Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994



CCC Days at the Shell Knob Camp

by Steve Illum




Steve Illum is Professor of Tourism, Southwest Missouri State University.

In May 1990, a summer research contract with the USDA Forest Service took me to Shell Knob, Missouri to rediscover "3753." Starting with six names, unsure whether they were still living, I began a rewarding search into the past, finding one by one members of a group of wonderful seventy- and eighty-year-old "boys" who once served there. Discovering them was like entering a time warp of the Ozarks, a window into the past. Sometimes 1 wished I could have been there.

They were men who represented something different than the general population. Listening to them, one learned about integrity, work ethic, love for one's country, commitment and dedication, and tolerance and understanding of others. Each remembered the CCC fondly, often referring to it as their "basic training" for life. Since we met, some have passed on, and I miss them very much.

All touched my life. My feelings for Missouri and the Ozarks have deepened from the experience.

Opening of the Camp

From 1935 to 1941, Company #3753 of the Civilian Conservation Corps was stationed near Shell Knob, Barry County, Missouri.

On July 4, 1935, U.S. Army Captain Marion Norton Hardesty and other officers of the Cadre Company 3753, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), rolled onto the scene of what was to become Camp F-20, near Shell Knob. Hardesty, described as the youngest captain in the U.S. Army, left a new bride in nearby Cassville. Five days later, 176 new recruits arrived.

The site was in the forest, thickly laden with underbrush and rocks. No nearby water sup-ply--it had to be hauled in by truck. The first week, the company was fed under the trees from a field range. Sleeping quarters were but partially constructed buildings. The "men" slept on cots. Baths were down the hill in nearby White River.

One might imagine a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp as similar to a military or prison work camp; but it was quite different. Though the military was in charge at Shell Knob, as elsewhere, the style of CCC direction was gentle. Leadership included professionals from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army, augmented by "LEMs" (local experienced men), who were typically married men with families who lived nearby.

Company 3753, Shell Knob

Most of the boys hailed from small farming communities throughout rural southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas--Bates Comer, Blue Eye, Cart Lane, Cato, Diggins, Elsie, Exeter, Jasper, Hilltop, Sparta, Viola, and Berryville. Some were from larger towns like Joplin and Springfield. A few were from more distant places--St. Louis, Kansas City, Poplar Bluff. Most of their families were "as poor as church mice." It was the time of the Great Depression. "Most were in need of relief from economic stress, provided by this New Deal program," according to camp member Bob Philibert. For their age group, there was "no work" and "certainly no luxuries." What work there was might be for ten cents an hour. Potential employers might say, "I'd like to hire you, but Bill Jones has three children, and he needs the job more than you!" Occasionally, boys were sentenced by judges in Missouri to serve time in the CCC's.

Shell Knob CCC Camp Reunion, 1993.
Steve Ilium, photo..

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A few recruits, whether because of Ozarks tradition or poverty, had never worn shoes before. Some could not sign their name when they collected their paychecks. A literate boy often wrote and read letters for others. Hugh Parks arrived in camp just two or three days after graduating from high school. Many were younger still, some as young as 15. Few had birth certificates. For most, it was the first time away from home. Homesickness was not uncommon. On average there were 175 young men, often brothers or cousins, in camp at any one time. There were at least three sets of twins--the Hastings, Elliotts and Hicks. Most of the boys at Shell Knob Camp had nicknames like Soup, Dock, Bulldog, Droopy Drawers, Tiny, Sheik, Strut, Quart and Pint, Long Pipe, K.P. Britches, Crazy Legs, Moon Mullins, Resty Butt, Old Snoose and Bee Tamer.

Supervisors assigned work to recruits based on their experience, education, talent, and merit. At the outset, a "regular" was given a monthly allowance of thirty dollars, twenty-five of which was sent home to the boy's family. Some of the boys were appointed assistant leaders at thirty-six dollars per month, and crew leaders at forty-five. They exercised leadership roles both in the barracks and the field.

The Camp

There were eight barracks buildings in addition to officers' and foresters' quarters, an administrative building, a bath house, a toolshed, a "gas house" (complete with a hand-operated pump), a spud cellar, hospital, mess hall with two dining areas (one for officers only) and kitchen (with ice box), electrical power plant, and a "powder house" for dynamite. Every structure was built by CCC boys, under a supervisor's direction.

