This article profiles a struggling time, 1933 – 34, in the life of artist Harry Everett Townsend. His story is one part of a much larger New Deal narrative that will circle back to the National Archives (NA) and the inadvertent retention and rediscovery of “orphaned” * New Deal “business files”. These financial files were generated during the short lifespan of the first federal art program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), they dovetail and compliment other known New Deal collections at the NA and add factoids previously unknown.
There are a wealth of books and articles written about Harry Everett Townsend, but none address this soul crushing and devastating Great Depression period in his life. Suffice to say, Townsend, although well known and established, was an artist desperate for work. He would come to find relief and purpose with the various federal art programs; employment which saved him financially and emotionally.
It wasn’t until he was sent to depict the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that he was once again in his element. As a WWI veteran combat artist he saw his employment with the PWAP as an opportunity torepay a debt to America, fulfilling a commitment he felt was long overdue.
Harry Everett Townsend
1930’s HARD TIMES
” I am in trouble and truly sick at heart . . . one is ashamed to face the world.”
During the dark and treacherous evening of Monday, September 2, 1935 the most intense recorded storm in Florida’s history slammed directly into the Florida Keys. Hundreds of War Veterans at the FERA relief and rehabilitation camps #1, 3 and 5 were left in the path of this monstrous storm.
A call for an evacuation train from Miami was made too late, when it arrived it was minutes before a massive tidal surge engulfed the keys. The vicious winds were up to 183 mph, during this tornado like pass almost all ramshackle structures in the Upper Keys were destroyed, hundreds were dead, missing or injured. Killed by a powerful force that sandblasted, crushed, drown, or washed them out to sea, many never to be identified or found.
Numerous investigative stories written by local reporters were published, the FERA authorities would blame the weather service and call it an “act of God”, one of the first on the scene was Earnest Hemingway, he would write a scathing article “Who Murdered the Vets?” for the socialist newspaper The New Masses; attracting the attention of the FBI. National newspapers were filled with pages of gruesome images of the death and destruction. The nation was shocked.
Before the end of September the FERA closed all camps and shelters to new applicants and, by then end of November 1935, all transient activities were liquidated. Injured veterans were transferred to VA medical facilities. Employable veterans would receive jobs with various WPA projects, those who declined or were rated unemployable were returned to the States of their origin.
In 1936, there was a Congressional hearing for passage of a bill, H.R. 9486, regarding compensation for the widows, families and survivors of the veterans.
First Responders – CCC Company #1421
Between Sept. 2nd and 9th, inclusive, the labor of CCC Co. #1421 was diverted to relief activities in the Florida Keys. Their previous visit had been for sport and recreation, but this trip would be for search and rescue, a mission that would quickly turn to the gruesome task of recovery.
At least 120 bodies were recovered by the boys from CCC Co. #1421, it was a traumatizing experience.
The next edition, September 12, 1935, of their CCC camp newspaper, The Wanderer, used a haunting cover image drawn by camp artist and reporter Douglas W. Reynolds. Included were numerous articles on the CCC company’s response to the disaster and first person accounts.
COMPANY SPENDS NIGHT IN ARMORY . . . COMPANY AIDS IN CLEAN UP OF VETERAN’S CAMP . . . COMPANY SPENDS THREE DAYS IN STORM STRICKEN AREA . . . New Mascot . . .KITCHEN FOLLOWS COMPANY TO KEY LARGO
“Company 1421 was well prepared for the storm on September 2. When storm warnings were posted for the Miami area, Ensign Cain decided to place the company in the Dade County Armory during the storm. Each man carried his own pillow and blanket. The storm lasted the entire night so nearly everyone slept on the floor.”
The next morning the CCC boys answered a call to assist the Red Cross and Coast Guard for search and rescue on the Keys. They left Miami at 5:30 am arriving at Key Largo by 9 am. This was the furthest south they could travel; roads and bridges had been washed away.
