Ninety-two-year-old John Nisky still drives to Bass River State Forest in Burlington County and looks at the neat rows of towering pines he planted near Route 9 when he was a teenager.
He walks by the stone foundations of the recreation and mess halls where he spent happy evenings chatting with other young men about the day's hard work.
And without trying too hard, he remembers playing football and baseball, and wrestling with friends from his barracks on mattresses pulled onto the floor from their beds.
Nisky worked at Bass River 75 years ago as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.
He planned to return there this afternoon for a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the corps' founding and celebrate its accomplishments at the 27,000-acre forest, including the creation of bridges, cabins, picnic shelters, roads, and even a 67-acre lake, Absegami, formed by damming two streams.
"Being there stirs old memories and warm feelings. When I get out of the car and walk around, I feel like I'm back" in 1933, said Nisky, a retired carpenter who lives in New Castle, Del. "I wish I could meet a few of the boys again."
Men, most between 17 and 28 years old, joined the corps through local welfare boards. Their fathers had to be verified as unemployed. Destitute veterans also were welcome.
Between 1933 and 1942, when it disbanded soon after the United States entered World War II, about three million men found employment in the corps, which had 4,000 camps across all 48 states and in the Hawaii and Alaska territories, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Pennsylvania had 113 camps, second only to California. CCC labor helped build five "recreation demonstration areas" near urban centers, including what is now French Creek State Park in Chester and Berks Counties. The state sent 194,500 men into the corps nationwide.
"I don't think the general public knows what the CCC is and how important it was," said Cynthia Coritz, superintendent of Bass River State Forest, part of the Pinelands. Historians estimate the total value of its work at $8 billion.
"They built so much of what's here today," Coritz said.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was "one of the most popular and successful of the New Deal programs," said Dan Campbell, historian for the state forest.
The Bass River camp, which existed during the program's entire run, was among dozens in New Jersey. At least one, Penn State Forest in Burlington County, was a segregated unit for African Americans. Black enrollment was about 10 percent of the CCC workforce. Equal pay and housing were provided.
Other South Jersey camps were at Belleplain State Forest in Cape May and Cumberland Counties; Wharton State Forest in Atlantic, Burlington and Camden Counties; Lebanon (now Brendan T. Byrne) State Forest in Burlington and Ocean Counties; and Parvin State Park in Salem County.
With its CCC buildings, Parvin served as a summer camp for children of displaced Japanese Americans in 1943 and a detention camp for German prisoners in 1944.
Members of the corps were among the environmentalists of their day. The program "made a significant contribution to the advancement of conservation of natural resources on private lands as well as on state-park lands," said Tom Drewes, New Jersey conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Its young workers also felt pride at holding down a paying job. Barbara Phillips, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Somerset, N.J., said her husband's uncle "grew up" in the corps.
"It was a big thing in his life," she said. "He had meaningful work. He had responsibility and came back home to become the caregiver of his family."
Scores of men, including Nisky, cleared acres of brush and dead trees and planted pines at Bass River. They built trails, bridges, ponds, lookout towers, nature observatory shelters, fireplaces and campgrounds.
Sometimes they fought fires. Three members died fighting a blaze at Bass River in 1936. Today's ceremony will be held next to a memorial erected in their honor.
The CCC "was good for me," said Nisky, who worked in the corps from 1933 to 1936. "There was the money, for one thing. We got paid $30 a month: $25 went to our parents, and we got $5 for spending money.
"After a year, I made assistant leader and I got $11 for spending money and sent $25 home to my parents."
But the corps meant more than a paycheck.
Back home in Wilmington, "there was nothing to do," said Nisky, who later served in the Marines. "Either you got a job or got in a gang.
"This way you were out. You met people from New York and Philadelphia. There was a sense of discipline."
While the U.S. Labor Department handled enrollment, the camps were operated by the Army, using reserve officers as directors. Federal agencies provided project supervisors and hired trained foremen and local men to teach the workers.
"We had a barracks leader who kept things square," Nisky said. "If one or two of the newcomers would be dissatisfied, they might end up getting disciplined, scrubbing the toilets or using a brick and bucket of water to scrub the floors."
The uniformed workers lived, in some ways, like soldiers. They rose when a bugle sounded at 6 a.m. and reported to work by 7:45 a.m. The day ended about 4 p.m.
Though the life was spartan, Nisky remembers it fondly. "It wasn't a chain gang," he said. "We had sports, and the food was excellent.
"We spent weekdays in the camp and went to Tuckerton on the liberty truck on weeknights. We had to be back by 9:30." Most weekends, he went home, Nisky said.
Like Nisky, Renard Wiseman went to the CCC camp at Bass River "because there were no jobs." He began working for the corps in 1933.
Wiseman, 94, of New Gretna in Bass River Township, was a 19-year-old supervisor at the camp, building roads and removing tree stumps.
"I was in for a years," he said. "It was a good experience."
Wiseman went on to join the Navy, serve in World War II, help run a farm, and work as a fireman on the rail line between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. He served as superintendent of the Burlington County Mosquito Commission before retiring in 1962.
But he looks back on his days in the Civilian Conservation Corps as one of the best times in his life.
"I'm glad to know people still remember" the corps, he said. "It gave work to a lot of people."
The Civilian Conservation Corps anniversary will be commemorated at Bass River State Forest at 1 p.m. today at the CCC Memorial on East Greenbush Road, Bass River Township. For more information, call 609-296-1114.
The Civilian Conservation Corps improved dozens of New Jersey and Pennsylvania state parks and forests between 1932 and 1942. Among its accomplishments:
Belleplain State Forest, Cape May and Cumberland Counties:
Converted Meisle Cranberry Bog into the Lake Nummy recreational area. Constructed the original forest headquarters, maintenance building, road system, bridges, and dams.
Bass River State Forest, Burlington and Ocean Counties:
Created Lake Absegami and campsites. Built cabins, the park office, latrines and the fire tower.
Brendan T. Byrne (formerly Lebanon) State Forest, Burlington and Ocean Counties:
Created Deep Hollow and Pakim Ponds. Built cabins, bathhouses, and a sawmill providing lumber for use in state parks.
Parvin State Forest, Salem County:
Created Flag Island, Thundergust Lake and a dam. Built campsites, trails, roads, the main beach complex, and brick buildings at the beach entrance.
Penn State Forest, Burlington County:
Rebuilt the dam at Lake Oswego and constructed an airplane landing site.
Blue Knob State Park, Bedford County:
Built cabins, roads, hiking trails, and other recreational facilities.
Cowans Gap State Park, Fulton County:
Built cabins, picnic shelters and a dam, which took three years to complete.
French Creek State Park, Chester and Berks Counties:
Built two dams, camping areas, beaches, roads and picnic areas, and started the restoration process for the historic core of Hopewell Furnace.
SOURCE: Dan Campbell, Bass River State Park historian; Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.