Division of Juvenile Justice, Firefighters, Unlocking History

Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp continues tradition of training young offenders

Pine Grove youth inmate firefighters.
Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, undated.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer

The year was 1945. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away and Harry S. Truman became president. The U.S. and its Allies were thick in World War II, defeating Germany in May and setting their sights on Japan.

Meanwhile, a Youth Conservation Camp was founded the same year. Originally, the camp was nestled in the Big Trees State Park in Calaveras County under an agreement with the state Division of Beaches and Parks, according to camp records.

A nearby camp of a different nature, established a decade earlier during the Great Depression, would soon become the home of the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp.

Canvas tents among large pine trees.
Earlier camps were a mix of tents and wooden structures, such as Honor Camp 21, undated. (California State Archives)

From civilian to military

Responding to massive unemployment in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps was established as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The average young man enrolling in the program had been out of work for seven years, was undernourished and physically weak, according to “A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape Labor and the Civilian Conservation Corps,” authored by Neil Maher.

One such Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established at Pine Grove in Amador County, known as camp P-209.

Robert Miller, at Pine Grove, wrote in a Conservation Corps newspaper at the time, “I enrolled as a boy, unsteady, groping, unsure. I had doubted my right to call myself a man.”

By the mid-1930s, the Corps was in full swing training young men to fight fires, build roads, construct watch towers and teach them job skills.

A report, issued by the Corps in April 1936, touted the benefits of the program.

“(The Corps) greatly increased the value of the forest and added to its usefulness to the public,” the report stated.

In June 1942, Congress abolished the Civilian Conservation Corps, clearing the way for a new use of the camp.

The call of war

In 1942, the military assumed control of the defunct Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Pine Grove. The soldiers were tasked with guarding railroad bridges, power stations and other key areas in California. The transfer to the California National Guard was effective Dec. 1, 1942, according to the California State Military Museum.

The camp featured 26 buildings, five of them serving as barracks.

Inmate firefighters become “part of a team,” according to the photo’s original caption, published in a departmental report, circa 1961.

Making the move

The war ended and the military vacated the campsite in late 1945.

Around this time, Gov. Earl Warren appointed Karl Holton as director of a newly revamped Youth Authority.

“In cooperation with the State Park Commission, 50 boys were transferred directly from county jails to Calaveras Big Trees Park where, under the supervision of skilled tradesmen, they built a camp of 100-boy capacity,” Holton wrote in a 1950 article for the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. “Portable buildings at Benicia State Guard Camp were dismantled there and transported to the Park. While this camp operated for only one season, it did relieve some of the pressure. … Under agreement with the State Division of Forestry, Department of Natural Resources, the Youth Authority began the construction of forestry camps for boys in 1945.”

Holton also described some of the goals of the forestry camps like Pine Grove.

“Extensive forestry projects are carried on. These include reforestation, road construction, telephone installation and repair, blister rust control and forest fire fighting. In each camp the primary purpose of the project is training and every boy is taught the skills necessary for any job before he is assigned to it,” he wrote.

In 1946, the Youth Conservation Camp relocated from Big Trees to Pine Grove on land leased from Lillian Payton, according to a Pine Grove brochure.

According to camp records, the workers were housed in existing structures and nearby forestry stations. Old buildings were demolished and much of the material was reused to construct new buildings, according to records.

“Floors were repaired and then replaced, walls patched, plumbing and heating repaired until it was no longer feasible to continue,” the document states.

Construction at a fire camp circa late 1960s.
Rebuilding Pine Grove YCC, 1968-69.

Rebuilding the camp

In 1962, 98 acres were purchased, including the originally leased 40 acres.

A 1965 report looking at the youth camps described Pine Grove.

“Pine Grove camp is situated in an. area of jack-pine forest just east of the town of Jackson in Amador County. A number of ranches and private homes are nearby. The area is dry and unprepossessing in appearance, although work crews often go into the more densely forested upper regions of the Sierra during the days. It is the oldest camp still operated by the Youth Authority and most of the original buildings are still in use. The buildings are primarily wooden, of peeled log and slab construction. The general appearance of the camp, through no fault of the administration, is rather dull and dreary,” according to the May 1965 report, Rehabilitative Influences in California Youth Conservation Camps.

