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More of Benton Hickok's Pictures from the NOAA Photo Library

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Excerpts from the Letters Home
Benton Hickok

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The following excerpts are from the surviving letters home from a geodetic field benton hickok illustrates being a mark 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.

ben hockok and pc monitor showing this page of the history site
Ben Hickok checks out this story during a visit to the NOAA Library in 2004

March 18, 1934
Staunton, Va.

…We 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.

Eddie 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? ....

March 22, 1934
Staunton, Virginia

… 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

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.

Fri. P.M.

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.]

Your 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….

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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