When Penny Ward McKee passed away in 2014, she left behind no family in Christiansburg, Virginia. A close friend found amongst McKee’s belongings a collection of artifacts dating back to World War II that had belonged to her father — Peter “Pete” H. McKee (April 12 , 1915 – Oct. 29, 1992). The friend decided it would be a shame to see these items lost or scattered so she decided to contact the local museum.
Sherry Joines Wyatt, Collections Manager at the Montgomery Museum and Lewis Miller Regional Art Center in Christiansburg, Virginia, received the items and began seeking their proper home.
“We are a small facility and the items weren’t from here so we did a little research to find the right home for them,” said Wyatt. “As far as we know there are no local descendants so we thought the Bell County Historical Society would be the place to contact.”
In their research the Montgomery Museum found that Pete McKee began had worked as a security guard at the Radford Army Ammunition’s Plant in Montgomery County around 1945/1946 and remained in this area until his death. But he had came from Bell County. They found Pete McKee, age 25, and his wife Mabel in the 1940 Census for Pineville.
Most of the items directly pertaining to Bell county related to the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was designed to help alleviate the widespread unemployment the Great Depression had caused. They recruited unmarried, young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who were unemployed to spend six months in camps doing conservation work, primarily in the nation’s forests. They were only paid $1 a day.
The corps put most of its effort toward controlling erosion and flooding and improving forest landscaping and wildlife conditions. They planted millions of trees for reforestation and their erosion control efforts, combated floods, constructed bridges and stung telephone lines among many other things.
The War Department ran most of the camps providing supervision and discipline to the young men. This service prepared many for service in World War II. At its peak, the CCC employed half-a-million men in more than 2,500 camps, and 2.5 million men enlisted during its nine-year existence. The war and rise in nationwide employment facilitated the end of the CCC in 1942.
A partial list list of the items donated to the Bell County Historical Society Museum is as follows:
• U.S. Army 1st Sgt., 1943-1946, silver and brass plate monogrammed Pete Henry McKee.
• WWII Troop photograph, McKee and unlabeled, men wearing helmets.
• Photo of McKee and other young men at the CCC Camp in Williamsburg, taken in 1934,
• Photo of McKee and other young men at the CCC Camp in Pineville.
• Photo of the Fifth Corps Area Subaltern Training School, taken June 1941.
• Troops of Company C 515 photo.
• Winter Army dress hat, from World War II.
• Summer khaki Army dress hat, from World War II.
• A CCC wool hat.
• Folded flag in a handmade wood case; likely from McKee’s funeral.
• A framed double portrait of Mable and Pete McKee.
• National Commander’s Membership Team Plaque 1978-79.
“On behalf of the Bell County Historical Society Museum I would like to thank Sherry Joines Wyatt, and the Montgomery Museum for this wonderful donation,” said Heather Parks Cosby. “We are always so grateful to the public and other organizations who are involved in maintaining history. If it wasn’t for public support and communication between our counterparts in other places so much history would be lost.”
The museum is always seeking items pertinent to the history of Bell County. They also welcome stories and other written work to be submitted for review for inclusion into their publication, “The Gateway.”
Anyone interested in volunteering at the museum, has items to donate, or photos they can make copies of can visit the Bell County Historical Society Museum at 207 North 20th Street in Middlesboro. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Friday.
For more information about the museum and their projects or to join the Bell County Historical Society, contact them at 606-242-0005 or visit their Facebook page.
Reach William Tribell at (606) 302-9100 or on Twitter @wtribellmdn