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James McConnell


[Ally and I (Clare), interviewed Mr. McConnell and his wife at his home in Lilburn, GA. We talked on his sun porch and discussed the different jobs he had throughout his career. It was a nice, quiet atmosphere making it easy to do transcriptions from the recorder.]

As soon as James, or Jim, McConnell finished his degree in Forest Management at Louisiana State University, it was time to get to work. He started his first job in 1956 on the Catahoula Ranger District at the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana. While supervising a work crew, McConnell was simultaneously learning the ropes himself. “The Ranger gave me a copy of the FS manual and said to read it 30 minutes a day. Then he would ask questions,” says McConnell.

Over the course of a career spanning 36 years, McConnell worked and lived in Louisiana, Germany (while in the army), Mississippi, South Carolina, and lastly, Georgia, where he retired in 1993. 

Life and Times of Keith Argow

Throughout the course of this project, my group and I recognized that one theme surfaced in each interview. Each retiree spoke about their families. Dr. Keith Argow spoke at length about his heritage and family life during different segments of the interview. He spoke about the meanings of his name, Keith Argow, and ancestors who had ties to forestry long before it became a recognized profession. Dr. Argow also addressed his family’s feelings toward his Forest Service career beginning with his parent’s apprehensions before college and ending with his wife’s opinions just before his retirement. I found Dr. Argow’s family discussions interesting because before, during, and after the interview he repeatedly told me about how blessed he was to be a member of the Forest Service and how everything always seemed to fall into place at the right times. It was interesting to reflect on these statement after he described his heritage and career after the Forest Service.

Dr. Argow insists that he was destined to be a member of the Forest Service because of his heritage. Dr. Argow’s parents were not too keen on the idea of him becoming a forester, wanting him to “make something out of (his) life.” He defended is ambitions by declaring that his name alone means that he is a forester and that his “roots in forestry” are in his “blood.” He made his point by describing the meaning of his last name, Argow, which is Swiss. If the name is broken down by syllables A-R comes from the river Aar in Switzerland, which is a major drainage. G-O-W is Swiss for someone living in the watershed of the river Aar, “so there you get an Argow.” Dr. Argow animatedly declared that his first name, Keith, is Celtic for “of the forest.” He finished this discussion by humorously asking me “Now, is there any chance that I wouldn’t be a forester?” Dr. Argow’s Swiss ancestors were also forest meisters who learned their work in Germany.

Dr. Argow left the Forest Service after seventeen years. His main reason for leaving was because his wife wanted to live in one place. Throughout this Forest Service project, I have learned that the Forest Service can be demanding of its employees and sometimes take away from family life. The agency usually requires their employees to relocate about every three years. Most Forest Service families move around the country quite like military families. Dr. Argow’s wife, Mary Lou, grew up in a small town in North Carolina and was a multigenerational citizen of the area; she was not accustomed to frequent relocation. Dr. Argow says that her desire to live in one place to raise their children was part of the reason he left the Forest Service when he did.

Even though Dr. Argow left the Forest Service after seventeen years he has great “pride” in his association claiming to “still wear the green t-shirt” everyday. He praised the Forest Service throughout the interview because of the respectful way the agency treated him during his seventeen years.  Dr. Argow spoke very fondly of his time with the Forest Service and it is obvious that the agency has meant very much to him throughout his life. Dr. Argow  remains active in land conservation and has done so since his retirement, he still considers himself a forester. He personally owns roughly 6,000 acres of land throughout the nation and is a steady voice for private land owners in Washington D.C. Dr. Argow is also the publisher of two magazines and current president of the National Woodland Owners association, though he has served with numerous other organization over the last thirty years.

– Susan

Forest Service Folk Stories

This being my first oral history project, I must say that Dr. Argow was the perfect candidate. I was a bit nervous going into the interview, but Dr. Argow quickly made me feel comfortable with the interview process. I was unsure of what to expect from him, but he proved to be quite entertaining. During the interview Dr. Argow told some stories that represent folkways encountered by Forest Service employees. It was through these stories that I realized what kinds of challenges Forest Service employees can potentially encounter.

