My C.C.C. and Radio Telegraph Experiences
A short title for:
“My Experiences in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and How I Learned Telegraphy and Became a Radio Amateur and a
Professional Radio Telegraph Operator.”
James (Jim) S. Farrior
Radio Amateur W4FOK (since 1938)
The author at Ft. Benning, Ga. (1938) The author in New York City (1943)
while serving as a radio telegrapher while serving as a Radio Officer
in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the U.S. Merchant Marine
Printed by: Hamilton Press, Fernandina Beach, FL
Bound by: The National Library of Georgia, Roswell, Ga.
James S. Farrior 2004, 2005
This version is suitable for printing or for viewing on the screen.
FRONTISPIECE - This 1939 photo shows me sending messages using a “bug” semi-automatic telegraph key at WUMA/WUNA, the Net Control Station at District “D” Civilian Conservation Corps Headquarters, Ft. McClellan, Alabama, where I was Chief Operator. There were actually two “nets”, both operated from the same desk. One net was for the Alabama stations (camps), and the other for the Mississippi stations. Each net had its own frequency. While one net was being “worked”, the other net was being monitored for emergency traffic. When all traffic had been cleared, both frequencies were monitored during the work hours. Two RME-69 communications receivers, one for each net, can be seen on the operating table. The two transmitters can’t be seen as they are on the other side of the room, to my left. I liked my job very much.
Before my time at WUMA/WUNA, the District Signal Officer, Lt. Robert Lowery, had set up a school to train operators while the camp radio stations were being set up. Initially, most camps had two operators so that trained replacements would be available when operators left the C.C.C. or new camps were formed. I had an assistant operator, D. R. Parkman, who was a veteran of WW-I. The C.C.C. accepted needy veterans who were in good health. There were special camps for such veterans.
My C.C.C. and Radio Telegraph Experiences
By Jim Farrior, W4FOK (since 1938)
About this Book
This book is a greatly expanded version of a paper that was written in response to requests from fellow radio amateurs. Those requests were mostly feedback from users of a computer program named “The Mill” that I had written in the early 1980s for teaching both American Morse Code and International Morse code. Later versions have been placed on my Web Page as a download. The users wanted to know how I happened to become a telegrapher and a radio amateur. Readers of my original paper also asked questions about the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) , in which I was serving when I became a radio telegraph operator. This expanded version gives a more complete account of my experiences as a member of that organization.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President, the Great Depression had devastated the economy. There was wide spread poverty and unemployment. Initiated during the early days of Roosevelt’s administration, the C.C.C. provided work and training for young men and some W.W.-I veterans, and a small income for their needy families. Many young men learned work ethics and skills that would serve them well for the remainder of their lives. It also prepared young men to be better soldiers when many of them later served in WW-II. Unlike most government programs, the C.C.C. more than paid for itself in improvements made to parks, woodlands, etc. Most C.C.C. veterans are now deceased, and the C.C.C. is a little known part of American history.
In preparing this expanded version, I decided to include some additional personal and family information, etc., primarily for the benefit of my relatives and long time friends. Perhaps it will add some interesting background for other readers.
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 11, 1920, the son of James S. Farrior Jr. and Ruth Thompson Farrior. My mother’s father, Joseph O. Thompson, was a successful Birmingham business man, land owner, and a political leader.
My father’s father, James S. Farrior Sr., was a Civil War veteran, and he and my grandmother, together with their younger children, were living in Letohatchie, Alabama, at the time of his death in 1903. Letohatchie is a small town in Lowndes County that was located on the L&N Railroad about 20 miles south of Montgomery. Following his death, my grandmother and her young children moved to Birmingham where her older children already lived. She died in Birmingham in 1906.
My father’s older siblings became prominent people in Birmingham, and his family and my mother’s family were friends. He was a WW-I veteran, and he and my mother were married shortly after his return to Birmingham after the war.
Unknown to my mother, my father had become an alcoholic before their marriage. Within a few years following their marriage his affliction rendered him unable to hold a job. His brother, Will Farrior, was a prominent business man in Birmingham, and the husbands of his sisters May and Katharine were prominent professional people. All were members of Birmingham society. Their repeated efforts to rehabilitate my father failed, and by the summer of 1930, my father’s behavior had become too much of an embarrassment and expense to them. Their solution was to move our family to Letohatchie, now usually spelled Letohatchee, where my grandparents had lived and where Farrior relatives still lived. To get my mother to leave Birmingham, where her mother, father, and several of her siblings and many close friends resided, she was told that we were going to Letohatchie to visit Buck Farrior, my father’s first cousin, and his family. Consequently, very little was taken with us on the train.