Carefully-mown lawns were set off by stone walkways. A beautiful cloverleaf-shaped fishpond (still there), was filled with large goldfish. The water was changed regularly by Lloyd Banks. There were handsome stone park benches, and a handcrafted sundial mounted on a stone pedestal. All of this was set off by a planting of lush iris beds, as ordered by the commanding officer, Mr. Hardesty.

The boys built tennis and basketball courts, a baseball diamond, horseshoe pits, and a permanent croquet course. The camp had its own library, a recreation hall complete with ping-pong and beautifully-crafted pool tables, and several board game tables. A canteen offered candy bars or soda pop for three cents!

The boys created numerous hiking trails. Just below the camp, they swam in the White River, now Table Rock Lake. They shopped for tobacco, snuff and other "necessities" at the general stores in Shell Knob---Cope's, Epperly's, Whisman's, Butler's, Frank Reser's, or Orville Williamson's. The five dollars a month each boy had for spending money added greatly to the cash-flow potential of the Shell Knob economy.

The Barracks

At Shell Knob, boys were assigned 20-24 to a barracks, under the watchful eye of one leader and two assistants. Beds were neatly arranged along the walls, about ten feet apart, each labeled with an identification card ("bed tag"). Each had an identical olive drab footlocker for personal belongings--Brownie camera, CCC bible, etc. Clothes were hung on rods Below a shaving gear shelf.

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Recruit Uel Sims said that "each barracks was routinely inspected and rated, except on weekends or holidays." "Sometimes the inspector would drop a coin from about two feet above a boy's bed," according to Hugh Parks. If sheet and blanket were made tight enough to bounce the coin, it would pass inspection. Sometimes the boys had to empty out their barracks bags for inspection. The names of boys from the highest-ranked barracks were posted daily on a centrally-located bulletin board. They were rewarded with a bumpy, hour-and-a-half truck ride to the movie house in Cassville.

Some of the boys in Carl Walker's barracks pooled their money to buy a battery-powered radio, which they could keep as long as it was well-dusted.

At Christmastime, each barracks could be decorated so long as it was neatly done. Company 3753 was several times awarded "first-place" for appearance amongst the 74 companies in the Missouri-Kansas district.

A Typical Day at Shell Knob

About 6:00 AM, the blast of Kenny Loy's bugle signaled reveille, made louder at times with a portable amplifier. It was one of the unpleasantries of camp life. The boys had ways of dealing with that bugle. If Loy happened to be looking the other way, his bugle might disappear. When found later it might be filled with a dose of mustard, snow, soap, or even wax! But Loy was particular about his instrument, and was prepared to guard it with his life. The boys once put an old hound dog in Loy's bed one night, hoping to disturb his sleep enough to delay the painful rolling-out sound the next morning. In addition to reveille, he blew payroll, taps, and raising and lowering of the flag each day.

In the cold of pre-dawn winter mornings, one of the boys in each barracks (paid by the others to do the job) would rise to light fires in the three woodstoves of each building, to "thaw out the night air." Most had to attend the morning roll call after making up their bunks, dressing, and straightening the barracks. Breakfast was often a small box of cold cereal; but frequently the cooks prepared pancakes, scrambled eggs, or other hot breakfast.

By 8:00 a.m., boys were in work formation. Tools and tree seedlings would be loaded in preparation for planting. Two men rode in the front of the stake-bed track; the others sat on bench seats along the sides in the back, covered with a tarp in winter. The tools were stowed under the seats and the seedlings were piled in the middle of the bed.

The mid-day meal ("dinner") in the field was usually a sack lunch with a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich (put together by a "sandwich boy") with tea, coffee or water. Depending on the driving distance, crews returned to camp about 3:00 p.m. to clean up the tools, shower, catch a short nap, enjoy some free time, and then eat.

