CPS Camp No. 52, a Soil Conservation Service base camp located in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp northeast of Powellville, Maryland and operated by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), opened in October 1942. AFSC operated the camp through November 15, 1944 when the Mennonite Central Committee assumed those duties until the camp closed in March 1947. The men performed dangerous work cutting and cleaning drainage channels of the Pokomoke River to limit erosion of low lying farm land.
The camp was located on the Delmarva Peninsula, between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a mile southwest of Powellville*. Salisbury was the nearest large town fifteen miles to the northwest. CPS utilized a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that had begun a drainage project in 1939 on the Pokomoke River and continued the project. The river flowed south through the peninsula, falling about an inch to a mile. The channel, choked by silt and trees, prevented the ditches from draining the low lying farm land along the river. Farmers had abandoned the land.
*While the Directory of Civilian Public Service and other publications list the town as Powellsville, Maryland, the actual name is Powellville. (Swarthmore College Peace Collection, CPS Camp List; Google)
Directors: Russell Freeman, Arthur Gamble, Dan Wilson, William Mackensen, Ernest Wildman, Leland H. Brenneman, S. Glenn Esch
Dieticians: Verda Kauffman, Ruth Smucker
Matrons: Mrs. S. Glen Esch, Margaret Dirks van der Smisssen
Nurse: Mary Byer
Nurse-Matrons: Tena Heinrichs, Lola Schertz
Many of the men who opened the camp had previously served at CPS Camp No. 3 at Patapsco, Maryland, the first CPS camp to open on May 15, 1941.
In the early years of the camp, the majority of the men reported from urban rather than rural farming communities. Given the difficult nature of the heavy manual labor required to open up drainage for the low lying agricultural land, many transferred to other camps and units. In late 1944, many transfers into the camp entered from rural areas and reported their occupation as farming or other agricultural experience. In general, about fifty-nine percent of COs in Mennonite camps and units reported farming and agricultural work as a prior occupation, while twenty-nine percent of those in Friends camps declared farming experience. (Sibley and Jacob p, 172)
Men in Friends camps tended to report the greatest religious diversity when entering CPS, with a minority of those who declared Friends affiliation, many reporting other denominational affiliations, and still others no religious affiliation. The large majority of COs at Mennonite camps, however, tended to report entering from a variety of Mennonite denominational groups, creating more similarity in religious experiences among assignees.
While men in CPS camps reported more education at point of entry than Army and Navy enlisted men, men in Friends camps entered with an average 14.27 years of education and men in Mennonite camps with an average 10.45 years of education. (Sibley and Jacob p. 171)
The dangerous work required use of axes, saws, slogging through acres of mucky soil, heavy machinery and dynamite. The accident rate had been high in the first months of operation, possibly due to lack of experience among the assignees not accustomed to manual labor. As the assignees dropped in number, AFSC, Selective Service, and MCC officials decided to transfer the remaining men and bring in a group more accustomed to this type of work.
By 1944, when the new group arrived, nine and a half miles of the drainage channel had been cut, but another five or six miles needed to be channeled, cleared and drained. First the area was staked, then timber cleared from a width of one hundred and sixty feet at the Delaware line and two hundred and ten feet at the lower end. Work crews cut down brush while other crews felled larger trees. The small brush and trees were removed to the edge of the clearing by hand, while large trees had to be pulled out by tractor. A dynamite crew then blasted the stumps in preparation for final dredging of the channel by machinery.
By autumn 1946, the water table had lowered sufficiently making it possible to farm an additional thirty-seven thousand formerly unproductive acres.
This camp, known as Pokomoke, administered by the Friends from 1942 until November 15, 1944, transferred operational leadership to the Mennonites.
John J. Fisher, Jr. arrived in the transition period. “After some awesome and sometimes risky weeks of surveying, brush axing, tree felling, dynamiting and log winching, we college men [the only ones in the barracks], were ‘promoted’ to office jobs.”
As camp clerk I worked for Leland Brenneman, Howard and Verda Kauffman and Arnold Dietzel. Since Powellsville [sic] was in transition from Quaker to Mennonite auspices, I became good friends with Quakers and learned to appreciate the diversity afforded by the Amish, Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians and the various kinds of Mennonites.
