Funny Looking Letter

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James McConnell was an instrumental member of the National Tree Seed Laboratory, originally called the Eastern Tree Seed Laboratory, when he was appointed director in 1971.  Even though he recalls the job putting him in over his head, he regarded the seedlab as a very interesting place. While he was there he oversaw what he called an “administrative monstrosity” as he had to deal with money, leases, and seed requests coming and going from a number of different sources at the same time.  The seed testing process was one that, in Mr. McConnell’s words “only women can do.  They have the patience, they have the agility to do it and keep up with it.”  At the time, McConnell’s seed lab was one of only two accredited in the country.  One of his first jobs as the director involved working to bring back customers that had been lost under the poor management that was in place before he became director.  This involved a fair amount of travel as he personally went to every previous nursery that had business with them and not only regained their business, but also helped them grow their new seedlings.

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Eventually, James McConnell became involved in the creating of the US Tree Seed Center that played host to a number of foreign researchers and inquiries.  When he was out traveling and seeking business for the accredited seed lab, Mr. McConnell could never imagine the contacts he would make from across the globe.  One day he recalls he came across a funny looking letter during his work.  Much to his surprise it was from the Duke of Wellington requesting for longleaf pine see to plan at his estate.  He then arranged with his boss in Atlanta to send him some seed along with a letter saying that he would be coming through London on his way to Norway in the next month.  The Duke of Wellington then invited Mr. McConnell and his wife to come by and see the seedlings they had requested at their estate.  Unfortunately the travel plans did not work out, but they did keep in touch long enough for the Duke to question why the seeds were coming up like grass.  Mr. McConnell assured him that that was just how they grew and that they were doing just fine.  “When pine seedling comes up it looks like a pine, this looks like a clump of grass, longleaf does.” 

The Emergency Vehicle

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Back when Mr. James was working, people in the community more often than not reached out to the Ranger in times of crisis. “When wintertime came, I kept a Forest Service four-wheel drive vehicle chained up, ready to go, because that was the emergency vehicle for the community where we were,” Mr. James explains. A sign was placed on the vehicle to let others know that it was ‘for official use only’ and could not be used for anything else.

This is just another example of how beneficial the Forest Service was, and is, to surrounding communities.


Toilet Humor, Literally.

Towards the end of mine and Russell’s interview with Mr. Bob James, there was time for just one more story. Mr. James looked over to me with an almost guilty grin on his face. With the courteous manners of a Southerner, he simply said: “You’ll have to excuse this.”

Naturally, I excused it. I was curious to hear a story that required such a pardon.

He explained to us that this particular story was a favorite around the Sierra Nevada Mountains, almost too tickled to continue. “After the summer season, they had what they called ‘burn out toilets’, where they would go in there and burn … clean it out,” he began. He continued to tell us that recreation guards would use a mixture of gasoline and diesel to clean with. According to Mr. James, this particular guard was rather careless on this day. After doing a sloppy job, the guard came down “flipping a fuse into the things, burning them out,” he said. Little did the guard know, however, that one of the toilets was occupied.

“The guy decided while he was in there, why, he would smoke and so he lit up and threw his match down the…” and Mr. James just bursts into laughter, as we all did. “Long story short, that was an experience that he probably won’t forget!”

I think that was the first time I had seen Russell laugh that hard.

Seeing me in a fit of laughter was nothing new to him, obviously; after being my “teammate,” for two and a half months, he was pretty used to it.

I know, I know: This story was not really necessary, nor was it relevant to Mr. James’ time with the Forest Service, but I presented it to you, Reader, to prove a point.

It was silly stories such as this one that really gave Mr. James’ career ‘a face,’ so to speak. Such was the case for myself, anyway. I could have sat there and listened to this man talk about his incredible career all day long, trust me. It was surreal, and unlike any other career that I had ever heard of.

It was the little side stories, however, that made Mr. James’ career come to life. They served as little reminders that ‘Wow, such an exciting career does actually exist!’

And how could it not? Mr. James has the stories to prove it does, after all.   

Down in the Atchafalaya Basin

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Among James McConnell’s many jobs, one involved working under the Mississippi River and Tributary survey in the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana, as seen above.  His job was to document just what was in this area, as no one really knew this exactly up to this point.  This job first involved many maps and compasses to measure just where he was in the surveyed area, and then culminated in a “cruise,” or a documentation of the different types of vegetation, soil, tree types, and many other things that were on the list of things the core engineers wanted to know about the area.  These areas were typically measured in “tenth acre plots,” which meant workers, such as Mr. McConnell, would use a large walking stick and measure out in different directions to define the areas they would work in.  Mr. McConnell enjoyed doing this type of work, but admitted that being alone in the forest made the job tiresome, remarking that today this type of individual work wouldn’t be allowed unless they knew exactly where they were.  “Nobody ever knew where I was, except me, and sometimes I didn’t know, recalls Mr. McConnell with a laugh. 

