Hard Times: Farm life in the 1930s taught the value of hard work | PostIndependent.com

Hard Times: Farm life in the 1930s taught the value of hard work

Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Oscar McCollum

In 1976, Oscar McCollum retired to Marble with his wife and two sons after 25 years in government service. Shortly after arriving they set to work building their own house. Oscar has written four books on the history of Marble and served as city councilman, mayor and maintenance man for the town.

McCollum: My ancestors came to the United States in the 1690s. Scotland was experiencing years of severe wet weather, and the crops and livestock were dying and people were starving. So my sixth great-grandfather came to New Jersey along with a lot of other Scots at that time.

Gallacher: Where did you grow up?

McCollum: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up there. In 1930, when I was 10 years old, my father bought a farm and moved us 18 miles outside of town. He was a lawyer who had grown up on a farm, and he wanted us to have that experience. He kept his practice in the city and commuted while my brother and I learned how to be farmers. That took some doing because we had been city kids who didn’t know much about living in the country. We had about 20 cows, 30 or 40 pigs, two horses and a bunch of chickens.

Gallacher: That was a terrible time to be buying a farm.

McCollum: Yes, it was. Because of the drought that was endemic in the ’30s we couldn’t raise enough food for the animals. I remember my dad shipping a big truckload of cows and pigs to the market in Kansas City. A week or so later, he got a bill for $5. The animals weren’t worth enough to cover the fees it took to take them to market.

My dad had a brother who was a farmer by trade, and he came to live with us. He was the one who taught us about farming. That first winter he taught us how to butcher pigs. We killed and hung five pigs in one day, just my uncle, my brother and me.

Gallacher: How did you as a city kid adjust to life on the farm?

McCollum: I thought it was great. I think every kid should get a chance to grow up on a farm. I loved being able to walk around in nature with my older brother. By the time I was in high school I was getting up at five o’clock in the morning and milking the cows and separating the cream before school.

Gallacher: The 1930s were particularly hard for a lot of folks. Was your father able to keep his law practice?

McCollum: My dad said he had more business than ever because so many people needed a lawyer to help them with their financial problems. But a lot of people couldn’t afford to pay him so they gave him things. One client gave him a Marmon car. It was a luxury car that was only built in 1928 and 1929 and then the company went bankrupt. It cost $4,000 new when a Ford cost $400. He was always bringing home things he had taken in trade.

We lived along a county road, and homeless people were coming by every day looking for a job and something to eat. We always had a big pile of wood, and my mother would put them to work chopping wood while she made them a big meal. My mom was a very generous, loving person. I feel fortunate to have been born into a good Christian family. We grew up feeling like church was part of home.

Gallacher: So how did you make your way from the plains of Kansas to the mountains of Colorado?

McCollum: That’s a long story. I was in college in Kansas City when World War II broke out. I had been rejected by the draft because I had a hernia, so I was allowed to finish college. It was while I was in college that I was chosen to come west for a geology field camp in Crystal, Colorado.

I had a $100 that I had saved from selling my milk cow. That money covered my tuition for the geology camp. I had never been to the mountains, and I fell in love with them. We surveyed and mapped the town of Crystal while we were there. I still have that map. When I went home I told my folks that I would live in Marble when I retired. I started collecting everything I could get my hands on about Marble and that area.

I finished college in 1943 and got a job with the Army Map Service (AMS) in Kansas City. My college professor was teaching a course at the AMS and he recommended me. I seemed to have a natural aptitude for drafting and map making, and I learned very quickly.

Three months later, I was moved to the AMS office in St. Louis, where I began translating the information from aerial photos to maps. That’s where I met Andrew McNally III of the Rand-McNally map family. He was the lieutenant in charge of the St. Louis office. He called me into his office one day after I had been there about six months and asked me to take over the AMS training school. I agreed, and the next week I took over.

Gallacher: You had less than a week to prepare to teach new people, how did you do that?

McCollum: Well, I felt like I knew how to teach. So I started slowly and patiently and took time with my students. In November of 1944, McNally put me in charge of the training for all six Army Map Service field offices and moved me to Louisville, Kentucky. It was there that I designed and implemented a unified training program for the six field offices and wrote a training manual and a dictionary of mapping terms.

When the War ended in 1945 all of the AMS field offices closed and only a few people were selected to move the operation back to Washington. By then thousands and thousands of soldiers were being sent home and the military needed men to replace them. In April of 1946, my draft board remembered me, and I was drafted.

I went through basic training at Fort Belvoir in Virginia in August. One morning, while I was waiting for my orders, the sergeant told me I was to report to Washington, D.C. He had no idea what it was about, he just gave me the address and told me to go.

The address turned out to be the headquarters for the agency designated to replace the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). During the war OSS was in charge of gathering foreign intelligence and conducting covert operations.

I was transferred as a military person into this unit that was initially called the Strategic Services Unit. As part of this unit I became the map expert for Clandestine Services that ran spies around world. My job was to teach spies how to use maps to collect intelligence. A few months later the agency name was changed to the Central Intelligence Group and eventually to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Gallacher: Did the secrecy start right away?

McCollum: Yes, we had a cover name and we were supposed to tell people we worked for the Department of Defense. I got my paycheck from the Pentagon, so the first thing I did was to go over to the Pentagon and visit the office where I was supposed to be working so I could talk about it with other people if I was asked.

Gallacher: But you never worked there at all.

McCollum: Right, it was just a cover. After I was there for a while they told me I didn’t need to wear my uniform. I was a buck private and one of my first jobs was to train 50 people on how to use maps to gather intelligence. So here I was a young guy teaching older military men, who outranked me, how to use maps.

Gallacher: Did you teach other courses?

McCollum: Yes, I was eventually promoted and was teaching others how to teach. I taught courses on various tradecraft (spying) subjects such as locating and recruiting potential foreign agents, how to pass information undetected, clandestine photography and surveillance.

Gallacher: Did you do that kind of work?

McCollum: Oh yes, I did a lot of it. I established a special four-person surveillance team in my office.

Gallacher: Did you do international work?

McCollum: Yes, I spent four years in the Far East on the island of Saipan with my wife and eventually my two sons. They were both born there. We were living on a secret base, and I was traveling to Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand recruiting foreign agents. Once they were recruited they were flown into the secret base in Saipan for training. They had no idea where they were going or where they were when they got there.

When I got back from Saipan I became a training officer and helped develop tradecraft curriculum at the CIA. We had lesson plans on everything from communism to demolition.

Gallacher: It sounds like a little CIA college.

McCollum: It was. We called it Baird College named after Colonel Matthew Baird, who was the director of training at that time. When I first went to work in the training division there were only 23 employees, but when I retired there were 600.

Gallacher: How much did the CIA grow in your 25 years there?

McCollum: We started with a couple hundred and there were 20,000 in Washington and 20,000 scattered around the world when I retired in 1975.

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