Our Family Moves from Birmingham to Letohatchie, Lowndes County, Alabama
Buck Farrior was the son of my grandfather’s brother, Ed Farrior, who had died in 1917. He was Chairman of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners, and he, his wife Jewell, and three children lived on a farm between Letohatchie and Hayneville, the county seat. Included in Buck’s large land holdings was the 2,000 acre farm known as the “Jim Farrior Place”, that had belonged to my grandfather, James S. Farrior Sr. I understand that Buck sold off the Jim Farrior Place during the depression.
There were five of us, my mother and father, me (age 10 years), my sister Anne (age nearly 8 years), and my brother Joe (age less than 1 year). When we stepped down from the train, Buck was a very fine man. After meeting us at the train he took us to his home, which he and his family shared with us for several weeks until a house was found in Letohatchie. Their two young sons, Dick and John, were good playmates for me, and there was always something fun and interesting for us to do. Buck also had a daughter, Anne, who was about my sister Anne’s age. I quickly learned how much better it was not to live in a large city. My mother was very distressed when she realized that we had moved to Letohatchie, and for some years afterward she believed that we would somehow be able to return to Birmingham to live. However, that would never happen.
Before the Civil War, my great grandfather, John Farrior, had moved with his family from Montgomery to Greenville, in Butler County, the county to the south of Lowndes. Some years following the Civil war my grandfather, James (Jim) S. Farrior Sr. (1847-1903), who was a Confederate Veteran, and my grandmother, Minnie Williams Farrior (1853-1906), bought a plantation located about 4 miles northeast of Letohatchie and moved with their children from Butler County to a home on their plantation. My father was born at their plantation in 1893, and in 1895, my grandfather built a home in Letohatchie. Thereafter, he commuted daily to his farm on horseback. After my grandfather’s death in 1903, my grandmother and her three younger children moved to Birmingham, where her older children already lived. She died there in 1906.
When our family arrived in Letohatchie in the summer of 1930, the population was about 200 people. The older people in Letohatchie remembered my grandparents well and spoke very highly of them. Sadly, I didn’t record any of their stories. A number of cousins, children of my grandfather’s brother Edward Farrior. and their descendants, were living there when we arrived in 1930, and some still do. Today (2005), things are very different. The population of Letohatchie has decreased. Montgomery now is less than 30 minutes away by interstate highway, I-65. There are no longer any stores, and when the depot burned, it was not rebuilt. Once there were three churches, the Baptist, the Methodist, and the Episcopalian. Today, there remain only a few houses, a new Baptist Church on the original site, and a small post office building built some years ago.
The house into which we moved in 1930 was of poor quality with cracked and broken windows, bad screens, cracks in the flooring, and two small wood burning fireplaces. It was without electricity, running water, or an inside bath. It had an outside toilet, a small garden area, a small hen house, and a small barn structure with a stall for a cow. The shallow well on the back porch provided extremely bad tasting water. My aunts shipped to us the most important things that we had left in Birmingham. Since we could not use the gas stove, it was left in Birmingham, and my aunts had shipped a very small wood-burning cook stove, hardly large enough for cooking.. There were no telephones in Letohatchie homes.
Neighbors immediately came to our aid. Mr. John Mims, who owned the field in back of the house, plowed an area of his field and planted some food crops for us like potatoes, corn, beans onions, greens, etc. My father stayed sober for a few months after moving to Letohatchie, and during that time he and Mr. John Mims, using hand tools and a mule team, cut and hauled firewood for the stove and fireplace. They also cut by hand and hauled hay for the milk cow that was loaned to us by Buck Farrior.
Mrs. J. W. Dixon, a widow that everyone called “Auntie”, was very kind and helpful. She lived across the road from our house in the home that had been built by my grandfather in 1895, and where his family had lived until shortly after his death in 1903. Mrs. Dixon was the sister of the wife of Ed Farrior, my father’s brother, and she had raised some of Ed Farrior’s children. Buck Farrior had been one of those raised by Mrs. Dixon. Some of Buck’s grown siblings still lived with Mrs. Dixon. Shortly after we moved in, Auntie provided us with some garden tools, chickens, chicken feed, a churn, and other things necessary to begin our life in the country. She also made a nearby pasture available for the cow. Other fine neighbors provided us with a variety of things. There was no possibility of employment for my father, and he began drinking again, borrowing money wherever he could to pay the bootleggers.