The boys in the company who volunteered for relief work on the storm-stricken Keys were split into three different groups. One of the groups went searching for bodies on the Coast Guard cutters…one cutter was unable to find the channel at night and several enrollees spent the night on board… Another group were pressed into stretcher service and other group worked on a temporary bridge.. The temporary suspension bridge was thrown over the swollen Snake Creek…bridge was fifty yards in length . . . constructed by two strands of cable and salvaged lumber from the original bridge … the only means of communication with Windlass Island and the other lower Keys… Later in the day a group was sent across to Windless Island to search the debris for bodies.
“Heavy rains and wind kept them from sleeping during the night” . . . after “All the living had been transferred to places of safety… the entire company searched for the dead.”
“From then on it was something in a bad dream. The wind and a succession of tidal waves had tossed many of the bodies into trees or out to sea. Others were found under fallen buildings.” . . . bodies were badly decomposed, by Friday, due to the strong rains and the strong sun.”
“Practically the entire company had seen service on the relief work, as only a small work outfit was retained at the camp to care for necessary duties.”
“Though handicapped by almost primitive cooking facilities…the kitchen force worked from morning until late at night…feeding from fifty to two hundred men at a time…The menu was not varied…no one complained.”
“Hurricane Fanny, a small fox terrier is new mascot of Co. 1421. She was found on top of a house between Matecombe and Snake Creek. Fanny and a cat were the only living things left there.”
“Chaplin Neville made his bi-weekly call to the Miami CCC camp…but did not hold services. On Friday he went town to Snake Creek and conducted Services for the veteran dead.”
“Every man who had been on the island had worked and gone through an experience they never wish to have again, before they were finally relieved by FERA workers from Miami.”
“The storm . . . brought death to the remnants of the Bonus Army. They had survived the fury of the World War…May they find in death, the peace, which they seemed to have found but little of in life.”
A New Camp
“This excitement was hardly over when another hurricane struck with full force and utterly destroyed the Miami CCC camp on November 4, 1935.” Within months a new modern camp would be constructed, the new home of Co. 1421 became one of the most beautiful camps in the entire 4th CCC Corps area.
CCC ARTIST DOUGLAS REYNOLDS
Douglas Wolcott Reynolds, (b 1913 d 1995) was a resident of Jacksonville, Florida when he applied for admission into the CCC art program. He was a “graduate of Lee High School and attended a term at Ringling Art School, Sarasota, Florida, but was compelled to give up further training because of family financial difficulties.”
Reynolds was assigned, on December 30, 1934 to CCC Co. # 1421, then stationed at Myakka State Park in Sarasota, Florida. He would be somewhat prolific in the art he would send, as required, to the administrative offices of Edward Rowan, in Treasury Department of Painting and Sculpture, Washington, D.C.
Rowan was sometimes critical of the oil paintings Reynolds shipped. Reynolds was young and untried and requested critiques from Rowan who responded, in April 1936, that he saw “possibilities of very interesting pictures, but I do not believe that your technique is sufficiently developed or your palette satisfactory. May I suggest that for a period, at least, you discard black from your palette”.
Rowan would continue to counsel the young CCC artist Reynolds until he was honorably discharged in June 1936. A large number of Reynolds CCC paintings were allocated back to both the Myakka State Park and the South Miami CCC camp superintendents.
Reynolds fit in well with CCC Company #1421 and became a feature writer and cartoonist for the camp paper the Myakka Rattler and later The Wanderer. He got along well with the officers in charge and the technical staff. That is until a new commander was assigned to the Miami camp.
In an April 19, 1936 letter Reynolds writes Rowan . . .”The new Captain came. He seems to think that I am a cross between a tractor and a convict…I understood when I entered that I would be exempt from extra physical labor, while abiding by the rules and regulations. I do not object to sweeping out the barracks . . .but I do object to . . . swallowing insults from a commanding Officer who hasn’t enough fairness or decency to run a stock yard. If this labor was a punishment for some misdemeanor I would not write, but it is a regular duty and it interferes with my painting.”
On June 30, 1936, at his own request Reynolds received an Honorable Discharged from the So. Miami, Florida CCC Co. #1421. His manner of performance, as an Artist, was rated Excellent.