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"Supper was always the best meal!" Mess Sergeant Max Grimes would pull the cord on the relief valve of his steam-operated dishwasher to signal "food is on !" A fleet of cooks and bakers (even a night baker, Otto Pence) satisfied the appetites of the hungry boys. There was always plenty of cold milk in camp, supplied under contract from nearby Talbert Dairy. The food was especially good on holidays, though most boys went home then, as well as on weekends.

Health and Hygiene

At first, dentists in Cassville were used. Later, the camp had a military dentist named Siegelbaum who used a drill driven by a foot pedal. There was an infirmary complete with warden and ambulance, first directed by Lt. Kenneth L. Kelsey, sent as a meningitis specialist from Minnesota via Brown Branch Camp 738. The same dental and medical officers serviced both Shell Knob and neighboring Roaring River camps.

One boy, John Donaldson, is known to have died while at camp. He was taken to Leavenworth, Kansas. Experts there were unable to diagnose his illness. The family, according to his brother Everett, thought there was a possibility he had meningitis. More than 70 boys were stricken when influenza broke out in 1937. Lieutenant Gene Orten was taken to Springfield to have his appendix removed.

Jess Peterson fell 100 feet off the top of the Lampe Fire Tower and was killed instantly. Soon afterward, preventive changes were made to that and other nearby towers by Rufus Blevins, Charlie Cole and Rollin Meador. Argile Graves fell off the Lohmer Tower from a lower point, but wasn't hurt seriously. One boy was hit in the forehead with a slug from a bent-barreled .22 caliber rifle, but was not badly injured. From then on, he was called "Rabbit Eyes." Allen Peasley cut off the end of his finger in a shop grinder. Joe Phillips got stuck with an open knife in his pocket. Andy Cox threw an axe at a snake and took off one of Clint Shackleford's toes.

Other than a very few fights (sometimes with boys from Roaring River Camp over at the Hound Ditch Inn), minor injuries, and the two deaths, health in the camp over the six years, was above average for the area. Dr. Kelsey did not even recall setting a fracture. "Great food and regular hygiene kept the boys quite well."

The barber, Charlie High, was always in the washroom. There were hot showers, with water supplied by a water tower above a well. According to Carl Walker, "If a boy wouldn't take a bath, several of the others would just haul him down to the bath house and give him one with their G.I. brushes and soap...and if he wasn't quiet about it, he might get a full-body shaving!"

KP.

A bulletin board just outside the main camp office posted important notices for the boys. One of the most important was the list of who was on K.P. for misbehavior. Weekend K.P. was the most dreaded. Max "Toughy" Grimes and other supervisors did their best to keep the boys busy and out of trouble by having them peel spuds, shoot snipes (picking up cigarette butts around camp), or other odd jobs. Grimes said, "We'd line everybody up and march them into the mess hall. If I caught a guy grinning, pinching or elbowing somebody, I'd say, 'You're on spuds tonight!' We had to peel a hundred pounds every day. I was trying to make men out of these boys!"

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Education

Opportunities existed for some formal, as well as on-the-job, education. Some boys actually completed junior high and high school coursework. Instruction was offered in auto mechanics, welding, crafts (wood or leather), sheet metal work, auto or tractor repair, photography, reading, stone masonry, surveying, electrical wiring, carpentry and woodwork, painting, telephone wiring and repair, penmanship, typing, food service management (meat cutting, cooking, baking), driving motor vehicles (Kenneth Eaton, drove for the first time to take a sick boy to Leavenworth), operating heavy equipment, radio installation and operation...even blacksmithing, "like how to sharpen an axe by heating it until red hot and pounding a sharp edge on it with a hammer!" according to Bob Philibert. American Red Cross courses in first aid and water safety were also taught.

On-the-job training took place every day. The boys routinely learned about safety, sanitation, personal hygiene and discipline.

Camp Communications

Company 3753 had the best communication system in the area. Paul Hoover, age 15, installed a camp radio system to communicate with Shell Knob Tower. Jonathan Clark and Chester Schallon, company clerks, made a daily mail run to the post office at Isaac Epperly's General Merchandise Store in Shell Knob, just below the hill.

For many years the camp had the only telephone in Shell Knob. Whenever there was an emergency down in Shell Knob, someone would have to run up to the camp to ask Lionel Jung to use the camp phone. In the field, crew leaders could temporarily hook up a field phone to lines they had strung, and communicate with camp.