Dr. Argow worked as a ranger in the national forests of North Carolina back in the 1960s. While he was there, he tended to his duties such as fire lookout. One day, the rangers noticed a string of five fires on Pilot Mountain and in Balsam Grove that were quickly converging into one, which presented a host of problems. Along with trying to control the fires, they had to investigate why they were happening. Dr. Argow said that his partner told him it was arson and that “he wouldn’t ask any more questions.” Meanwhile, Dr. Argow and his fellow rangers were dispatched. They had a brand new six passenger Forest Service truck for traveling the forest. They left the vehicle to go watch the fires over night. While they were on the watch, they heard six gunshots. It turns out, a local citizen shot the truck and caused serious damage to the radiator, radio, and tires. Dr. Argow said this was a warning to the Forest Service.

A few days later, Dr. Argow and a sheriff’s deputy travelled to the suspected arsonists house to question the shooting. When they arrived, a woman and four children answered the door. Meanwhile, Dr. Argow and the deputy heard a door slam and the deputy indicated that the man they were looking for had escaped out the back. The woman claimed that he was not home. Dr. Argow and the deputy left the house and the deputy asked if he noticed anything strange about the kids. Dr. Argow said, “Well, their faces weren’t quite together right.”  The deputy replied that the kids’ “daddy is the man you’re  looking for” and the woman who answered the door “was his wife, but also his daughter.”

This is only one of the stories Dr. Argow shared with me during the interview. I realized that Forest Service rangers encounter dangerous situations while performing their jobs. I previously did not think the Forest Service posed danger and was especially surprised that it comes from humans as well as wildlife. I was able to gain a better perspective of the Forest Service and Dr. Keith Argow’s career while he shared his many folk stories.


Environmental Policy Act

In 1970 the US Forest Service created the Environmental Policy Act in order to address the impact the forest service had on the environment in national forests.  Dave Jolly, as Regional Environmental Coordinator in region 8, created many policies that complied with the act that deeply impacted the forest service.  The act itself changed the way the Forest Service implemented forest management strategies such as timber sales.  Before any decision was made foresters had to write an environmental impact statement that showed how, what they were doing would either positively or negatively impact the environment within the forests.  This created extra work for the foresters, but Jolly believes that this improved the Forest Service immensely stating “The law itself my sense was that’s its really good.  It impacted us tremendously, but our decisions were always better having done it than they would of having not done it.  Doesn’t mean we were making bad decisions, prior to the time that we the requirement became with the law, but I can’t remember a time when I felt any better about a decision because we did that.” Jolly’s job consisted mainly of dealing with lawsuits from the public that came about because of the Environmental Policy Act, and managing lands to ensure they were in compliance with the Act.  With this newly created position Jolly and other forest service workers had to invent policies as they went along, creating a system that attempted to keep disputes with the public out of the courts while at the same time adequately addressing environmental issues within the national forests.  Jolly implemented a rule that stated before any person could sue the Forest Service they must first go through an appeals system that sought to resolve issues without using the court systems.   The Act, along with rules such as the appeals system allowed for greater interaction with the public and the Forest Service, which benefited both parties.  The Environmental Policy Act created a system that needed input from both the public and Foresters forcing the national Forest Service to think about how their projects impacted the national forests.  This, Dave Jolly believes, improved the Forest Service immensely and drastically changed its policies for the good of the National Forests. 

Raising a Family in the Forest Service

The part of the interview with the Smalls I found most interesting was learning about how they raised their family while Gordon worked in the Forest Service. Ginny and Gordon were both kind enough to share a number of personal memories about this with me. This post discusses what it was like for the Smalls to raise their family as Gordon moved through different positions and locations within the Forest Service.

Gordon and Ginny Small

Raising a family in the Forest Service entailed advantages and challenges for the Small family. Gordon and Ginny met in Berea, Kentucky where Ginny was a student. Gordon recalled, “She was going to Berea College and … I had asked somebody where you met women around here. And they said, well, a good place is the Student Union. So I walked into the Student Union and met a woman. And anyway, we got married and lived in a couple professors’ houses there when they were on sabbatical for a while. But when the Redbird opened up we went over there together.” Soon after their marriage, the Smalls moved to Manchester, Kentucky where Gordon worked on the Red Bird Purchase Unit for the Forest Service. Moving to this small town was a new experience for Ginny, who remembered, “At Manchester, we had a tiny two-bedroom apartment upstairs over a barber shop that sprayed for bugs every Wednesday, overlooking Main Street of Manchester. Main Street in Manchester meant a little narrow street with coal trucks, loaded coal trucks, rumbling through every hour of the day. The first night we were there, there was a street fight – two women fighting over some guy underneath our living room window… there was a Piggly Wiggly there. I learned the first week that when you put an egg in something you’re cooking, you always crack it into another bowl first because it may have a baby chicken in it or the bread and the cereal had bugs in it. It was, you know, after the second or third week, we learned to go to London and do our grocery shopping.”

