World War II Vets Housed in Trailer Camps
Vetsville. Cassell Heights. Hurricane Hill.
These are three places that no longer exist on the Virginia Tech campus, but for several years they were "home" to hundreds of students and their families.
With the end of the war and the offer of education to veterans under the G.I. Bill of Rights, Virginia Tech became a popular place in 1946. Wartime training programs were concluded and both high school graduates and those who had education plans interrupted by war service looked to Blacksburg. The influx of students pushed enrollment to higher levels than had been seen before. In a report to the Board of Visitors on August 13, 1946, President John Hutcheson said,
"The enrollment of regular students has increased from approximately 500 in the winter quarter, 1945, to approximately 1800 for the spring quarter of 1946. During this period the number of full-time graduate students increased from 11 to 132. The office of admissions informs me that by the opening of the fall quarter, we will have at least 3000 students on the campus and in the Blacksburg community, and approximately 500 at the Radford Ordnance Works if adequate facilities can be provided at that point. In addition, we will probably have between 300 and 400 students enrolled in our extension branches."
In the same report, he said, "We have been working day and night for the past eight months to provide additional housing for veterans. We hope by the opening of the fall quarter to have 200 trailers on the campus ready for the occupation of married veterans and dormitory space for 500 single veterans at the Radford Ordnance Works."
Laying the Groundwork
University officials were aware of the coming problems with housing the influx of students while dealing with maintenance issues that had been deferred due to the war and material shortages. The "day and night" work started in November 1945, when the administration started to negotiate with the National Housing Agency in the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA) to obtain government trailers that were no longer in use. The Board of Visitors gave the administration permission to develop plans and rent a unit of 40 trailers. Stuart K. Cassell, the college business manager, met with James Craven, who was the supervisor of several trailer parks around Winchester. Arrangements were made to obtain approximately 40 trailers from the Cavalry Remount Facility and K-9 training Center in Front Royal and former POW camps in Timberville and Winchester. Throughout November 1946, Cassell visited the trailer park in Front Royal and corresponded with several contractors to make arrangements to move the trailers to Blacksburg.
The initial contract for bailment with the government for use of 40 trailers was issued in December. Under the terms of the contract, the government retained ownership of the trailers. The college was responsible for the cost of building the park to include installing utilities, roads, and sidewalks, plus covering the cost of dismantling the trailers at their initial site, moving them to the campus, and re-erecting them in the park. These costs were later reimbursed by the FPHA. The first contract covered 32 standard trailer units and two toilet-utility trailer units from Timberville, Virginia, eight surplus expansible trailer units from Winchester, Virginia and one toilet-utility trailer unit from Front Royal (read the details of the trailer types). Cassell then began the process to find a contractor to move the trailers to Blacksburg. This involved dismounting each trailer and adding an undercarriage with wheels and tires, packing the furniture, moving the trailers (for the initial order, following U.S. 11 from Winchester south -- no I-81 at that time), then re-setting the trailers on horses in Blacksburg.
The first trailer park was established in early 1946 around Solitude and the Duck Pond. Veterans inquiring about trailer housing were told "The trailers will be located at the lower end of the campus between Davidson Hall and the Lakes. They are within walking distance of all departments of the college. The trailers are being installed adjacent to a large dwelling. We hope it an early date to convert this dwelling into a club or community house which will be available to the occupants of the trailers. It is the present plan to provide several rooms in this house which can be used as reading rooms, study rooms, etc."
The college had its own crew handle installation of the water, sewer, and electric lines. Each trailer would have electricity and cold running water in the kitchen. The utility trailers would have separate toilet and shower facilities for men and women, with hot and cold running water. The standard trailer was approximately 22 feet long and 7 feet wide with two fold-out couches that opened into double beds. The expansible trailer was approximately 22 feet long and 18 feet wide with a couch that opens into a double bed and two beds.
The plans were ambitious, with the idea of having trailers ready for the start of the quarter on January 1, 1946. Because the trailers were being provided under a contract with the Federal Public Housing Authority, only "married veterans who expect the house their families at Blacksburg while attending school will be eligible to rent a trailer" and that "those Veterans with children will be given preference in assigning the expansible trailers."
Veterans who inquired were told to apply promptly, with applications being reviewed and allocations announced on December 22. There was a contingency plan should the trailers not be available on January 1. Veterans were offered a room in the barracks and meals at the Dining Hall for $1.15 per day, mattress provided. They were also told "Since living accommodations are so overcrowded in Blacksburg, it is doubtful if any place can be found for the family to stay until the trailers are ready."
