Remembering a Workcamp in Tennessee

Author (right foreground) with other men campers

I studied the list of volunteer projects offered by American Friends Service Committee for the summer of 1949, following my junior year of college. Workcamps were planned in communities with needs that could be met by the labor of young idealistic volunteers. Local residents were to provide materials and supervise the labor.

One intrigued me the most. Campers were to build a community center/health clinic in the village of Ozone, Tennessee, where there was no doctor, clinic, or hospital for many miles around. This venture seemed to fit well with my plans for a medical career. I submitted an application with the required deposit.

My parents strongly opposed my idea for a summer away from home, doing heavy physical work for no pay. They set out to convince me to change my mind. I imagine they prayed that my application would be rejected. Weeks passed. One morning I opened a letter from the AFSC and read it aloud at the breakfast table. I was accepted for the Quaker workcamp in Tennessee. My father spoke but two words: “Oh” followed by an expletive that was totally out of character for him, but left no doubt about how he felt about my plan. My parents enlisted my older brother to persuade me that a much wiser way to spend my summer would be to get serious about golf—take lessons, improve my game. In spite of previous lessons, I had remained inferior at the game and found it thoroughly frustrating. The pressure stayed on. A few days before I was to leave for Tennessee, I weakened and made a painful decision to drop out.

My girlfriend, Ella, a fellow student at Penn, shared my idealism and knew all about the workcamp plans. When I told her I was going to drop out of the camp, she immediately responded, “George, you can’t drop out! You’ve got to stick with what you believe in!”

She was right. I would have been miserable all summer if I had backed out. I changed my mind again and a couple of days later I set out, at just 20 years of age, to drive alone from Philadelphia to a part of the country I had never before seen.

Ozone was easy to find. It straddled U.S. highway 70, in the Cumberland Plateau west of Knoxville. Its population was but a few hundred families. I found my way to a three-room white schoolhouse located up a dirt road about a half mile from the highway. This was the site for our camp. I was welcomed by the camp director, Roy Darlington, a young science and math teacher from New Jersey, and his wife, Libby, and soon met the seven other young men and eleven young women with whom I was to spend the next eight weeks. Most of us were college students. One room of the school building would house the women. A second would serve as dining room, kitchen, and general meeting room. What remained of the third room, where school desks were stored, became our laundry room.

The immediate task for the men was to set up a large army tent in an open field close to the school. The tent was just the right size for eight army surplus cots and would be the men’s dormitory. Next to his cot each of us had an orange crate as a makeshift dresser. Around the tent’s perimeter we dug a trench to divert rainwater away from our tent. Well beyond our tent stood two large outhouses: one for men, one for women. It was the first time in my life that I ever saw the inside of an outhouse. Nevertheless, I felt that I could adapt with no difficulty.

The schoolhouse had no running water. Water had to be drawn from a well near the schoolhouse entrance. We lowered a long cylindrical container by rope and pulley into the well, pulled it back up, and emptied the water into buckets. This served all our needs for washing and laundry.

That evening all 23 of us, including the Darlingtons’ two small children, gathered around a long narrow table for dinner. One of the first Quaker traditions we established was a brief period of silence before each meal. I was happy about that. The main dish for the evening meal, however, was a cold tuna fish salad, one of the few foods I really detested. I simply couldn’t eat it. I said nothing, but was very unhappy.

Barbara Bowen, both a camper and a staff person, was the dietitian who planned our meals. Barbara’s budget allowed her to spend 23 cents per meal per person. I could hardly imagine surviving on such a meager sum. Each day a couple of campers were assigned in rotation to kitchen duty to assist with meal preparation and cleanup. Similarly, we would share in laundry duty for the camp on designated days.

That first night I felt very discouraged, almost desperate. So many new things were thrown at me at once. I had never before been to any type of camp for more than a weekend. Now I was at a camp with 22 complete strangers, in a village unlike any I had ever seen, using an outhouse, drawing water from a well, sleeping on a cot in a tent, and needing a flashlight to find my way around at night. Worst of all was the thought of meals like the dinner we had just had. What could be next? Brussels sprouts?

I wondered if I could last eight days, let alone eight weeks! I seriously considered giving up and leaving for home the next day. “I’ll give it one more day,” I said to myself.

The second day was not quite so bad. I felt a little less lonely and out of place. “I’ll give it another day,” I thought to myself again that night. And so it went for the first three days or so, during which I spent a fair amount of my spare time alone and said lots of prayers.

Gradually I became more at ease with the camp situation and found myself enjoying the work, learning camp songs, and happily participating in after-dinner discussions. We exchanged views on issues ranging from war, pacifism, poverty, and college campus life to the future of the world and what we could do about it.

As for the work itself, I became increasingly enthusiastic about it. We started early each morning with another Quaker tradition, a half-hour of silence. Although the large majority of us were not Quakers, everyone seemed familiar with Quaker practices and was comfortable with a time of contemplation at the beginning of each day.

The work of building the Adshead Health Center began from scratch. We cut down trees, dug trenches, and mixed the concrete by hand to pour the foundation. We went by truck to gather fieldstones in creek beds and bring them back to the building site. With guidance of a professional mason we chiseled large stones into shape to fit together and cemented them in place. Several experienced community members helped, especially on Saturdays, with large tasks such as putting up the rafters for the roof.