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He had many interesting encounters in his times carrying out this work, his most frightening probably being his close encounter with a creek bed full of cotton mouth snakes.  He had stopped at the edge of the creek bed during one of his measurements and was caught by surprise by the unwanted visitors.  “Honest to goodness, I cannot remember getting out of there.  I think I must have flew.  I think I must have just jumped up and flew.”  Another more common encounter in the forest was that of old remnants of people who had lived on the land, including handmade headstones, full cemeteries, and foundations of houses.  Mr. McConnell could easily use his knowledge of vegetation, such as walnut trees specifically the black walnut, to know that houses had been there.  Concrete blocks were also a more obvious giveaway of human life, along with old wells or a forgotten road running through the trees. 

Maps of Region 8 owned by Mr. James McConnell

Maps of Region 8 owned by Mr. James McConnell.  

The second picture shows Cordsville, an area in which Mr. McConnell worked during his time in the Forest Service.

Christmas Cactus

A Christmas Cactus our group received from Mr. and Mrs. McConnell.

“There’s Nothing Romantic about Fighting Fires”-Jim Kidd

In our interview with Mr. Jim Kidd, he emphasized his years spent working, controlling, and managing fires in the Forest Service. He discussed the necessity for working with fire when he first entered the forest service when he stated,”back when I came to work, if you didn’t work in fire, you were done, it was a key element to working in the forest service.” He described how in the east, most fires that occur in forests are ground fires that can kill trees and cause damage, but are not the flame engulfing fires that you would see out west. A particularly interesting story that he told us about from his time working with fire was about the Talulah Forest in Rabun County, Georgia, which is right on the border of North Carolina. He described certain citizens who were angered by the fact that the Forest Service passed national trails legislation that made the river a wild and scenic region, therefore preventing them from any longer driving vehicles through the paths. Mr. Kidd said that this enraged people to the point of committing arson and described how, “they just about burnt that county up for years and years and years…we were on fire call every night.” He went on to describe how “that generation has moved on” and that there is no longer an issue of arson in this area. I found this story to be interesting because it shows the conflicts between community members and the forest service in regards to priorities. The forest service found the area to be valuable and in need of preservation while certain people seemed to feel otherwise. It should also be noted that Mr. Kidd was not talking about the members of this community as a whole, but rather just certain individuals. 

The O.G. Forest Service Employees

Before our interview began, Mr. Jim Kidd declared to us that he came prepared to talk about the Weeks Act, with maps and documents in his possession. He feels strongly about giving the people behind it credit for their hard work, without which we may not have forest reserves today.

According to Mr. Kidd, the Weeks Act was passed in 1911 after a decade long process. The land was being overused for logging and railroads which was leading to “terrible floods” that made people decide that land reservation was necessary. Mr. Kidd described the “Cradle of Forestry in Ashville” that is the location of the first forestry school, started by the German, Dr. Schenck. It is also the location of the Vanderbilt family’s 20,000 acres of land, which Gifford Pinchot helped manage. This was the location where many involved in the Weeks Act were trained.

Before 1911, there were no reserves in the east, “what a task! how do you do that?” proclaimed Mr. Kidd, “there’s no highway system … most people got around on horses”. He went onto describe the toiling necessary tasks completed by these foresters. “they had to appraise it, they had to find out where the boundary lines were, they had to survey it, then they had to negotiate a price on it, and inevitably on 10,0000 there were people that contested ownership.” He then went on to describe the judicial process that became involved due to the fact that many people were claiming ownership from government grants that were given a century before, with many of the titles gone from fires and other problems. The federal court became involved and eventually cleared the title legally and allowed governmental purchase.

Mr. Kidd showed us a map of the surveying process from this work done on the Chattahoochee and I can only imagine the years that it took these workers to get the intricate details of such large tracts of land mapped out. He ended his explanation by saying that “it started in 1914 and it’s still going on today.” Mr. Kidd was involved in today’s processes of consolidating land. He showed us a map and indicated where there was a gap between the forest reserves and detailed how he would go and try to get the government to buy that land from its owner in order to consolidate, but congress appropriations often go back on their promises to the forest service.

It is still a taxing process today but as Mr. Kidd emphasized, the original forest workers at the start of the 20th century had to have been  extremely motivated workers to complete such a vast project. 

James McConnell

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[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. 

Bob James

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A farm boy from Arkansas, Bob James grew up with a forestry heritage, as his uncle worked for the state of Arkansas’ forest agency. From an early age Mr. James had a desire to work for the Forest Service, and earned a job there one year after graduating from Arkansas A&M with a degree in forestry. Though Mr. James had a diverse career that included work in recreation and silviculture, or the management of forests, a common element throughout Mr. James’ career is his time fighting fires. Whether in Northern California or South Carolina, fires are a major concern for the Forest Service. Mr. James was on hand for the creation of new firefighting techniques, and spent a considerable amount of his time fighting fires. Now, Mr. James is retired and living near Atlanta, and forestry continues to be a habit of his.