Joe Palmer and the Cartersville CCC

Joe Palmer had a green thumb, and he got it in the CCC. Joe was Ernie Palmer’s father, and Ernie and his wife Gale share memories with me as we sit around a table at the Noble & Main Coffee Shop in Cartersville.
Joe arrived at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Cartersville in 1938, the year the CCC boys built the first road up Pine Log Mountain and constructed the fire tower. Before that, there were no roads on the rugged mountain, and forest fires devastated it every year. Ernie says his Dad described laboring up the mountain with oxen in the snow.
Joe helped build the fire tower at the summit and made the platform for the fire-finding device called an alidade, a map-and-compass combination that allowed rangers to pinpoint the location of a fire. Ernie remembers driving up the mountain with his Dad, who showed him what he built.
Ernie and Gale are retired now after careers as elementary and middle-school teachers in Bartow County. I am betting their students loved them, because they both sparkle with enthusiasm and kindness. In fact, while I am interviewing them several former students shout greetings across the coffee shop. The two of them lean into each other and pat each other’s arms affectionately as we are talking. She is as excited as he is to talk about the memories of his father.
Ernie obtained his father’s CCC records from the National Archives, and he shows me the scanned documents. They show that he served in Company 485 in Cartersville from 1938 to 1939. One document details a work injury to his right thumb, which Ernie tells me was never quite right for the rest of his life. Funny that his green thumb was also a broken one!
Ernie tells me with pride that Joe Palmer’s people were mountain people, farmers from up near Suches and Gainesville. Like many small farmers in Georgia, the Great Depression forced them off their family land. Cotton had ruined the soil and they moved “from pillar to post,” as Ernie puts it, eking out a subsistence living sharecropping and working in cotton mills. Joe was the oldest of 11 children. The opportunity to join the CCC was a Godsend to the impoverished family. Both Joe and his cousin Esco joined. Joe was sent to the Cartersville camp, and he ended up marrying a local girl and settling in Cartersville for good.
The local girl was Marie Cline, who worked in the A & B Café on the Dixie Highway. Friends suggested he go meet her but told him to “clean himself up” before he went to see Marie. He must have, because a couple years later they were married. Right before the U.S. entered World War II, Joe enlisted, as did many CCC men. Joe and Marie got married before he left for Fort Benning. The day she went down there to visit him happened to be Dec. 7, 1941.
Marie’s family, like Joe’s, struggled during the Depression. They were also sharecroppers, picking cotton over near Stilesboro. Marie is 100 years old now, and still sharp. She told Gale she hates to see those decorative cotton wreaths that have recently become popular. It makes her back hurt just to look at them. She hates the sight of a fireplace, because it brings back memories of cold winters in drafty houses, crouched around a fire for warmth.
Joe shipped out to North Africa with the Second Armored Division. While he was there, he ran into his younger brother Walter, who was in a different unit. It was a lucky thing, because Walter was killed soon after that in Italy. Ernie says that his father never liked to talk about that, or really talk about the war at all.
But he did like to talk about the CCC. He kept a scrapbook, which has unfortunately been lost. Ernie tells me that as a child he wasn’t allowed to look at it, because there were racy poems in the clippings from the newspaper that the CCC camp published, The CCC Chronicles. But he would sneak a peek when no one was looking.
Joe kept up lifelong friendships with many of the men from the camp. They all had nicknames. Joe’s was “Onyx,” short for “Unexpected,” because he showed up late. Ernie says that like his father, many of the men who were from other counties in Georgia married local girls and settled in Cartersville. His father told him that the local Cartersville boys would deliberately set fires in the woods on the weekends because then the CCC boys would have to go put out the fires and have no time to steal their girlfriends. There was more than one fist fight between the two groups.
Ernie says his father used to tease his mother that “there would have been a lot of old maids in Cartersville” if not for the CCC.
Ernie is pretty funny, and apparently his Dad was too. Gale elbows him a couple of times when he makes irreverent jokes, but I am greatly entertained. It’s clear that Joe Palmer thrived on laughter and passed that quality on to his son.