In our conversation together, Ginny discussed the challenges she faced when their first daughter was born. Ginny’s daughter was born early and the hospital in Manchester didn’t have adequate facilities to handle preemie children. They ended up going to London, Kentucky so Ginny could give birth. Because their daughter came so early, she had to stay in the hospital for two months for treatments. This was in the winter of 1965 and the snow and ice sometimes prevented Ginny and Gordon from going to see their newborn for days at a time. They finally brought their daughter home for the first time two months after she was born.

Ginny encountered new challenges once they brought their daughter home. Manchester was a coal town and Ginny and Gordon both recalled the experience of coal trucks driving up and down the streets every hour of the day. Gordon remembered, “It was, it was different. It was a coal town and the coal trucks, small town, coal trucks ran through town all the time. There was dust everywhere. You could dust your counter in the morning and by evening it had this grey dust all over it.” When they brought the baby home, she suffered from respiratory issues. The doctors advised Ginny to keep her daughter inside at all times to avoid the coal dust.  This proved to be a challenge for Ginny as she tried to take care of the household duties. She noted, “Well, we brought this little tiny five pounder home from the hospital with instructions not to take her out because of all the coal dust in the air…what with respiratory problems. But yet, he was on fire duty and working weird hours, as I said, leaving at 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning and getting home at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. I have to go to the grocery store. I have to go to the laundromat. But there’s no time to go when I can’t take Jennifer out.”

In spite of these difficulties, Ginny and Gordon have found many more positive memories to focus on. They moved fourteen times over the course of Gordon’s career and often set down roots in these different communities. Gordon noted that “everything was a lot better if you actually got involved in what was going in the community instead of just hiding within the Forest Service family…that could be church, that could be community activities, whatever. You knew you were gonna move again, but you developed friendships and your kids, everybody, family was just better off.” Ginny and Gordon both enjoyed visiting new places and exploring different communities and both especially enjoy memories of their time spent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ginny happily remembered a moment when her youngest daughter rebelled against the cold weather the family encountered in Wisconsin: “When we moved to Wisconsin, our youngest, Heather, had just turned 6 in April and she was in kindergarten. The next year, in April when she turned 7, I found her – we had given her a little suitcase that she could pack to put her toys and books and whatever she wanted to take with her when she travelled to put that in. And I found it in her room and she had the bottom drawer of her bureau open and she was pulling everything out and puttin’ it in her suitcase. I asked her what she was doing. She told me she was packing to go back to Virginia because she was tired of all the snow.” The Smalls learned to adapt to the weather by taking Christmas pictures in front of a frozen Lake Michigan and sending them off to friends living in warmer areas.   

Both parents felt that the experience of moving around and seeing different communities made their children stronger and more independent individuals. Gordon explained, “If you move around a lot, you get to meet a lot of new people, you get a lot of different experiences, you get exposed to a lot of perspectives that you wouldn’t have gotten exposed to. So, there’s plusses and minuses. I think our kids have a different, a broader view of things maybe than someone that never did get a chance to move around.”


Interview with Gordon Small

For my portion of the project, I interviewed Gordon Small. I met with he and his wife at their home in Waynesville, North Carolina on November 2nd. This post briefly discusses Gordon’s work in the Forest Service and his life since retirement.

Gordon Small worked for the Forest Service from 1963 until 1996. During that time, he worked in a assortment of different offices, moving fourteen times over the course of his career. He also held a variety of different positions as he eventually moved up to the position of Director of Lands for the Washington Office. Over the course of our conversation, Gordon explained to me what the different positions entailed, the changes – both political and social – the Forest Service went through during his time in service, how he faced these changes and other challenges, the relationships he developed with colleagues, and what his work in the Forest Service meant to him. Throughout our conversation, it was obvious that Gordon is proud of the work he and others have done in the Forest Service and that his primary motivation has been working toward something that will provide for future generations. Gordon noted that, “One thing I really liked about doing lands work – you made a difference for the long term…The national forests [are] the options for the future.”