On December 22, those who applied were notified that they qualified for a trailer but "It now appears almost certain that all of the trailers will not be ready for occupancy January 1 as the extremely cold weather and heavy snow have delayed the moving and installation." There were other delays due to the condition of the trailers and furnishings. Cassell was informed that some trailers were missing mattresses, drapes, and partition drapes for the expansible trailers. The invoices for the transfer of the trailers also noted that one of the trailers "had bad roof leak causing damage to ceiling panels which had to be replaced" and "the interior of all trailers were in bad state of repair, needed cabinet hardware, curtain rods, tables repaired, couches overhauled and cleaned. All cook stoves and heaters had to be overhauled before using." One of the toilet and shower trailers "had to be refloored, one toilet broken and pipes broken when the unit was unfolded and repainted." Problems with the gasoline cook stoves would continue to plague the project.
Due to the demand for trailers, the contract was amended to add five more standard trailers, five more expansible trailers, and another toilet unit from Front Royal.
When the trailers arrived, at a transport cost of $7,619, the sites for the trailers were ready with water and sewer connections, electrical connections, and sidewalks from the street. College forces were then put to work repairing, cleaning, and painting the trailers to make them ready for move in. A request for reimbursement of $20,927 was submitted to the Federal Public Housing Authority. The first group of trailers was ready for occupancy in late January.
Not long after the first 50 trailers were put into use, the contract was increased to add more trailers in a second trailer park. Trailer Camp 2 was on the southeast side of campus, adjacent to today's Stadium Woods, near the current end of Clay Street. At that time, Clay Street extended on to campus becoming Park Row, running past Miles Stadium, the barns and show ring, and behind Hillcrest Hall. A campus house, formerly the Professor Norton house, in the vicinity of today’s tennis courts served as the "social center" for that camp. In March 1946, the college received word that it had been allocated 76 additional family trailers and support units. Site work was started to create spaces for the trailers and to extend utilities into the park. Delivery of the trailers was expected in May with hope that they would be ready for the start of the summer quarter on July 2.
This batch of trailers consisted of 22 standard trailers from Timberville and 19 standard trailers from Front Royal. To complete the allocation, trailers were selected from Portsmouth, where at the peak of the war approximately 2,500 trailers were in use to provide temporary housing for workers at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The college was allocated 21 standard trailers and 14 expansible trailers from that site. Three toilet trailers and two laundry trailers from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, filled out the allocation.
A request was made as part of this project for two additional toilet trailers, which was denied by the Federal Public Housing Authority, since the standards called for one toilet trailer for every 25 dwelling units. In addition, they had no extra trailers in the inventory. In April, a request was made to allow two toilet trailers to be transferred from the University of Virginia, which didn't need them since they were installing toilets in their trailers. The plan was to provide one additional trailer to support the second camp and use the second one to provide facilities in the park for veterans who wanted to bring their own trailers to live in while attending school. It was expected that 25 more veteran families could be accommodated.
In May 1946, the college learned that it had been allocated 324 more housing units, with 74 of those "in the form of family units to be erected on campus." In a May 6 letter from Cassell, the FPHA was asked if those units could be trailers like the 126 already allocated. Cassell said preliminary plans were already being developed for a third trailer park with the standard distribution of 14 expansible trailers, 60 standard trailers, three toilet trailers, and two laundry trailers. Trailer Camp 3 was located on down Park Row from Trailer Camp 2, adjacent to the water tower and barns. The site is now covered by Cassell Coliseum.
The letter continued, "Regarding the remaining 250 units which have been allocated to V.P.I., we understand from Mr. McDougal and from our telephone conversation with you that we must accept these located at the Radford Ordnance Works. As we have told you previously we have not given up hopes of getting some units for single veterans on the campus as we think this is the only practical solution to the problem. However, in view of the time element something must be done and we are ready to go ahead with tentative plans for using the units at the Radford Ordnance Works." This started the process in earnest to use barracks and other buildings at the shuttered Radford Arsenal to handle the increase in enrollment.
At the end of May, President Hutcheson asked that the FPHA approve the contract and development program for the Radford Ordinance Works so the housing would be ready for the fall quarter starting in September. He also asked that the office "insist that the contractor to install the trailers . . . proceed immediately" because "it was absolutely imperative" that the trailers be ready for the beginning of summer quarter on July 2. "The veterans who will occupy those trailers are now housed temporarily in one of our dormitories but these facilities will not be available to them after the beginning of the summer quarter as they will probably be needed to house single students."