Joe told Ernie that they used to be called out if there was a forest fire anywhere in the county. The camp also worked with the Soil Conservation Service to help farmers in Bartow County restore soil that had been wrecked by cotton and erosion. They built check dams in ravines, using piles of rocks held together by wire to stop erosion. They helped farmers to terrace their fields, and planted bushes and trees to hold the soil.
Ernie said that his Granny used to tease his Dad that he was “working with bloomers,” because he planted so many flowers.
But those flowers did a great deal of good. Bartow County in the 1930s was a sorry sight. Throughout the South, an overreliance on cotton had left the soil a barren wasteland, and Pine Log and other mountains had been timbered so much they were bald in many places. Farmers near the mountains often started fires to try to kill the boll weevils and to clear new and more fertile fields. The fires on Pine Log and other mountains ravaged what forest was left and exacerbated the erosion problems.
Deep gullies cut across ruined hills and fields and pastures, and every time it rained more topsoil was washed away into the river. The CCC restored both agricultural land and mountain land. They prevented fires and put out fires. They planted trees and groundcover and okay, yes, a little kudzu, which agriculture experts at the time saw as a great antidote to erosion (not realizing the invasive species would spread and choke out other plant life). They showed farmers how to terrace their fields and rotate their crops.
One bad thing the CCC guys did, Ernie tells me, with a rueful head shake, is take apart the Native American stone wall on the top of Ladd’s Mountain and use it to build check dams. I’ve read elsewhere that around this same time the WPA road crews used some of the rock from the Native American mounds and walls on top of Ladd’s to pave Routes 113 and 61. We all grimace at the shortsightedness that destroyed these important sites.
Like many CCC workers, Joe used the skills he learned in the CCC throughout his life. “Working with bloomers” came in handy. He tried to start a soil conservation company with a CCC buddy after the war, but that didn’t fly, and he ended up driving for Sinclair Oil. But later, he was the caretaker at the Sunset Memory Gardens Cemetery near the Etowah Mounds, and he built walkways there using Pine Log Stone, the same stone the CCC workers had quarried and built bridges and culverts with on the mountain.
And after retirement, Joe was hired to supervise the planting of the trees in downtown Cartersville when the old part of the city was renovated. Ernie helped him do it, planting some of the trees himself. It strikes me that Joe came full circle, ending his career the way he started, planting trees to restore and beautify his community.
He kept a big garden all his life, and he also kept bees. Gale explains that her mother-in-law’s uncle, Doc Cline, was a bee keeper, and Joe learned the craft from him. Uncle Doc, Gale tells me, would pick up a hive of bees bare handed. The rest of the family would cover up head to toe. Ernie and Gale learned from Joe and Uncle Doc how to gather a swarm of bees to start a new hive. You smoke them out by burning a scrap of denim, put them in a box, mark the new queen with fingernail polish, and carry them to the new location.
Uncle Doc’s farm was over where Georgia Highlands is now, and the CCC camp was behind the Hobby Lobby. If you drive up 41 now, you’d never know that there was an A & B Café or a CCC camp. The strip malls seem like they’ve been there forever. There is little reason to get off the 4-lane, except to run into Hobby Lobby or Big Lots or Home Depot.
A few years ago, Ernie visited the site of the camp, now the Cartersville Fairgrounds and American Legion post. Among bulldozed trees he found a plaque that had been dedicated to the CCC in 1937. It commemorated the planting of a tree by CCC workers on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the American Constitution.
Ernie told Bartow History Museum Director Trey Gaines and Etowah Valley Historical Society Co-President Joe Head about it, and they moved the plaque to the front of the American Legion building, as a permanent memorial to Joe Palmer and the other CCC men.
The other memorial, the one that is all around us, is the restored landscape. Pine Log Mountain has more trees on it now than it has since the Cherokee were here. Bartow farmland is rich, its agriculture flourishing. The streets of the historic district in Cartersville enjoy the shade of trees planted by a man named Joe Palmer. Thanks to the green thumbs of Joe and the other boys of the CCC, we are surrounded by trees, flowers, and verdant fields. And yes, a little kudzu.

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