Gordon’s career in the Forest Service took off when he began work in Kentucky. Under the guidance of an encouraging supervisor, Gordon eventually was recruited to work on the Red Bird Purchase Unit in the Cumberland National Forest (now Daniel Boone National Forest). While working in Kentucky, Gordon met his wife, Ginny. Gordon’s work was part of a larger project funded under the Weeks Act that allowed the Forest Service to acquire lands for the eastern forests.  (Note that the western and eastern forests developed differently – the western forests were reserved by the federal government. The Weeks Act of 1911 allowed the federal government to purchase lands in the eastern United States. The United States government has acquired over 20 million acres of forest land under the Weeks Act). While working on the Red Bird, Gordon helped the Forest Service acquire some 70,000 acres of land that would eventually become part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

From Kentucky, Gordon and Ginny moved to Atlanta where he worked on review appraisals, special uses, and minerals. Gordon then went on to work in land and mineral uses on the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas. Gordon continued work in acquisition of land and also dealt with emerging legislation, such as the National Environmental Protection Act, that impacted Forest Service land management policies. In 1977, Gordon moved to Washington and worked as chair of the Land Purchase Desk. The Smalls stayed in Washington until 1981 when they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, he served as Director of Lands, Minerals, and Watershed. During his time in Wisconsin, the Forest Service faced budget cuts under the Reagan Administration that effectively removed federal monies to acquire new land. In spite of this, Gordon noted that they were able to continue doing their jobs with minimal disruptions. In 1989, Gordon was selected as Director of Lands for the Washington Office. As Gordon noted in our interview, “Lands covers a lot of things.” In addition to land purchases, he also oversaw land exchanges and dealt with land uses, title claims and encroachments. During this time, Gordon also participated in a number of legislative hearings and served and worked with the public to negotiate land purchases that met the needs of the public, private industry, and the federal government. In evaluating his time spent in the Washington Office, Gordon noted, “What’s required is that you tell everybody the truth. You tell everybody the same story – both sides, all the time, every time. And, if you do that, you’re fine. And if you do that, folks come to you when an issue blows up or new legislation or whatever, they will respect what you have to say.”

Gordon retired in 1996 and he and Ginny settled in Waynesville, North Carolina. Since his retirement, Gordon has continued to work toward helping his community. He has worked in establishing a computer user group in the Waynesville area, setting up computers in the homes of people suffering from diabetes, and volunteering in church related activities within Cook and Jackson Counties. Gordon also volunteered to rebuild homes following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A rather modest man, Gordon was somewhat reluctant to discuss his volunteer work, but Ginny made sure to prod it out of him during our interview. In speaking of her husband, Ginny stated, “Gordon has always been a very private person. He doesn’t make a big deal about what he did. When we were in DC, he did a lot of great stuff, but yet, if you weren’t directly involved with him in this, you never knew what he did. Since retirement, he’s built his own reputation here in Haywood County. Very few people know what he did. He’s very private about all of this”. In spite of his reluctance to discuss more personal issues, it is apparent from our interview that throughout his career and retirement, Gordon has worked toward achieving some kind of greater good within the forests and within his community. Gordon notes, “I’m as introverted as you get. You leave me alone and I’ll go in my cave and I will roll that rock across the front and you will not see me again.” In spite of this, Gordon worked in a variety of public capacities, testified before legislative committees, and negotiated land acquisition and use with various communities. In reflection, Gordon said, “ I’m very grateful for the experiences I had with people I got to meet and work with… it’s something I could put my life into that I felt might count for something in the long run.”

If you would like to read more about Weeks Act, please see the following:

You can also read more about the Cumberlands in this book recommended by Mr. Small:

– Angelia


We are graduate students in the history department at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. We are working on an oral history project in our public history class. For this project, we have interviewed three retired Forest Service employees. We have created this site to reflect on our experience and to share information we have learned from the individuals we interviewed about what life is like working in the Forest Service.

Jody Noll is working toward his Master’s degree in history, focusing on southern labor history.

Susan Moore is working toward her Master’s degree in history, focusing on American history from 1865. She is also pursuing a certificate in Public History.

Daniel Williams is a PhD student studying American religious history.

Angelia Riveira is working toward her Master’s degree in history, focusing on labor and technology. She is also pursuing a certificate in Public History.