I recall all of us once debated whether to be emergency bean pickers on a nearby farm as a part of our national service. Some picked and some did not. It was good training in ethical choice at the grass roots. The camp experience at this stage in my life was what I needed: significant work, gospel quarteting, spare-time night duty at a Salisbury hospital emergency room, basketball, “bull sessions” and some serious Bible reading. Also, I soon learned that an anonymous donor at College Mennonite Church had included me in its support funds for men in CPS. This to me was a highly valued gesture. (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories pp. 14-15)
Powellville community leaders, at the time the camp was opening, learned that the men from Patapsco included a black CO, and warned CPS officials not to transfer the man. The rest of the men told the American Friends Service Committee that they would not go to Powellville on those conditions. At the request of the black CO, the AFSC transferred him to a detached service training school unit Cheltenham, Maryland before the camp made the move. (Goossen p. 40).
Orientation programs for the base camps evolved over the years. Interestingly in the first year of Pokomoke, camp leadership instituted an extensive safety education program followed up with a bi-weekly safety newssheet called The Poco-Note.
In 1944, when the Mennonites began operating the camp with a new group of men, they instituted a three-phase orientation program. The first consisted of three days covering information on camp procedures and discussions about the camp. The second, a five-day training period the last week of the first month in camp, delved into issues about which the men now had some experience. The third and final part included weekly discussion periods for three months.
During April 1943, a group of CPS men acting independently of the religious agencies and against the express prohibition of Selective Service called a Chicago Conference on Social Action. Planners intended to provide opportunity for men to exchange views about and consider action regarding their common problems in areas of the nature of CPS work, opportunities for greater service, training programs and what COs should do about conscription, as examples. General Hershey directed all camp directors to “grant no furloughs” for assignees to attend, as Selective Service had not approved the conference in advance.
At Powellville, sixty-seven of the seventy-two men pledged individual non-compliance with the order as a denial of civil liberties. High level meetings between the religious agencies and Selective Service officials failed to remove General Hershey’s ban. The conference went forward with very small attendance, and those who attended were given a customary three-day furlough penalty for each day A.W.O.L. Neither CPS men nor many of the Historic Peace Church leaders were happy with the outcome. However, the incident and the aftermath demonstrated the restrictions under which COs labored in Selective Service, and the limits to civil liberties in protests of conscience.
Naomi Brubaker organized a cooking school at the camp in 1946. These schools scheduled for a few weeks, included instruction and apprentice work in the various areas of camp food planning, preparation and management. Participants came from other camps as well.
Mennonite Central Committee began assigning pastors to the base camps to assist with religious life near the end of CPS. At Pokomoke, Harry Shelter served as the camp pastor for a time and T. A. van der Smissen came from CPS Camp No. 31 at Camino, California on January 1, 1947.
During 1945, MCC held a series of short institutes at regional camps. The first conscription institute at Powellville, on February 24-25, 1945, attracted fifty-five CPS and MCC delegates to explore “the Christian attitude” toward conscription in peacetime as well as during war. In addition, during the institute, participants reflected on the CPS experience and planned follow-up discussions for local camps and units. The presenting group at Powellville included J. Winfield Fretz, Irvin Horst, H. S. Bender, Orie O. Miller, Albert Gaeddert, Robert Kreider, Elmer Ediger and others who had been involved in the early development of the CPS program.
During the period that the Friends operated the camp, the men created a number of publications. They began The Peacemaker in December 1942, with Vol. 2. No. 20 archived in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection. They published Social Action News from May through August of 1943. The Socialist C. O. began publication in early 1943 and continued to publish periodically through May of 1945. From July through December 1943, the men cooperatively published The Open Ballot with CPS Camp No. 108 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They produced Powellsville News and Comment from February through June of 1943. Co’ok’s Tours, actually published in CPS Camp No. 2 at San Dimas, California, appeared in September 1943, attributed to the Powellville men. From September 1943 through April 1944, the men published five issues of Pokomoke Opinion. And, they produced School of Industrial Relations Bulletin, June through November in 1944.
After the new group of men arrived in November 1944, they published a camp paper The Dove-Tale from February 1945 through September 1946.
Of all the National Service Board for Religious Objectors base camps, only Powellville remained at the time CPS concluded.
For more information on this and other MCC soil conservation camps see Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Service. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee printed by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 1949, Chapter X, pp. 108-124; Religious Life in CPS Chapter XVIII pp. 276-294; Formal Education in CPS Chapter XIX, pp. 295-317.
For more information on women COs see Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-47. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
For personal stories of CPS men, see Peace Committee and Seniors for Peace Coordinating Committee of the College Mennonite Church of Goshen, Indiana, “Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1995, 2000.
For an in depth history of conscientious objection in the United States, see Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, Ithaca, Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952, including a description of other CPS camp institutes on peace studies pp. 191-92; Chapter XII, Protests of Conscience pp. 257-278.
Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Camp periodicals database