Camp Recreation

Several of the boys sang or played musical instruments, particularly the guitar. Fred Buffington played the piano well enough to give lessons. Boys were allowed to keep their own sporting equipment, including guns. Boxing was enjoyed by some, and a good game of poker by many. The camp even published its own newspaper. Captain Hardesty was an amateur hypnotist and magician, and had a genuine interest in the activity. Occasionally, he would invite a fellow magician from out of town to provide an evening of entertainment for the camp. Boredom was seldom a problem.

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There were occasions for special celebration. Captain Hardesty always hosted a July 4th picnic, and dinners for other holidays to which the public would be invited.

The boys organized a baseball team. Jimmy Cantrell and Kenneth Eaton were catchers. Other players were Johnny "Puxico" Jackson, "El' Barnes, Uel Sims, Lester Brown, Waldo Dunn and E "Pete" Jewett. Carl "Bud" Costlow played shortstop. Bob Dugger was a left-handed pitcher. Kenneth Kelley was a "terrific pitcher" too. Barracks would play barracks after chow. They competed in local high school leagues, and had a reputation for "whipping" them occasionally too.

Cars

Owning a car was "not permitted, except by LEM's." However, many of the regular boys had cars anyway. "As many as 50," according to Mid Miller. They bought them with their monthly allowances. Cars were used to go home on weekends, into Cassville for entertainment, to movies in Galena, across Kimberling bridge to the local dance hall, pie suppers, visiting girlfriends, or going to church to meet new girls. "There wasn't hardly enough girls to go around." Those who didn't own cars contributed gas money for a ride. Gravel roads kept the boys busy changing flat tires. Occasionally state troopers stopped them for speeding, but they usually managed to avoid a ticket by claims of"being the federal government!" Very few people had driver's licenses in those days.

"Horsin ' Around"

Practical jokes were part of normal camp life.

What could one expect with 175 seventeen- and eighteen-year-old boys? In late evening, when all were snuggled in bed almost asleep, a "honk-honk-honk" racket might sound outside the barracks. It was Earl "Goose" Jones, awakening the boys for various adventures. They would find their way to the boiler room to shoot dice, or play poker by candlelight. Some of the boys might sneak out at night and push a camp truck, or the ambulance, down the hill out of earshot, start it up, and take a joyride. Camp macks had 35 mph governors, but they were "adjustable." The boys had boundless energy for such ventures.

Falling asleep early was not a good idea. A sleeper might be awakened to find he had been burned by a lighted cigarette carefully placed between his toes (dubbed "a hotfoot"). He might be wired into his bunk and hoisted up to the ceiling joists---once the fate of Marcell Charles. Conversely, a boy who came to bed late might find his bunk straddling the rooftop of his barracks, or short-sheeted, or even down the hill toward White River. "One night some of the boys put a length of hose in a boy's bed. Thinking it was a snake, did he ever let out a scream!" And nothing was quite like finding your shoes nailed to the barracks floor!

Mess Sergeant Max Grimes stole Loyd Banks' girl, Rena Applegate. Max sent code messages with his steam-operated dishwasher whistle across White River to tell Rena he would be over to date her. As soon as the boys discovered his system, they began to make dates for him too. Max wasn't the only boy who was constantly "girl'n." According to Marcell Charles, "the whole countryside suffered! Wherever girls gathered, there you'd find the 'CC boys."

"Stump shooting" was fun--if very dangerous. Carl Walker described the sport: dynamite would be placed under a tree stump and lighted. The resulting explosion shot the stump out of the ground high into the air. On one occasion, a heavy charge was placed under a stump located near the house owned by a family named West. The stump flew wide, as well as high, and fell through the West family's roof. Of course, the CCC came over and repaired the damage.

Once, when some new recruits arrived, they were warned that Herman Hilburn had "fits." Herman filled his mouth with toothpaste, got in bed and began to jerk violently. Some of his buddies grabbed him, pretending to hold him down. Then he began foaming at the mouth. The whole act was for the benefit of the trol, quietly laying him under a blanket on the floor." Occasionally, he would rear up and jerk some more. Eventually he calmed down and the "spell" was over.