Women participated fully in all the work with the men. This must have impressed the reporter from the Nashville Tennessean for he made particular mention of it in the story he did for that paper’s magazine section, entitled “Hard Work, No Pay,” published September 11, 1949.

Three campers from abroad brought added interest to our daily routine and after-dinner discussions. Dieter Hartwick, from Berlin, acknowledged with a grin the irony of his coming from what was then one of the world’s most devastated cities to help erect a building in the United States. Bertram Headley, from England, was himself a Quaker who had been a conscientious objector during World War II. One insight he shared stuck with me. He contended that, while conscientious objectors could do various jobs within the military, such as driving an ambulance, the only ones who felt they had been totally true to their pacifist convictions were those who chose to go to jail. He reasoned that the ambulance driver was simply freeing up another man to carry a gun.

We had heard of the skepticism with which local people had viewed the arrival of a bunch of radical youths, perhaps even “trash,” some from the north, still others from foreign countries. As they got to know us, however, they saw that, rather than troublemakers, these campers were decent idealistic people who were ready to work hard on a construction project that was actually materializing before their eyes. Their skepticism evaporated. Our relationship with them became warm and friendly.

One evening a storm approached. We all gathered in the schoolhouse and watched it come closer. The rain developed into a downpour so hard that the trench around our tent was totally inadequate to handle it. The inside of the tent rapidly flooded. We ran out to try to rescue some of our belongings. We were soaked. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. Winds howled. The tent collapsed! We were distraught.

Unknown to us someone in the community anticipated our plight and made a few phone calls. Roy Darlington passed on the good news. Hosts had been found for all the young men to spend the night. “George, you take Paul Watson and drive over to Rockwood,” Roy directed. “There’s a family that has a spare room in an attic where the two of you are invited to spend the night.” A warm welcome and a comfortable bed awaited us! What started as a disaster ended in a good night’s sleep! We had not been left to fend for ourselves.

The next morning we set up our tent again. This time it survived until the end of the camp.

I wrote to my parents frequently to assure them that I was doing okay. I was happy when they wrote back with lighthearted news from home, but I still sensed that they were worried about me. I also corresponded frequently with Ella. I let her know my initial discouragement. She responded with encouragement.

Among the representatives of the AFSC who came by during the summer only one stayed overnight and joined us for breakfast and Friends meeting in the morning. It was David Richie who had led the weekend workcamp I had gone to in Philadelphia three years previously. His was the only familiar face to visit and I was happy to see him. Friends meeting that day included inspiring words from David.

The camp was by no means all work. There were many times just for fun. In the afternoons when we finished at the work site, we often would pile into the three cars which campers had brought and head for a swimming hole at a nearby river or lake.

Our construction work was done Tuesdays through Saturdays. Mondays provided opportunities for educational side trips. One such trip took us to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. For Quakers this was a particularly problematic spot for it was the site of the headquarters of the U.S. wartime atomic energy program known as the Manhattan Project. And this was barely four years after the Hiroshima atomic explosion!

One day we needed to borrow a piece of heavy equipment from the road department. In exchange, we were asked to provide some needed labor to help a crew at a highway repair site. Another camper and I volunteered to be flagmen at either end of the site, stopping traffic first in one direction, then in the other. I thoroughly enjoyed that experience, but I never wrote about it to my parents. I think they would have been very disturbed—first, concerned for my safety and second, wondering if this is what they sent their son to college for.

By the time construction of the community center/health clinic drew to a close, I was fully enjoying every aspect of the workcamp, even kitchen and laundry duty. I realized how much I would miss Ozone and the people I had come to know there, campers and local residents alike. It was hard to imagine, even half way through the camp, that our project could actually be finished in the allotted time. But in the final week or so it all seemed to come together. Although some interior work remained to be done, by the end of our eight weeks in Tennessee the concrete floor, stone walls, doors, windows, and roof were in fact all completed. At one end of the building a band of concrete lined the exterior of the stones above the entrances. On it were inscribed the words “Adshead Health Center.”

I for one was thrilled with a sense of a job well done. A community center/health clinic had been built, and built solidly. And it would serve the people of that area for many years to come. I believe the experience unconsciously solidified my desire to make my life one of service.

All of us had grown through that summer’s experiences and left Ozone with a great sense of accomplishment. I was happy that I had stuck to it in spite of my discouragement at the beginning and grateful for the many things I had learned during the workcamp.

More from Friends Journal:

In “A Weekend Workcamp” (October 2013), George writes about his first AFSC volunteer experience.

George H. Kurz

George H. Kurz is a retired ophthalmologist who practiced in New Jersey and was a clinical professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He also taught in Africa, Ecuador, the Philippines, and China. He and his wife, Elisabeth, live at Pennswood Village, a Quaker retirement community in Pennsylvania.

1 thought on “Remembering a Workcamp in Tennessee

  1. George…great story…you should try to find time to go back to Ozone to see what the community looks like and if the house you built is still standing almost seventy years later…and what happened to Ella?? CK II 4/8/17

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.