July 10, 2003 11:00 pm
SPECIAL VISIT: Harold Blank, 90, of Cove reflects on his years in the Civilian Conservation Corps, including a stint at Crane Flats near Granite. (Baker City herald photo/LISA BRITTON).
SPECIAL VISIT: Harold Blank, 90, of Cove reflects on his years in the Civilian Conservation Corps, including a stint at Crane Flats near Granite. (Baker City herald photo/LISA BRITTON).

By Lisa Britton

For The Observer

CRANE FLATS — Harold Blank stands at the edge of the Elkhorn Scenic Byway, pointing to a lush meadow dotted with fir trees and purple wildflowers.

Seventy years ago on June 16, Blank, now 90, stepped into this same meadow — 5 miles north of Granite at Crane Flats — as a recruit for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Since leaving the camp in October 1933, he has made an effort to come back every 10 years on this anniversary date.

President Franklin Roosevelt organized the Corps in 1933, barely a month after his inauguration into the presidency.

The plan was to provide jobs for thousands of unemployed men ages 18 to 25 in forests, parks and rangelands.

About 50 camps were established in Oregon.

"On the 15th of June (1933) they were in Cove recruiting and I happened to be walking down the street," Blank recalled. "I signed up, and the next day I was in Baker. Before dawn we were headed up here to Crane Flats. Riding in an Army truck, I was," he says.

Army officers ran each camp, with 200 men assigned to a company. Blank was in Company 1305.

"It was a pretty rough looking outfit — the clothes we were wearing were old Army clothes from World War I," he says.

While many CCC recruits were from around the Eastern Oregon region, a few traveled a bit farther.

"The city boys we had were from Wilkes Barre, Penn. There were 20 of them," he says.

Each morning started with breakfast, then the work began.

"Everybody'd get up, get in trucks and go to work someplace," Blank says.

In the Crane Flats area, this included building trails and roads. Though the fire danger was low in the summer of 1933, the Corps would also have been called to fight fire if the need had arisen.

"You could go any direction and there was something to do. Everything was run down, everything was neglected," he says.

However, Blank's duties were a little different.

"We got (to Crane Flats) and there was this old typewriter sitting in the road," he says.

When he asked the captain about the machine, he was answered with a question: "Do you know how to run that thing?"

The answer was yes. Against a teacher's advice, Blank had enrolled in a typing course in high school. He was in the running to be valedictorian, and the typing teacher told him boys couldn't make straight As in typing because it was a job for girls.

"Well, I took it anyway," he says, laughing.

He earned a B-plus and still earned valedictorian honors.

"I disregarded a teacher's instructions — that's how I got this job."

When the captain discovered Blank's talent, the 20-year-old was assigned to the typewriter.

"The biggest thing was payroll. The next thing was records for discharges, promotions and demotions," he says.

There were two types of Corps camps: the "fast military setup" of Crane Flats, and those with actual buildings with floors and walls, Blank says.

"Now they'd call this inhuman treatment or something," he says.

The mess hall was of a sturdy log construction, but everything else was canvas.

"We had a choice of what tree we wanted to sleep under," Blank says of those first days at camp.

After returning from a day in the wilderness — or at the desk — the men of the CCC would grab some dinner, then play cards in the tents, catch some sleep or round up a game of baseball in the meadow across the road.

"Most of these guys — they were tired," he says.

Blank scratches a red bump on his forearm while four mosquitoes hum around his brimmed white hat.

"This was the only place in Oregon you could swing a gallon bucket around your head and get two gallons of mosquitoes," he says, laughing.

On the occasional day off, the men could hitch a ride with a truck that drove daily from Crane Flats to Baker City.

"There were a few of the guys, very, very few, who had cars," Blank says.

Then he points to the creek that winds through the meadow — Crane Creek.

He'd hike 4 miles along this creek to fish for bull trout in the North Fork of the John Day River — that's where the big fish were, he says.

By October 1933, the camp was packed up and everyone rode the train to a CCC camp near Azalea at Devil Flats in Western Oregon.

Blank left the Corps on June 16, 1934.

A lot of life happened after that — fighting in World War II at Guadalcanal and spending 20 years as an Oregon State Police officer — but he never forgot the CCC.

He keeps the memories in a tattered cardboard box. Blank digs through the piles, hauling out assorted memorabilia from his days in the Corps.

"There's my old woolen underwear," he chuckles, tossing aside the worn clothing.

He pulls out a thick stack of documents typed on onion-skin paper with the initials HB in the upper right corner. Then he hauls out his Hasselblad camera, a Swedish model that he's used for more than 40 years. He documents each visit to Crane Flats with photos.

"The biggest change is the trees — I've noticed so many trees," he says.

He's the only one who has returned on the 70th anniversary date.

"I guess I'm the only one left," he says.