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A social crisis occurred when a new recruit came into camp with a "big mouth." The others just couldn't tolerate it. "Kangaroo courts" were convened, after which the condemned would be carried down to the bath house for a complete barbering and doused with ice cold water, or subjected to the dreaded "tallowing punishment." Such initiation rituals would usually settle down the offender rather quickly.

Camp Accomplishments

At the time, the boys probably didn't think much

about the overall results of the camp's work during the six years of its operation. Individuals were usually there only three to six months. When they looked back in later years, after the camp's closing, it was hard for some of them to believe how much had been accomplished.

Ozarkers were accustomed to burning off underbrush in the late fall or early spring of each year. Burning killed ticks and snakes, encouraged early growth of new grass and huckleberries. In the dry years of the 1930s, it also promoted blazes that sometimes got out of control. Occasionally arson produced wildfires. Someone would hook an ignited tire onto a chain and drag it through the forest behind a horse or mule.

Under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service, the camp became the driving force in the community for forest fire prevention. The CCC fought 620 fires during its six year existence. They also reforested 950 acres with some 2.5 million seedlings--pines, acorns, tulip poplars delivered from the state nursery in Licking. They improved 2,020 acres of timber. "Yes, we goofed off when we could, but there was no getting around it. Tree setting amounted to taking just another step, and planting another tree," said Bob Philibert.

The camp built five major fire towers--the Wilderness (Lampe), Sugar Camp, Lohmer, Piney, Shell Knob, and a sixth temporary tower, Crow's Nest. From these hundred-foot towers a spotter could see for miles.

When a fire occurred, a brigade would rush to put it out. As the trucks sped by on their way to a fire, girls in the neighborhood would yell, "CCC----3753!!" When it was contained, sometimes the boys would "lay out" visiting girls in the vicinity. "Sometimes the girls in Cassville would purposely build a fire, keeping it relatively small, to attract the CCC boys. On arriving at the scene, the boys "quickly put the fire out and then attended a dance," according to Jess Gray.

Crews of boys worked at two limestone quarries (one at Carnie Mountain)---drilling and blasting (or "shooting"). The "powder monkey" (like Everett Donaldson) would shout--"Fire in the hole ! ! !" to warn the other boys on the crew of the forthcoming loud blast. Then the rocks were hauled to a stone cutting and chipping area in the shade of some trees in the hot summer sun. These stones, some as heavy as four hundred pounds, were shaped and prepared for a journey to Cassville. They were used in another crew's construction of three fine buildings, now offices for the Cassville Ranger District of the Mark Twain National Forest.

Bass fingerlings were hauled from Chesapeake and Neosho hatcheries and planted by the boys into the White and Kings rivers. They built three ponds near the camp where the fish were stored before stocking. They planted wild turkeys in the forest, and constructed food plots for other wildlife.

Camp members surveyed and constructed fourteen miles of new roads. One road (Truck Trail 233) extended from near Sugar Camp over to Eagle Rock. The other (39-1) was completed from the scenic overlook due east to the boat access point (Owen's Bend) on what is now Table Rock Lake. They beautified another forty miles of roads.

The crew was equipped with a caterpillar tractor, driven by Cecil O'Brien, towing a grader operated by Clint Testerman. Surfacing gravel was hauled in from Roaring River State Park. They even built a nice open fireplace along the road near Sugar Camp, now part of the Onyx Cave Picnic Area.

CCC crews not only laid out roads, but also did the work for fifty-three miles of telephone lines, and drafted numerous topographical maps for the Forest Service. They often preceded "spudding" (drilling) and "shooting" (blasting) crews for poles or ditch lines. The phone lines connected into the public telephone system near Hilltop. One extended down to the Sugar Camp from Lohmer Tower. Another line ran from the Hill City junction through the Shell Knob Tower and on to the Lampe Tower. The other ran from the same junction up to the Piney Tower. Thus all the towers were linked together.

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They surveyed ninety miles of streams and four thousand acres of timber land for improvement. In addition to the camp, they constructed five dwellings, seven garages and five warehouses. The boys were sometimes even called out on special assignments for the community. On one occasion, they were involved in the search for a lost child southwest of the Lampe Tower.

