My Mom, Olga — Part Three: CCC Days

Joe and Olga made their first home in Galva, Illinois, a little town of 2,500 people. The newlyweds lived in Galva for eight months. Then in September 1935 he was transferred to the Rock Island Arsenal, an island in the middle of the Mississippi River between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. They lived in a two-story stucco house at 624 Scott Street in Davenport. And a little over two years later, on September 18, 1937, Olga delivered her first child—my oldest sister—Pat, at St Luke’s Hospital in Davenport.

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Joe and Olga with one-month-old Patty, their first child, in Davenport, Iowa. October 1937.

Just a few months after Patty’s birth, in January of 1938, Joe was promoted to first lieutenant and became the commanding officer (CO) of the 653rd Company, CCC, Clam Lake, Wisconsin. So off they moved to the beautiful and isolated north woods of Wisconsin. Olga, Joe, and new little Patty would spend the next three years there.

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Olga smiling at little Patty. By this time, they were living in the northern woods of Wisconsin where Joe was the new commanding officer of the CCC camp at Clam Lake. Early 1938.

They first rented a home from Frank McCorison and in the spring of 1939, Joe built a little cabin of their own down on the shores of Clam Lake behind the Lodge also owned by Frank McCorison. He constructed the outside of the cabin with vertical slab end logs which he located for free.

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Joe building a cabin for his family on the shore of Clam Lake, Wisconsin. March 1939.

About six months into his job as the new CO, Joe was approached by the company first sergeant before breakfast. “Lieutenant, the men don’t want to go to work today. They say the weather is too hot.” Joe, now a seasoned 28, had a quiet response. “Great. Tell the men who feel that way to line up at the pay station and I’ll issue them their final paycheck.” Needless to say, nobody got in that line; they all went to work. The young lieutenant was just being tested, and he passed. He knew that the CCC guys were all sending their paychecks home to help their families during the depression. Thirty dollars each month was no small help.

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Lieutenant Joseph R. Kempston, U. S. Army. Joe was one of the army officers in charge of the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp on Rock Island Arsenal, Iowa. 1937.

A humorous incident took place in the mess hall later on that summer with the same sergeant, a big guy. He had been making a lot of noise about having strawberries and ice-cream as a special dessert some time, so Joe ordered some and when it showed up, he and the cook arranged for the sergeant to be served first. The sergeant was served a large bowl of beautiful fresh strawberries sitting in what looked like a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Except it wasn’t ice cream; it was lard. Everyone in the mess hall was in on the joke, and waited for him to take his first big bite. He did so, snorted, spit it out, and everybody howled in laughter, including him.

Winters in the woods were snowbound, cold, and made for a lot of alone time for Olga, the city girl. She told us kids later that loneliness indeed did become her companion. But she prayed a lot, focused on loving and caring for little Patty and God brought her through it. She was never the griping kind, anyway.

Because Joe was gone a lot, she had to make sure to keep the kitchen wood stove going, which heated the whole house. Occasionally, Joe would remain at the camp for an overnight or two. On one of those nights, soon after they had moved into the new cabin, the temperature dropped to forty below zero. Olga began hearing random gunshots going off and it sounded like they were almost inside the cabin, they were that close. It turned out that when the temperature got to around forty below, the large nails holding the slabs to the structure would contract, making a sound similar to a gunshot. It must have been quite unnerving, however, for the young mother, alone in the cabin.

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Olga, Joe and Patty on the porch of their newly-built cabin on Clam Lake. September 1939.

But offsetting those winter months were Clam Lake’s beautiful summers; sunshiny, warm, and outdoorsy. Olga would fix delicious picnic baskets on the weekends. On one occasion the family drove north to beautiful Copper Falls State Park for a picnic. She, Joe, and Patty would go out on Clam Lake in the rowboat or the canoe. There was fishing for Joe, and he would catch trout, northern pike, and an occasional muskie for Olga to cook. It wasn’t long before they brought home a little dog named Skippy for Patty, which marked the beginnings of Patty’s lifelong love for animals.

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A little Kempston family canoeing excursion on Clam Lake. September 1938.

Olga developed a keen interest in birds during her three years at Clam Lake. Winters hosted cardinals, big multi-colored pileated woodpeckers, dark eyed junco’s, red-breasted nuthatches, and numerous other birds. Summer brought even more. Olga could identify most of them, even the sparrows.

Summers were broken up with fun visitors. Olga’s dad and little brother, Carl, visited for a week one summer and they all enjoyed rowing on the lake together. Carl, who by this time was nine or ten, visited two more times, once even in the winter. Carl remembers those visits so fondly. Once Olga took him up to the Clam Lake Lodge, put a coin in the jukebox, and they listened to Benny Goodman’s rendition of “And the Angels Sing.” Carl was thrilled and remembers thinking about how daring his big sister was, listening to this popular music when their parents had been so old fashioned and strict. Obviously both he and Olga were able to extract themselves from their extremely conservative upbringing!

The summer of 1940 brought more changes for Olga. She gave birth to her second child, Judy, on June 10 that year. For her delivery, Olga and Joe drove fifty miles north to the nearest hospital, in Ashland, on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

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Joe holding Patty, and Olga holding two-month-old Judy. The family is starting to grow. Clam Lake, Wisconsin. Summer 1940.

That September, Olga, Joe, and their two little ones drove from Wisconsin to the lovely Lorane Valley of Oregon (then logging country; now prime wine country) to visit Joe’s parents. This was their third visit to see them in three years. Joe’s parents had moved from Chicago in the mid-1930’s to settle on forty acres there and attempt to live off the land. Their home was a 500-square-foot shack until Joe’s father built a substantial two-story home, a large percentage of which he built with used material. They had paid $900 for the forty acres and shack.

There, Olga and Joe had fun relaxing, doing a little fishing, picnicking with relatives on the Siuslaw River, and introducing little Judy to all the relatives. It was probably on one of these Oregon visits that Joe began sharing his dream with Olga of someday owning a ranch in the Lorane Valley.

As a boy he had lived three wonderfully adventuresome years on a farm in Idaho’s panhandle country near Lake Pend Oreille. On that farm he grew to love life in the country. Because their school was six miles away, he and his sister, Betty, would either walk or ride their horse those six miles every day. Since those days, he had often dreamed of living on a ranch or farm again. But at this point, war was on the horizon and, belonging to the military, Joe could make no definite plans.

Shortly after their return to Clam Lake, Joe received orders to proceed to Medford, Oregon, where he would become the CO of Company 6410, CCC Camp South Fork Rogue River, east of Medford. So in January 1941 they packed up their family, with Skippy the dog, and drove, again, out to Oregon. In Medford they rented a home at 1104 Washington Street. Joe’s assignment there proved to be very short, only five months. He again received new orders from the Department of the Army.


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This entry was posted on January 21, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , , , .
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