Food’s On: The Mess Hall & the CCC’s by J. L. Oakley

Posted by on Jan 12, 2015 in 20th Century US, Historical Tidbits | 2 comments

Tree-Soldier185x280What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipt for the Millions 1857?

  1. To smoke Hams and Fish on a small scale. — Drive the ends out of an old hogshead or  barrel; place this over a heap of sawdust of green hard wood, in which a bar of r ed -hot iron is buried; or take corn-cobs, which make the best smoke; place them in a clean iron kettle, the bottom of which is covered with burning coals; hang the hams, tongues, fish, &c, that the cobs or sawdust may smoulder slowly, but no burn .

While researching U. S. Civilian Conservation Corps for my Depression era novel, Tree Soldier, I was fortunate to talk to several retirees who had been in the organization. One of the things I enjoyed most when I interviewed them were their stories of food. While they told of the hardships of the times, their families and how the Civilian Conservation Corps saved them, the talk would eventually come around to stories of what they had to eat in the camps. For starving young men working hard in the woods and ditches, the fare laid out on the mess hall tables was heaven.

Food for Hungry Young Men

Mess HallThe CCC camps were run by the Army (unless it was a smaller side or spike camp which was run by the Forest Service for remote projects). Typically, it held up to 200 enrollees ages 18-25 years and laid out like a military camp. Wooden buildings or large tents housed the young men, but the mess hall generally was a permanent structure. As you can see, it came in all styles.

The kitchens varied in size, but many kept impressive pantries of can goods. Often local farmers provided fresh food for the tables, another aim of helping the local economy in this difficult econonic time.

Feeding such an army of hungry young men was an important function of the CCC camp. Meals were three times a day, the mid-day meal often a sack lunch or in some cases, a hot meal provided by a bull cook – all out in the field. The kitchen was run by both staff made up of a paid head and enrollees. Kitchen Patrol (KP), a legend in the WW II Army, was part of the CCC life, though boys could get certificates in sanitation and cooking work for their futures. “Diving for pearls” was one expression a CCC boy used when washing the whiteware.

Holiday Fun

Camp Roy mess set for holiday partyThe 3 Cs, as the program was sometimes called, was a home away from home for many of boys. As many of the projects were in the West and the most number of enrollees to work them from the back East and Chicago, celebrating holidays was a favorite passtime. Menus and decorations were made up, bringing a homey feeling to the season.

Excerpt from Tree Soldier:

Park Hardesty, a Pennsylvanian, is an experienced enrollee come up from Oregon. His new squad maters are all teenagers, mostly from New Jersey and New York. This is their first day in the camp mess hall.

Inside, Hardesty guided them to their assigned seating, a long table at which six to twelve men could be seated. As they sat down, some enrollees, obviously old hands at the place, started to call out to them from their table.

“Elllllmer. You’ll be sor–ree.”

“What’s an Elmer?” Spinelli asked Hardesty as he reached to pour coffee into his cup. “Means someone who makes foolish mistakes.”

“I ain’t making no — any mistakes,” Spinelli grumbled. “They better not meet me in the dark.”

A crew on KP duty brought the food to them to the tune of clinking silverware, ceramic plates, and scraping benches on the concrete floor.

Holy cow, look at this,” Costello’s face looked like he couldn’t believe the fare: ham and eggs, stewed prunes, cereal, coffee and milk.

Thanksgiving Camp Roy menu

Recipe for logger coffee, something Hardesty made up while bull cook:

Fill a coffee pot with water and add a freshly cut chip of alder to it.
Bring to boil. Add coffee and return to fire.
Let boil for one minute.
Add cold water to settle the grounds and serve.

This coffee is delicious. I made it regularly while working the woods with a local school district. Recipe came from an old time Forest Service veteran. Enjoy.

J. L. Oakley, January 12, 2015


  1. Something like the CCC should be revived to deal with unemployment and updating much of the country’s infrastructure that is wearing out and failing—-like the bridges and railroads

  2. Two of my father’s brothers left Missouri to work in the CCC on the West Coast. The younger one told me they were mighty glad to get three filling meals a day.