This oil painting titled “Florida Hurricane” would be transferred, in 1974, from the General Services Administration to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, where it is today. It appears Reynolds experience with the relief effort of his CCC company and a photograph, printed in the Miami Tribune, of the hurricane rescue by the Coast Guard and CCC boys was the inspiration.
Douglas W. Reynolds died on February 11, 1995 in Williamsburg, Virginia.
2022 – correction to degree type
The works and writing of Florida historian Jerry Wilkenson at can be found at the Jerry Wilkenson Research Library in addition to the stories and research he has written on the keyshistory website. His writings helped me better understand the three FERA veterans camps, #1, 3 & 5, decimated in the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. Thank you.
Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,
WWI Vets in the Storm’s Path and
the C.C.C. First Responders – By Kathleen Duxbury
The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 is described as the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall. It is listed as a Category 5 tempest; highest wind speed was recorded at 183 mph. Many of the hundreds of people in its path, on the Florida Keys, were World War I veterans. The vets were living in temporary relief camps while working on construction projects for the Florida Road Commission. The September 2nd storm was a horrific event, the vets should have been evacuated, instead they were sandblasted.
Sadly, over time there would be accusations and assumptions that would percolate, naive statements later reported that these Florida camps were Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) veterans’ camps. For decades, the CCC was blamed and shamed for the part they allegedly played in the disaster, and in some cases still is.
The truth and hard facts are documented – there were absolutely NO CCC camps, of any kind, south of Miami, Florida, during the summer of 1935. The morning after the historic storm passed the young CCC boys from Co. #1421 in Miami rushed to the scene of the disaster, they were among those first to arrive and what they encountered was shocking.
As we remember this storm 85 years later it is time to recognize, correct and honor the CCC legacy as First Responders.
Letter to Eleanor Roosevelt
On August 27, 1935, Albert C. Keith, composed a heartfelt letter about the Veterans relief and rehabilitation camps in the State of Florida. He sent a package to: Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, The White House, Washington, D.C. with a return address of Editor, Key Vt. News, Islamorada, Florida.
These veterans camps were organized as temporary emergency relief measure to assist unemployed World War veterans who had returned to Washington D.C., during the summer of 1933, demanding a promised “Bonus” payment for their services in World War I.
The Florida veterans’ camps were administered by the state of Florida Emergency Relief Administration. The state of Florida received funds through their Governor, the monies were allotted by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Washington, D.C., both confusingly known as the FERA.
The Florida Relief Administration employed civilians to administer the three veteran’s camps in the Florida Keys. These FERA administrations differed dramatically from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) junior and world war veterans’ camps, the CCC camps were administered by the Army and a separate CCC federal agency.
Keith, himself a World War I veteran was writing from the FERA Camp #1 Islamorada, Florida where he was Editor of The Key Veterans New. Included with his letter to Eleanor were ten copies of the FERA vets newspaper.
Keith described the extensive FERA work being done on the Florida Keys. He stressed how these jobs offered the many homeless men the opportunity to once again financially provide for themselves and their families. He spoke of the sanctuary it offered to those unable to “carry on”, and referred to the many veterans who were unable to enter the C.C.C. veterans’ camps “due to their physical handicaps.”
Concern was voiced over the rumor that these Florida FERA camps would be discontinued the following November. Keith stated, “in my opinion this would be a death sentence.”
Little could Keith realize that to stay on the Keys would be the death sentence; it was hurricane season in south Florida.
Within two weeks of Keith’s communication the camp he was writing from and two others would be obliterated in the historic and devastating Labor Day hurricane of September 2, 1935.
Keith’s parcel was received at the Congressional Mail Sub-Division in Washington D.C. on September 4, 1935, two days after the hurricane. It was forwarded to the Correspondence Division of the F.E.R.A, where it was stamped received on September 12, 1935.
Then it was answered on September 18, 1935 by Elizabeth Wickenden, assistant director of transient activities for the FERA at Washington. She addressed her response, sixteen days after the disaster, to Mr. Albert C. Keith, Editor, Key Veterans News, Islamorada, Florida, stating “Mrs. Roosevelt has asked that I reply to your letter of August 27th . . .Wickenden explains that the “federal relief grants will cease November 1… plans have been made to have veterans that meet the requirements sent to CCC camps and those that do not will be taken care of in other ways.”