As with the first trailer park, the target date for occupancy was not met. In a June 11 letter to the John Broome, Region IV director of the FPHA, Cassell reported that after meeting with a representative of the contractor, T. C. King Construction Company, at the end of May no work had started as promised. Cassell wrote, "we are of the opinion that they do not plan to start work on this project for some time." He emphasized the need to have the work completed by July 5 and asked that the FPHA staff "get after this contractor and see that he starts immediately." On June 22, Broome wrote to President Hutcheson that the contractor "was now in possession of the essential undercarriages to start simultaneous movement of the trailers from both the Front Royal and Portsmouth sources the first of the week, and that he would complete the movement in 8 to 10 days."
The request was made to include the trailers in Camp 3 as part of the installation process while the contractor was on site with men and equipment. That did not come to pass, nor did having trailers ready for the start of the quarter. This was the start of continuing problems between the contractor and the college over installation and preparation of the trailers for families to move in.
J. R. Abbitt, Director of Buildings and Grounds for the college and point person with the contractor, wrote to John Kelly, the on-site superintendent for the T. C. King Construction Company, on September 2, "As you know approximately fifty families moved into Trailer Camp #2 on August 31st, and this morning I find that only three cook stoves in the whole lot were burning satisfactorily. I had my man spend all Saturday afternoon and Sunday trying to fix these stoves, and I find a number of the essential parts are missing, and from all appearances the stoves have not been operating properly since they were last used." Abbitt continued, "From our past experience we have found that in order to get these stoves working properly, every working part should be dismantled, cleaned and in most cases entirely new parts were necessary. We also made available for your service the experience Mr. Linkous has had at Trailer Camp #1, which apparently was of no assistance to you."
Kelly's response put the problem on the trailer residents and the college, writing to Abbitt "in almost every case the failure of the stoves to operate was due to ignorance on the part of the occupants. This might have been avoided had a short course of instruction been given before the students moved in, and I advised that this be done." Abbitt kept it civil with Kelly and the contractor, but wrote to Hutcheson that "In all my dealings with Highway contractors and Federal Public Engineers as well as building contractors I have never had a job so deliberately neglected and the interest of the college or user so grossly ignored as has been done by T. C. King Company in connection with the erection of the trailer camps at V. P. I." His September 14 letter showed his concern for the incoming students/residents: "I would like to take opportunity to take exception to this statement [Kelly said they should be told about 'minor details' only once] as I feel that the use of these trailers is designed as a home for families and that a cooking stove is more essential than any other furnishings and should be in its proper working condition and put in such condition by the contractor before the trailers are occupied. Since our boys have moved into Trailer Camp No. 2 on September 1st thirty gasoline tanks in these stoves have been replaced by our men and at least thirty of the generators to these stoves have been completely dismantled and cleaned by our men before they would operate. Also, the tank cap washers are defective to the extent that the cork packing is old and deteriorated and particles of the cork get into the gasoline thereby causing stoppage. New gasoline tanks should be supplied by the contractor."
Trailer Park 3 was eventually occupied, although the problems with stoves and heaters didn't go away. Abbitt continued to be concerned about the residents of the camps and asked for salary increases to attract mechanics for each camp to maintain the trailers. He wrote to Cassell in December "I realize that increasing the salary of these men will increase the operating cost of the camps, but I think we owe it to the occupants to give them proper service since I feel it is necessary to keep the heating and cooking facilities operating constantly in each trailer. Having bad stoves and heaters with a couple is bad enough, but with the number of children increasing constantly this means we have to assert more care and see that the trailers are kept warm."
The cost of operating the camps came from the monthly rent paid by the residents. The college went back and forth with the FPHA to come up with acceptable rates for the standard and extensible trailers. In May, the final proposal was offered by Cassell in a letter to the FPHA "We would like to suggest that a rental charge of $17.00 per month for the standard trailers and $20.00 per month for the expansible trailers be established as a rental for the trailers installed on the V.P.I. campus. This rental would cover, in addition to the rent of the trailer, electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection service and fuel for the heaters and cooking stoves. We think that this would be a fair rate for this type of service in the area." Due to rising costs to the college, effective January 1, 1949, the rent for standard trailers increased to $20.00 per month and to $23.00 per month for expansible trailers. In the notice of the rent increase, Cassell wrote, "The increased expenditures have resulted largely from the increased costs of fuel oil and repairs, together with a continual increase in the consumption of electric current. The operating deficit this past year was rather large, and indications are that the expenditures for the current year will equal or exceed last years."
In a March 23, 1948, memo to Abbitt, J.M. Forbes, who had served as mayor of Camp #3, listed trailer repairs that were needed in the camp.