Closing the Camp

As early as March, 1940, it was rumored that the camp might be closed and its members moved. Few recruits were coming into the Shell Knob camp any

more. Some boys were being drafted to fight in World War II. Rumor had it that the camp might be used to house conscientious objectors. There was even talk of giving the CCC boys military training as part of the camp curriculum. Local people wanted the camp to continue; it had been a real "life saver" in Barry and Stone Counties, especially when large forest fires broke out. Certainly the money spent out of the camp fueled the local economies.

The announcement: August 15, 1941 would be the closing date. Preparations were made for the closing; then the remaining boys departed. It was truly a sad day in Shell Knob and Cassville.

Looking Back at Shell Knob

I still can see the Autumn night   Then amazed at the speed with which it's done  

pushed west by the rising sun,

 

we're full of food and on the run

I hear the bugle rend the quiet   To make the beds and tidy up a bit,  

to signal that day has begun,

 

so the Sarge and C.O. can agree

I hear the engines disturb the air   That we are able when made to do it,  

that water and light may be

 

to act adult in the CCC.

For washing, shaving and combing hair      

and making it possible to see.

  As a hundred men spread out for the day  
   

to forest and roads and quarries & streams,

And then I recall to my delight   A sense of purpose I see in the way  

the aroma of food in the air,

 

that the men and leaders share a dream:

And I see the cooks clad in white   For a better America some day.  

as they ready the hearty fare.

     
With chattering and growling we find a place Doesn't seem so long ago, does it?

and respectfully listen to a table grace.

     
   

  -Jack England, Company 3753

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TESTIMONY: What the C.C.C. Camp Meant to the the Boys

"I done a lot of growing up in there. I think CCC camps was good for me. You got away from home and you met a lot of things you had to figure out for yourself. You didn't have somebody say 'Well, we'll do this for you.' You'd make your own decisions and if they wasn't right, you'd suffer for them if you didn't make the right decisions."

-Ward Gahagan, August 16, 1990

"This camp meant a lot to me. This was a bootstrap operation....We didn't know that we were deprived. The people in this part of the world grew up with principles and morals that would see them through what destroys most people nowadays. We didn't think about whether we could do it or not. We just went ahead and did it!

As a 'rock kicker' or 'stump jumper,' when I first saw the camp, I was impressed. I saw this 'order,' good clothes, smelled the good food and saw the boys acting like men, I was really impressed.

-Jack England, July 31, 1990

"That was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to us. It was the finest thing that ever I got into in my life. I was working for an old farmer for fifty cents a day. I'd worked for him for five years. I come down here to George Ray's (CCC recruiter). He said, "Well, you've got a job. I don't think they'll take you' cause there's lots of boys that need help. So, I know Hugh Brixie and I knew he was a recuiter too....That's how I got in."

-Max Grimes, July 19, 1990

"I'll tell you, it kept a bunch of people from being pretty hard-up. My dad and mom raised eight kids. There wasn't no government help whatever. Things were pretty rugged about that time. [From the CCC] I got $5.00 a month. That kept me in stamps and tobacco !"

-Marcell Charles, July 19, 1990

"[The experience] gave me a big push; the desire to do something else really made an impact on me as a kid. It was really worthwhile. [They] gave me a place to sleep. The food was excellent. The people I met were fine people."

-Paul Hoover, July 16, 1990

"That was in the days when there was no money. I was at the stage when you couldn't get a job. You couldn't do nothing. My father was real poor. I needed to do something. I couldn't find no work at the age I was. So I just made that decision to go in there. That was good money then .... I enjoyed it. I learned a lot-different trades, you know. Like I say, it was a great opportunity for boys. 'Course, times were so hard then! Shoot. That was the best thing I ever done!"

-Carl Walker, August 3, 1990

"I learned a lot at the camp. It was open to everybody. You name it. We did it. Set millions of pine trees. We built roads. We did nothing but good for the country."

-Muff Talley, August 14, 1990

All old photos from Shell Knob CCC Reunion, 1993, copies by Steve Illum

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