Dull and dreary structures were soon replaced with new buildings. In 1967, forestry trailers were brought in to house the camp population while the old buildings were torn down.

The area was cleared, graded and new construction began. Again, they salvaged and reused what they could, according to the documents.

On March 4, 1968, new plans were laid out for the camp. By May 1969, construction was completed and the camp was fully occupied.

Old sign for Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp.
Pine Grove camp sign, undated.

Shiny and new

Richard Waldo was a group supervisor at Pine Grove in the mid-1970s. He started his career with the department in 1971.

“The buildings were fairly new when I started working there,” he said. “They were only a few years old.”

He said he was usually alone at the camp and worked at night. Some nights were more exciting than others.

“My fondest memories were when we had escapes and catching the guys, not letting them get away,” he said. “I chased one down through the mountains on foot and caught him.”

Aside from the occasional escape, he said he enjoyed his time at Pine Grove.

“I developed a softball diamond at the camp,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s still there or not. I took a crew out and we hoed out the weeds and diamond so we could play softball.”

He said he still vividly recalls the layout of the camp.

“There was a barracks building where the wards stayed and there was an office building that held administrators and employees for fire (and the prison system), the warehouse, a separate kitchen building,” he said. “There was a staff barracks (for prison staff) and I stayed there for several months.”

He also remembers the cook at the time.

“Old Jim Bowie, our cook, used to haul his trailer behind his pick up and park it when he was on duty,” he said.

He said his reasons for joining the department mirrored those of many others.

“I joined the department because I needed a job,” he chuckled. “Actually, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to help with some of these juvenile delinquents, not knowing what I was going into. I had aspirations of becoming a counselor, which I did when I transferred from camp to the complex in Stockton. I was a counselor for 13 years there and crossed back over to a sergeant in custody and then promoted to lieutenant.”

He continued in the juvenile field.

“I developed the Northern California work program where I placed different wards at job sites that needed to be done with specific skills,” he said.

Waldo said his time at Pine Grove was special.

“I really enjoyed camp and I tried to go back up there as a counselor because I really enjoyed the area and the atmosphere,” he said. “It was much better than down here in the valley but I never made it back up there.”

Lt. Waldo retired in 1996 after 25 years of state service. His is a founding director of the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation and the organization’s current National Director and Treasurer.

An inmate transport bus surrounded by pine trees.
A bus at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, undated.

Community involvement

Nov. 22, 1978, newspaper clipping with the headline "Holiday Swag."
A 1978 newspaper clipping highlights the camp’s community Christmas Bough program, which continues today.

For more than a dozen years, Richard Forster served as a Youth Correctional Counselor at the camp, retiring in 2012.

Today, he serves as the District 2 Supervisor for Amador County.

“It’s a good facility and they’ve done a lot of good things in the communities,” Forster said. “The camp has done a phenomenal job. They put in a lot of community services.”

In 2010, the camp celebrated 65 years and Forster was there.

“We were overwhelmed for a little while,” he recalled. “We had the open house and we have over 500 or 600 people there.”

The Secretary at the time, Matthew Cate, visited the camp during the open house as well.

“We’re glad the camp is in Amador County,” Forster said. “The community loves the camp. Besides fire suppression, they do lots of community projects.”

One of their more popular annual projects is creating Christmas boughs.

“I usually go pick up the wreaths,” Forster said.

The boughs are distributed to cities and unincorporated communities in Amador County as well as a few in Calaveras County.

A 1996-1997 Amador County Grand Jury report summed up their annual review of operations with a glowing endorsement.

“The Pine Grove Camp is well run. The staff is committed to providing a positive environment for the wards,” the report states. “The Camp is an asset to the community and provides necessary, and sometimes critical, services to the surrounding areas.”