"1. Trailer # 200 is now vacant and is waiting on the following repairs before reassignment: Leak in the roof near the closet, broken bows in the ceiling, and a weakened floor (the carpenter should check to see if the floor requires repair).
2. Trailers 158 & 159 leak badly around window casings. #158 has a rotted panel (masonite) in the ceiling.
3. The floor in wash house X-L still urgently needs repair.
4. There are a number of leaking faucets in the Camp which are still waiting on repair. I suggest that the plumber contact me, or in my absence, the mechanic. Some of these have become steady flows.
5. All expansible trailers that have not been repainted inside by the occupants need it badly.
6. Trailer #189 has a weakened floor.
It has been noted that the trailers of camp# 2 are being painted on the outside. We sincerely hope that you plan to paint those of Camp #3 also since we are without shade and the silver paint will make it much cooler. The masonite walls will have fewer rotten spots."
In addition to paying for repairs to the trailers (which were already well-used when first obtained), the college was seeing increased electricity consumption. On January 29, 1949, S. R. Minter, head of the division of electric service for the college, reported to Abbitt about the problem of blown fuses in the trailer camps. He presented a graph of electricity that had been used over the past three years, with an "upward trend from 1946 through November 1947 and dropping slightly for the corresponding period of 1948."
He used the case of blown fuses as the reason for his investigation. He said there weren't many problems in the first year of the camps, "but during the past year we have been sending men almost daily (mostly at night) to replace fuses located on poles. The individual trailers are all equipped with 15 ampere fuses or 15 ampere circuit breakers to protect the inside wiring. In order to safeguard against trailer occupants using coins, tin foil, etc. in lieu of fuses or shunting around the circuit breakers we installed on the poles where each trailer service takes off a 20 ampere outdoor type fuse and at this location we have most of our trouble from blown fuses which clearly indicates, in most cases, that the individual trailers are drawing more then 1800 watts when the pole fuse blows. Of course, in some cases the outage is from short circuits but this doesn't happen often.
Evidently, trailer occupants are using electrical appliances, hotplates, heaters, etc. in addition to lighting which is borne out by the heavy power consumption (over 200 Kwhr) per trailer during the peak months."
The use (or misuse) of a hot plate led to one of the disasters in the trailer camps. On July 18, 1946, about 5:00 A.M., a trailer in Camp #1 was destroyed by fire, as reported by Abbitt to Cassell. The Virginia Tech in a Sept. 27, 1946, story said "The Blacksburg fire department answered a call to the site early in the morning while the wife was visiting out of town and the husband was standing a tour as night watchman at trailer camp number two." In a report from Abbitt to Cassell, it was stated that "The fire was caused by an electric hot plate burning through the top of the kitchen work table and spreading through the entire trailer. The trailer was damaged beyond repair. The entire furnishings were destroyed, which included 2 studio couches, 4 chairs and 1 table. No one was in the trailer at the time of the fire. The occupant was on night duty at the Trailer Camp now under construction. No personal injury was involved. All personal effects in the trailer were destroyed or water damaged." J. E. Bland and his wife were the unfortunate victims of the fire. He submitted an itemized list of clothing and furnishings that were lost in the fire totaling $865, for which he received "the maximum coverage of $100.00 for student property" according to a letter to Cassell from the insurance company. The FPHA eventually ruled that the college was not liable for the cost of the trailer and assisted in obtaining a replacement trailer.
In 1948, change was in the works regarding government support of temporary housing. On June 28, 1948, President Truman signed the McGregor Act, which gave institutions the ability to request that the government relinquish and transfer its property rights for projects located on land owned by the institution. Virginia Tech acted on this, requesting the ownership transfer of the 200 trailers it had on site. The college worked through the bureaucracy necessary to take ownership of the trailers and to manage the camps without oversight from the FPHA. In 1949, the college was fully in control and starting to see problems with the trailers escalate. The "temporary" trailers were starting to show more wear and tear and increased maintenance costs.
Cassell wrote to A. S. Glenn, chairman of the Radford Area Rent Control Advisory Board, in December 1949, asking that rent controls not be removed at the time because "The housing situation in this area is very acute. This is particularly true in the case of married students, young instructors, service employees and others with relatively low income who are force from economic necessity to obtain low cost accommodations."
The 200 trailers the college obtained were planned to help ease the housing problems for married veterans, but the number of trailers available was dropping. Cassell continued in his letter, mentioning the trailers that "were installed as a temporary expedient and are getting into such bad shape structurally that we are being forced to remove a number of them. We are making every effort to repair those that can be kept in useable condition but, at best, it looks as though at least 100 of these will have to be removed within the next eight to ten months." There was a small consolation, as Cassell said "The number of married students should be considerably reduced after the present senior class is graduated in June."