In a 1992, interview (1) Wickenden states: My immediate boss was the deputy administrator of the FERA, Aubrey Williams. And much of our contact with the local and state administrators was handled by Aubrey Williams. I was his assistant, really his alter ego.
Immediately after the hurricane Aubrey Williams, assistant to the director of the FERA, along with Col. George E. Ijams of the veterans Administration, took off by seaplane to view the devastated area. They were directed to personally investigate the events leading up to the fatalities and destruction caused by the hurricane. Their preliminary report, sent to President Roosevelt, in essence, determined that “it was impossible for us to reach a conclusion of negligence or mistaken judgement” on the part of those responsible for the safety of the veterans on the keys. “the catastrophe must be characterized as an act of God.”
It’s troubling to learn that Aubrey Williams’ “alter ego” and personal assistant, Wickenden, posted a letter to Keith addressed to the very decimated location he had seen from the air and reported on, two weeks prior.
In March 1936, a Congressional hearing on the “Florida Hurricane Disaster” was convened. During this hearing, the total number of fatalities was stated as: 485 bodies recovered, 257 were war veterans. For years to follow remains would continue to be found.
Miraculously, Keith would be listed among those who survived from Veterans Camp #1 in Islamorada.
By 1940, Keith was living with his wife Mary, in Atlantic City, Georgia. His occupation was “W.P.A. Writer” on a “W.P.A newspaper”. Keith, who would become a U.S. Marshall, continued his letter writing. Many of his Letters to Editor of the Atlanta Constitution in support of politicians and also to champion the causes of those who suffered the injustices from poverty and homelessness can be found. He died in 1952 at the age of 53.
On the front page of the August 24, 1935 edition of The Key Veterans News sent to Eleanor Roosevelt was a blurb mentioning a baseball game to be hosted the next day by the All-Star Veterans. The All-Stars were a baseball team comprised of WWI veterans from the various FERA camps on the keys. The Vets had recently entered the Dade County baseball league. Their opponents would be, TheWanderers, a team from Miami C.C.C. Company # 1421.
This CCC company of junior of enrollees were new to Miami, having taken up residence on the east coast of Florida just five days earlier.
The Miami CCC camp had been abandoned earlier in the month of August by CCC Co # 264. Ironically, when Co.#264 was still in Miami they were planning a Labor Day baseball game with the All-Stars, but their CCC company was abruptly relocated to South Carolina. On August 20th, the new company #1421, formerly from Myakka State Park, arrived in Miami. They were more than pleased to be near the bathing beauties who frequented the beaches of Miami. The baseball game with the All Stars and the CCC boys was rescheduled for the following Sunday, August 25th and would be played at the Vets camp #1 in Islamorada.
A unique aspect of CCC Co. #1421 was an enrollee who was an official CCC artist, Douglas Wolcott Reynolds. He moved from Myakka State Park with them to Miami.
The war veterans in the Key West FERA camps looked forward to hosting visitors and teams to their improved ballpark, the Snake Creek diamond. They were proud of their baseball field built with seating for hundreds of spectators and worked hard to level off an adjacent lot which they had spread with loads of gravel to accommodate visitor parking.
It was a 90 mile journey from Miami to the FERA camp on the Keys. When the CCC boys and fans arrived the morning of the scheduled game they brought along their older bats, liniment, and mitts. The game was to be called at 2:30 pm. Prior to the cry of “play ball”, the junior CCC players were offered dinner at the Islamorada Camp #3, and after the game supper was provided at Camp #1.
The young C.C.C. ballplayers returned to Miami victorious, reporting in the next edition of their camp paper The Wanderer how they “came from behind to down the Key West Veterans by the very close score of 3-1.” The date of this CCC camp newspaper was August 29, 1935. Two days later ships in the vicinity of the Bahamas told of squally weather and strong winds; the season’s first tropical storm was developing.