April 1, 1935: Vets' Work Camps Get Sympathetic Supervisor

This post is the third in a series marking the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935.

On April 1, 1935, Fred Ghent took charge of the camps housing World War I veterans enrolled in a federally sponsored work program in Florida.

In many ways Ghent, an Alabama native, was the perfect man for the job of supervising a group of jobless, discouraged and troubled men. He'd been a safety supervisor for the Florida Emergency Relief Administration, which was the agency charged with carrying out President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs in the state. But more importantly, Ghent also was a World War I veteran who could identify with the problems plaguing the men who'd landed in the work program during the worst years of the Great Depression.

Ghent would be in charge of the six work camps that the Florida Emergency Relief Administration had set up in Florida. The three beachfront work camps in the Keys housed about 600 men from all across the United States. Camp 1, the northernmost camp, was on Windley Key where the vets quarried coral used in building a highway from Miami to Key West. Camp 3, the southernmost camp, was at the southern tip of Lower Matecumbe Key, where the men were building a bridge. Camp 5 was between the other two camps at the northern end of Lower Matecumbe Key, not far from the village of Islamorada.

A few weeks after taking the job, Ghent assembled the veterans in the Keys camps to explain his plans to them. He also told them that he wanted to help them untangle their disorderly lives. "I don't believe there's a man in the ranks who would be here if he wasn't a victim of the Depression and his financial condition, which was caused by something beyond his control," he told the men.

But it would take more than sympathetic understanding to keep the unruly veterans in line. The crude work camps in the isolated, sparsely populated Keys were beyond the reach of law enforcement. There was no entertainment or recreation for the vets. So their main form of amusement was drinking, and when their monthly payday came around, they turned into a drunken, uncontrollable and brawling mob.

Ghent started meeting individually with the vets to try to help them find solutions to their problems. But he couldn't control the drunken rowdiness that made the residents of the small settlements near the camps very uneasy.

"If they had 10 cents, they had to have a bottle of beer," Bernard Russell, a lifelong resident of Islamorada, recalled in a 1996 interview. "You know, the poor old guys, they'd been through enough, I guess. We knewwhat they had gone through, and we accepted them."

NOTE: The cartoon at the top of this post pokes fun at the heavy drinking of the World War I vets living in work camps in the Florida Keys in 1935. The cartoon appreared in the May 4, 1935 issue of the Key Veteran News, a weekly newspaper published by the vets in the camps. The cartoon is part of the collection of Jerry Wilkinson of Tavernier, Florida, who is president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys.

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