They were called the Old Timers and "can't" was not a part of their vocabulary. They were a domestic corps of 225 government men and women raised on responsibility, honed on humility, and committed to conservation. Forty years before the Greatest Generation, they were sent out to bring order to chaos, plant trees, tame the range wars, lay out paths, build bridges, fences, stone walls and log cabins. They were hired to calculate distances, record stands, measure the depths of rivers, and mark timber for a growing nation. They thought of themselves as contributing to the greater good and the man under whom they served, the man they referred to affectionately as their "Old Chief," addressed them by their last names. Between 1905-1910, first Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt offered them a fighting chance at a better life, to go West and "grow up with the country."
When I first discovered 5,000 pages at the Library of Congress labeled simply "The Old Timers," I didn't understand their significance. Over the past ten years, I've come to think of these 225 letters as a kind of alphabet of American values containing ideas we could lean up against in times when solutions are hard to find and easy meditations fail. At first I laughed, then I wept, at last I hooted and slowly came to believe that the Old Timers Collection would change us for the better. They would transform the national discussion. We'd start having a new conversation about who we are as Americans, which isn't an easy thing to define.
The Old Timers weren't trite or condescending. They weren't talking in symbols or soundbites. They were talking about an America that belongs to all of us and for which they had decided to take responsibility. They talked about what they had done, how they did it, and what it had meant to the lives of others. How it was more important to serve each other than ourselves. How attitude was everything and courage was essential.
I thought of the Old Timers as showing us a way out of the woods or a way back into the woods to recall where we found our strength, our wealth, and what we cared about. I let their stories wash over me for years, each one resonating at a different time and for a different reason. Out of the blue, I'd recall some line or some idea that made sense all of a sudden.
We might say the Old Timers helped us make a course correction at a critical time. They'd say they simply needed a job or that they were lured by the call of the wild, by the scent of Noble fir, and the sound of silence. One described the pasture grass where he worked as "knee high and country lovely." Gradually, I came to hear their stories as a call to a higher self. There is a story for each of us. But the Old Timers are asking for something in return. They're asking us to put down our devices, pull up a chair, light a candle, and imagine. They want us to retrace our steps for the sake of America. They ask that we remember who we were one hundred years ago when one, Charles J. Bayer of Pinedale, Wyoming, wrote to Gifford Pinchot, "It is all a beautiful country."