from the Letters Home
following excerpts are from the surviving letters home from
a geodetic field party
of Mr. Benton Hickok of Silver Spring, Maryland. Mr. Hickok
was associated with United States Coast and Geodetic Survey
leveling crews determining elevations throughout the eastern
half of the United States for a three-year period during the
midst of the Great Depression. During this period he worked
out of fifty-six towns in eleven states east of the Mississippi
River. He was a young man at the time, working to save money
for college and sending home money as well to help support his
parents and siblings. He chronicled his experiences and observations
of life in the field in weekly letters to his parents in Wytheville,
Virginia. These letters provide a glimpse of life in the field
in the 1930's and a snapshot of life in the United States at
that time. For purposes of NOAA History, only excerpts related
to the experiences of the field crews of the Coast and Geodetic
Survey were included in this section. "Just a Soft Political
Job" refers to a prevailing attitude of the times that government
workers had easy "cushy" jobs. The reader can be the judge of
whether this was true for the geodetic field parties.
Hickok checks out this story during a visit to the NOAA Library
are having 100 concrete monuments made here in town. We have
in the past week set marks all the way from Charlottesville
thru Crozet, Greenwood, Afton, Waynesboro and Staunton, as far
as Buffalo Gap, 12 mi. west of here. Three in each large town
and one every two miles along the R.R. This line runs from Charlottesville
, thru here along the C. & O. as far as Millboro Springs,
then we have the R. R. and run along the highway thru Warm Sp.,
Va. to Marlington, W. Va. On Gibson's next assignment we expect
to be sent to one of three places: Western Pennsylvania, Indiana,
or Northern Maine. They (Gibson's party) left numerous unfinished
lines in Maine last fall.
For the past week we have had it very nice. Beautiful balmy
spring days, easily accessible R.R., and beautiful views. This
rural section thru here is populated with many very pretentious
estates. Gorgeous mansions, modern horse stables, white rail
fences, apple orchards, flower gardens, autos with chauffeurs,
and that goes with them. The mountain summits are topped with
castle like stone mansions, perched atop some rocky crag, and
overlooking the valley for 40 mi. or more.
and I have gotten along very well together. He isn't such a
glutton for work. He is, however, a glutton for gambling. He
won $75 in one month's crap shooting on Hill's party. And serial
debauchery is a commonplace thing to him. Almost every night
since we got here he has come in half shot from drinking beer
and flopped into bed with me. We have only one double bed.
Yesterday we worked half a day. Yesty. Afternoon Al and Betty
got in from Brookneal. But Holliday is spending the week-end
at his home in Rapidan and Starkey is weekending at Chevy Chase.
They return tonight. Also yesty. P. M., Sam Logan and his "O"
party got in. I have met most of the party. I like them. Three
are from Mass.. Logan is from Tenn. and has completed two years
at U. T. He is a non-commissioned observer - and holds the record
for the no. of set-ups in one day. Some of them are staying
at a tourist home, some at the Shenandoah Hotel, and Holliday
and Starkey will stay here with us.
Last night, as had been Ed's and my custom, we, Al and Betty
grabbed off a booth in the Candy-land Sweet Shop, amid soft
lights and sweet music, and proceeded to order 7 % ale by the
mug. After 2 mugs I began feeling dopey and quit. The rest kept
on drinking - Betty drank 5 I believe, and the rest more. I
liked that Cognac in Bn. though. The crowd was composed of Al,
Betty, Ed, J. J. Smith from Boston (recorder) and myself.
This A.M. Ed and J.J. went to their Catholic Church, while I
eased over to the first Presbyterian just across from Mary Baldwin.
All the S.M.A. cadets marched in a body. Outside I bumped into
Logan and we went in together. On being seated, I noticed a
familiar face two pews in front. So I excused myself from Logan
and moved on down and sat with my beloved S. S. teacher, W.
