour.
As we drive he points out Johnson Street, the street behind the American Legion. His mother, Mabel Stiles Vance, grew up there, and that was how his parents met. His father used to walk down the street in his CCC uniform, and his mother fell in love with the handsome stranger. “Really it was just the uniform,” Gene insists, but you can tell he loves this romantic story. After the two married, Gene was born right there on Johnson Street.
I had driven up into the American Legion parking lot before, but I’d never been in the building, or in any American Legion building, so this is a new experience for me. We park around back and enter what turns out to be a bar room, with a bartender behind the counter and a few men on stools. I feel strange to be a female entering what is clearly a very male world, but everyone is welcoming.
Everyone knows Gene, who, I learn, is a Vietnam veteran, as are most of the men who now belong to the American Legion. Gene takes me into a room lined with photographs and points out his own picture on the wall, as well as many friends, some of whom did not come back. There are photos of all of the Bartow County men who fought in World War I and World War II as well. It is moving to see this tribute to those who served.
As I look around the room, it dawns on me that this building must have been originally been built by the CCC. I had only seen the building from the outside before, and the siding on the building is recent aluminum siding. But looking at the stonework on the massive fireplace, as well as the ornate woodwork on the mantle, the walls, and built-in cabinets, I realize that it looks exactly like the lodges that the CCC built in the national parks.
Sure enough, when Gene and I walk outside and around the building, the older part of the building has the trademark CCC stonework all around the bottom, and the chimney is made entirely of stacked stone. The part of the complex with the bar room in it is a newer addition, but the original building clearly dates back to the 30s or 40s.
Gene and I search the walls and shelves for CCC photographs, which he had seen once here. We can’t find any, but another member, Lamar Brock, says he will find them for me. We find a picture of the American Legion building shortly after it opened in 1946, and you can see the same stonework at the bottom of the building, but rustic cedar shakes instead of aluminum siding.
Most of the buildings in CCC camps, including the Cartersville one, were temporary military-style barracks, the kind that can be moved around and reassembled elsewhere. But this building must have been the headquarters, part of what the American Legion purchased in 1946.
When we go back outside, Gene shows me a tree he had planted in memory of his father, next to the stone plaque that commemorates the CCC’s presence here.
It is so strange how little we know or remember. I’ve been researching the CCC, and even I didn’t realize one of the original buildings was still here. Most people drive up and down Route 41, shopping at Hobby Lobby and eating at McDonald’s, without ever realizing that just behind this strip mall lies a piece of Cartersville’s history.
This October, the American Legion is planning an open house to celebrate its 100-year anniversary. Gene suggests that we should put together a display about the CCC for the event, and I am on board. I want people to remember how much men like General George Vance did to restore the fields and forests of Bartow County.