As a 10 year old boy, my only regrets about leaving Birmingham were that when our belongings were shipped to us, my most precious possessions, my bicycle and the Erector Set that my Aunt Katharine had given me, were not among them. My clamp-on skates did arrive, but there were no paved surfaces in Letohatchie. I kept the skates as a souvenir of my Birmingham days, but I never put them on again. The only boys in my age group were Jimmy and Hartwell Payne, Kenneth King, Jack Whitley, and Bill Colvard. Early on, Bill lived in Letohatchie only when school was out.
We became members of the Letohatchie Baptist Church. When the wooden church building had been built, my grandfather had served as Chairman of the Building Committee. A few years after our arrival, I was baptized in a local pond.
In Birmingham, children could not enter school before their sixth birthday. Since my birthday was on January 11th, I would have been older than most of the other students. To prevent that, my mother had taught me a course of study which allowed me to skip the first grade and enter the second grade when I was six. Having finished the fifth grade before leaving Birmingham, I was able to begin school in Letohatchie in the sixth grade when I was ten. As will be related in this story, events would cause me to lose the head start I originally had plus an additional 2 ½ years.
Letohatchie had an old wooden three-room schoolhouse that covered the first through the ninth grade. There were three teachers, each of whom taught three grades. My grade had three students, myself, Kenneth King, and Loraine Singleton, and we stayed together through the ninth grade. Upon completing the ninth grade, the students first went by train, and later by school bus, to the Lowndes County High School at Fort Deposit, some 20 miles away. For financial reasons, I had to drop out of high school after the first semester of the 11th grade. Some time after I dropped out, the school districts were changed, allowing the Letohatchie high school students to attend the Hayneville High School, which was only 7 miles away. The old Letohatchie school was closed, and my brother Joe and sister Anne went by bus to a school in Hayneville. Buck Farrior bought the old three room school and used it to store hay for his cattle.
I discover telegraphy and electricity
The L&N depot at Letohatchie served a rather large surrounding area. Beginning when I was 12 or 13 yeas of age, I enjoyed hanging around the depot, and became fascinated by the click-clack of the telegraph that was used for train traffic control, railroad business, and for telegrams. I still remember how excited I was when the agent/operators offered to teach me telegraphy.
The L&N Depot in Letohatchie, Ala., looking northeast - I took this photo in the summer of 1940. The train tracks were on the left side of the depot. Across the tracks was located a large wooden water tank for filling the steam locomotive’s water tender. The semaphore used to signal the train engineer is visible above the depot. The Office is inside the left door, and it contained the telegraph desk and agent’s desk. It was was manned by three men, working in three “tricks, and they served as both Telegrapher and Agent. The office includes the window to the right of the left door. On the right is the White Waiting Room, which had a small ticket window inside between the office and the waiting room. Blacks purchased tickets at the office desk and waited on the outside platform. The office had characteristic smells caused by stale tobacco, the smoke from the locomotives, and the oiled sawdust that was sprinkled on the floor before sweeping. There was also the characteristic sound caused by hissing steam, and the clicking of the telegraph sounder and relays.
The depot’s office in 1940 - Mr. Archie Rogers, one of the three Operator/Agents, is seated with his back to the telegraph desk and his feet on the office counter. He said that he kept his feet on the counter because a mouse once ran up his leg. A semi-automatic telegraph key, called a “bug” is on the desk by his shoulder, and the telegrapher’s typewriter, which has all capital characters and is called a “mill”, is beside his right arm. He could lean out of the window and view up and down the tracks. The two black objects above his hat, are the handles that operate the semaphore that sent signals to the trains. Beside his head can be seen his coffee thermos, and on the shelf above is his “electric lantern”. My step father, Mr. Melvin Sanderson, is standing beside him, ready to relieve him. Train orders for a through train were clipped to a light weight hoop that was held by the operator for the engineer to catch on his arm as the train passed through. The engineer would remove the train order from the hoop and drop it to the ground to be retrieved by the agent. The outgoing mail bag was hung on a special holder beside the track and it was grabbed by an arm projecting from the mail car as the train passed. The mail was sorted en route. These methods had been in use by the railroads for many years.