T. Hassell. He was with his sister-in-law.
After the service she invited me up for dinner - turkey dinner.
I accepted…. Tonight it is raining. To-morrow we shall be working
in it. Some fun, eh? ....
To answer your questions. Yes I got my check on the 18th
but as yet haven't gotten a chance to get a money order "made"
out… The "O" party is merely the observing party - like Porter's.
I supposed Reher is over on some of the N. C. lines setting
marks with Richards, Lyons' old side-kick. There are some 5
or 6 short lines over in that state. From Lawrenceville Reher
moved to Rocky Mount, N. C.
As luck would have it, last Monday amid all that snow and freezing
rain Starky and I had another 60 mi. ride in the back end of
"Al's" open truck. During the day I dug several holes and set
a disc. All in a driving rain that froze as it hit. My raincoat
was swathed in ice. The next day Starky was sick in bed. He
puked all night long and had a fever but no appetite. So Lyons
and I set marks together. Tuesday was a beautiful warm day.
Yesterday morning Sam Logan comes in and tells Al that two of
his men are sick, the big 6 Ft. 6 in. Boston Tech and Kelly
Field grad. gun toter was down with the grippe, and Smitty,
a rodman, had a strained foot ligament. As I was the only experienced
rodman in "Al's" outfit, I was unanimously chosen to take Smittie's
place. So yesterday I hiked 10 miles from here to Waynesboro
with Sam's "O" party. As the other rodman was hired for the
day only, I had to act as front rodman all day long driving
all the turning points and T.B.M.'s. And was I sweating and
worked up to a lather. We usually alternate rodman every other
section. Yesterday Al, Ed, and Starky (still a bit ill), dug
holes and set discs all the way to within 12 mi. of Marlington,
W. Va.. They did not get in for supper until 7:30.mm
Today I rodded for Logan again. He holds the record in the office
for the most set-ups in one day (287) - is supposed to be the
fastest observer in the outfit. I stuck right with him today.
He is a "dry" Presbyterian" and a d___ nice fellow. If don't
know if he is from Knoxville or not. Today we ran levels from
Charlottesville to Ivy, Va. At the start it was pouring rain.
We were leaving the Union station in the university city when
the air-conditioned C&O "Sportsman," in two sections, steamed
into the station. She has passed us several times on the line
- making 70 mph.
I like all the fellows on Logan's party. Dillon, the other rodman
today, is from Boston. J. J. Smith, the recorder, is also from
Boston. "Smitty" Smith is from Washington, D.C.
Our landlady, Mrs. Sensabaugh, is a very kindly old lady not
unlike Mrs. Tracy Floyd. She cared for Starkey while he was
ill - brought him orange juice, etc. Holliday bought him three
cans of tomato juice.
Have been carrying this letter all day long. We started out
this morning in a blizzard over icy roads to set marks in the
vicinity of Craigsville. Al told Logan he couldn't spare me
any longer so yesterday was my last 10-mile hike for a while.
Today Ed and I lugged a 200-lb. monument up a snow-covered cliff
for about 300 yards and set it in a hole carved out of solid
slate that it took me 2 hours to dig a couple of days ago. The
old track-walker on passing told me the R.R. tried to plant
a signal tower on that spot, but the digging was so tough that
they gave up and placed it out on the fill. He said the telegraph
linesman blasted the pole holes out with dynamite. On coming
in this p.m., Ed's feet almost froze off. He is in bed now.
Harrison, the gun toter, and Smitty are still indisposed. ["Gun
toter" refers to carrying the leveling instrument between set-ups.]
prayers alone have kept me well so far.
Gibson called up from Richmond last night and told "Al" that
Ed's and my new truck would be out of the factory on the 29th.
Our present one is a '31 Ford. The new one will probably be
a new ¾ ton Ford V-8. The latest thing out. He also said that
our next move would be a long one. A project on the new assignment.
Am enclosing a money order for $20. Hope there will be many
more to come….