As a follow-up, H. W. Swink, purchasing agent for the college, wrote a long letter to A. B. Gathright, in the state Division of Purchase and Printing, offering a suggested method to dispose of the trailers outside the state surplus property system. Swink said the trailers were only meant to be portable units to be moved from one location to another and weren't built for highway travel. "These housing units are in very poor condition. They are lightly constructed and covered with fabrics which have rotted out; and because of the type of construction, leaks cause the interiors to deteriorate very rapidly. We believe the college would be very fortunate if there were some way the three trailer camps could be liquidated and cleaned up with no cost to the college."
Swink said there might be "some local demand in the immediate vicinity of Blacksburg for a few of the units for use on farms as utility houses and for similar purposes. They are not worth moving to any other institution or agency to be used for housing units, and we would not recommend them for this purposed." The plan that was proposed was to generate a mailing list of interested parties, notify those interested when bids would be accepted for trailers to be removed, then accept or reject those bids on the sale date. If there were no bids, then the college would negotiate to sell trailers, and as a last step, the unsold trailers would be demolished and destroyed.
Cassell did receive one letter of interest from an attorney in Detroit representing "some persons who are interested in purchasing house trailers of the kind and type now in your possession." Cassell replied on June 14, 1949, that trailers wouldn't be available until the end of the school session in June 1950. However, in February 1950, trailers that were unlivable were being vacated and college staff were directed to "exchange any good furniture from the condemned trailers for inferior furniture in the other trailers."
Throughout the spring of 1950, a variety of trailers were advertised for bid and sold. Those who had a winning bid had five days from the date of the sale to remove the trailers while preventing "damage of any kind to surrounding buildings, grounds, roads, or other property in the removal of units purchased." Various reports about the condition of the trailers listed such things as "Most of plywood inside loose. Outside rotten in places. Should be sold." and "Floor in bad condition. Need linoleum and repair." and "Several places patched with celotex which will give trouble." In June, more than 50 trailers were put up for bid.
In July 1950, plans were laid out for trailer rental through the coming academic year. Cassell wrote to Bates, "Our general objective is to discontinue the trailer camps as of June 1951. This objective was arrived at on the basis of two situations. First. it is not felt that the trailers are sufficiently good structually[sic] to use with safety after that period and second, the present indications are that the pressing need for these trailers will not be very acute after that period." The need didn't drop quite as fast an anticipated, but the number of trailers did decrease at a steady rate. In February 1952, for example, Camp 2 was down to 22 trailers from a full capacity of 75.
Although trailers were no longer in use as residences, some remained on campus after the end of the 1951 term. In May 1952, Cassell notified Abbitt of work that needed to be done to prepare nine trailers for use that summer. "We are setting up a Geology Field Camp at Saltville, Virginia." Cassell wrote. Utility Trailer Z, a laundry trailer, was to receive work to prepare it to be moved. Utility Trailer H was also tagged to be moved, along with seven expansible trailers. The trailers were replaced when Byron Cooper convinced the Olin Corporation to build a permanent facility in 1956.
There are few traces to be found on campus of these three camps. On March 11, 1952, President Newman wrote to Professor C. H. Cowgill about the conversion of Solitude from a community center back to a residence. "I have checked with Mr. Abbitt, and he feels that he can guarantee that "Solitude" can be put into liveable condition for occupancy by two families by September 1 or certainly by the opening of the fall session." he wrote. "I do not believe that we can spend as much as seven or eight thousand dollars on this dwelling to put it into liveable shape, but Mr. Abbitt feels that by a smaller expenditure of funds we can fix it up for two apartments without destroying the basic antiquity or design of the building."
In 1954, plans for campus expansion saw removal of several of the barns and facilities adjacent to Miles Stadium and the location of Camp 3, along with a row of houses that were rented to farm staff. Eventually a new street was extended from town, Washington St., to the north of Park Row. The street crossed Park Row at the entrance to Miles Stadium then crossed the former site of Camp 3, eventually connecting with the street in front of the new greenhouses. Park Row from Washington to the edge of campus was removed and the house that had served as the community center was eventually demolished. Hurricane Hill was cut back to make room for tennis courts, leaving only a few slabs of concrete in the edge of Stadium Woods to mark the location of Camp 2. Fittingly, the new field house that was built on the site of Cassell Heights was named Cassell Coliseum on Nov. 5, 1976, to honor the man who had so much to do with the growth of the college into a university—and who saw a need to house veterans returning from war.