Mr. Melvin Sanderson Mr. Frisco Davis
Station Agents/Telegraph Operators at the Letohatchie L&N Depot
The depot was manned around the clock, and the three men worked three eight-hour shifts (tricks). While on duty, they handled all of the record keeping, ticket selling, train orders, telegrams, etc. They were all good American Morse telegraph operators. Melvin Sanderson was my stepfather. Melvin Sanderson was at home, and Frisco Davis was on the porch of Hardy Williamson’s store. They, together with Archie Rogers, taught me telegraphy.
Mr. Archie Rogers, who is shown in a previous photo, gave me a telegraph key and sounder that he had used many years before when he had learned telegraphy. The operators kept me supplied with some used lantern batteries so that I could practice. The code that I learned was the American Morse code, which was used in those days by the railroads, telegraph companies, news services, financial offices, and other “land line” telegraphy services in the United States and Canada.
I still have the treasured sounder and the telegraph key. The sounder is now connected to my computer, and a computer program that I wrote can generate telegraph signals to energize the sounder. It is very nostalgic to hear, and read, the sounder clicking out American Morse train orders, telegrams, and other messages similar to those that were heard in the old Letohatchie depot so many years ago.
Shortly after I began learning telegraphy, someone loaned me an issue of “Popular Mechanics” and I saw where I could buy, for about five dollars, postpaid, a box of used electrical materials for experimentation. I had just sold for three cents each some baby turtles that I had caught at local ponds, so I immediately ordered it. This magic box included, among numerous other things, two telephone receivers, two carbon microphone buttons, two hand-cranked telephone ringer generators, a crystal with holder and cat-whisker for building a crystal set radio, a bi-metal strip for making a temperature operated switch, and a box of assorted hardware. It came with a small booklet about electricity and describing how to use the supplied components for making electrical experiments. I found all of this to be extremely exciting.
By that time, we had moved into the old Sam Powell house, which was of even less quality than the original house, and it also had no electricity, running water, or inside bathroom. It was located in a pecan orchard across the street and to the north of the original house. The shallow well was about 200 feet from the house. However, it was on a 4 acre plot that provided more garden space, a pecan orchard, and pasture for the cow. A stone’s throw away was a small pond, known as Sam Powell’s Pond, that had many very small catfish about 5 inches long. We were very short of food, and I would catch a dozen or more, cut their heads off, gut them, and my mother would cook them in the pressure cooker until the bones were soft enough to be eaten like sardines.
The best thing was that had a back porch that was closed in with scrap lumber to make a room for me. The room had space for me to build a small workbench for performing my experiments. The used dry cells and lantern batteries supplied by the telegraph operators provided electricity for my experiments. My excitement level grew with each experiment.
Of all the items in my magic box of materials, the crystal set radio components were the most fascinating, and building a crystal set radio was my first project. I had only one component to make, and that was a variable inductance that consisted of two disk-like coils, one fixed on a shaft, and the other sliding on the shaft. The inductance of the coil assembly could be changed by sliding the movable coil closer for further away from the fixed coil. That rather crude device permitted the crystal set to be tuned.
After the parts had been assembled on a “bread-board”, and the aerial and ground wire had been connected, I put the telephone receiver to my ear and heard nothing. That was immediate disappoint, but I can hardly describe the excitement when moments later I moved the cat-whisker on the crystal and suddenly heard WSFA, the nearby broadcast station, which had a transmitter that was located between Letohatchie and Montgomery. Adjusting the inductance increased the volume significantly. This crude radio was more than a novelty, because we neither a radio nor a newspaper. Although only WSFA could be heard during the day, at night several distant stations came in. After going to bed, I would place the telephone receiver on the pillow beside my ear, and would hear interesting things to tell family members the next morning.
Some weeks later, my crystal set was improved considerably when Mr. Archie Rogers, the railroad telegrapher who had given me the telegraph instruments, gave me an old radio, from which I obtained a tuning coil and condenser assembly that had a knob and dial. That replaced the crude inductance previously described, and at night, I was able to separate the stations better. They were also somewhat louder.
No homes in Letohatchie had telephones, but soon a friend, Bill Colvard, and I strung up a telephone line and our homes were the first to have telephones. We used discarded railroad telegraph line-wire and insulators left by railroad repair crews. Only one wire had to be strung from tree to tree because a ground connection was used for the return. Two “bells” were built using metal from a tin can and electromagnets that were wound on an iron bolt with wire from the primary winding of an old Model T Ford ignition coil. The makeshift bells didn’t look like much, but when the crank of the ringer generator was turned, they made a sound that couldn’t be ignored. Since Bill used one of my telephone receivers at his house, it was necessary for me to plug my other telephone receiver into the crystal set or the telephone, as needed.
The only other person that I knew, beside myself who was interested in such things was a high school friend, John “J.D.” Lamar of Fort Deposit, Ala. When I was 14, and in the 10th grade, I traveled to Ft. Deposit by school bus. I spent a weekend with him at his home where we performed some destructive experiments on an old Gilfillan radio set. While connecting some wires, I received my first severe electrical shock when I came into contact with the 110-volt power line. It was quite a jolt, and for a few moments, I wondered if I wanted to have anything more to do with electricity. I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about getting shocked at home.
Later both of us would have careers in radio, and would both become radio amateurs. Both of us were licensed in 1938. Although I didn’t know it at the time, J.D. received his license about three months earlier than I did. His call was W4FLF, and mine was W4FOK. We were the first in Madison County, Alabama, to obtain an amateur radio license. We still have the same calls. We differ in age by only a few months, with J.D. being the oldest. We both now have heart pacers. During WW-II, we both had similar experiences in North Africa. It was at a military hospital in the same area in Algeria where I had been that John met Alice, his future, and present wife. Although we didn’t correspond often through the years, we now communicate by telephone and e-mail. Recently (in2003), when discussing our destruction of the old Gilfillan radio, we decided that although it was a pity to have destroyed what would now be a valuable collector’s item, it had been worth it as it was instrumental in launching two careers in radio.
My mother divorced my father in December of 1935. She had been running a small store and filling station for several years, but the income was insufficient to support the family. After the divorce, I saw my father only two times. The first time I met him was on a Letohatchie road. He was intoxicated and volunteered that he was going to buy me some clothing. He didn’t. The next and last time I saw my father, was when I caught a ride on the milk truck to Montgomery, and he boarded at the next stop. Although early in the morning, he was already intoxicated and had to be helped into the truck. During the ride he stared at me, but didn’t speak.
Due primarily to financial reasons, I had to drop out of school at the end of the first half of the 11th grade. Because of that and continued financial difficulties, I could not enter the 12th grade when the school opened in September of 1936. I spent much time running the combination filling station and store, and also had domestic duties such as milking the cow, maintaining the garden, cutting firewood, etc.
For a number of months during 1936, I had a job with the J. T. Farmer Baseball Bat Company pulling a cross-cut saw in Big Swamp. I was the only white worker on the crew. We cut down large sugarberry trees, and sawed them into lengths slightly longer than a baseball bat. Using wedges and sledge hammers, these lengths of logs were split into several wedge shaped sections. These were hauled to Letohatchie where a large lathe had been set up near the depot for turning them down to a diameter slightly larger than a baseball bat. Francis Williams, a friend of mine about three years older than I, had the job of operating the lathe. A wedge shaped sections would be chucked up in the lathe, where it slowly rotated. By depressing a large foot pedal, the rotating section would be brought into contact with rapidly rotating blades that would quickly reduce the log section to a cylindrical billet of the correct diameter.
Power for running the lathe was obtained by using an ancient truck, with one rear wheel jacked up above the ground. A pulley was attached to the wheel, and a belt delivered the power to the lathe. To keep the engine from overheating, the cooling was increased by circulating the cooling water through both the radiator and an external 55 gallon drum filled with water. The turned billets were loaded into box cars to ship to the bat company’s plant in Opp, Alabama. After the billets had been cured in kilns, they were used to make baseball bats that carried a label that indicated that they were made of second growth ash, when in reality it was first growth sugarberry. For my work, my mother received 90 cents for my 8 hour day in the swamp. Francis was paid $1.10 per day, and I really envied his job. Several years ago, shortly before Francis died, I saw him for the only time since I had left Letohatchie. We were both visiting Letohatchie, and we enjoyed reminiscing about our career with the bat company.