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The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps

posted on August 30, 2013

A little more than five years ago the U.S. economy began its recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But there are still those among us who remember that time 80 years ago that crushed the spirit of many Americans. Many lost the family farm, thousands of businesses went bankrupt and millions were unemployed.

President Herbert Hoover’s attempts to fix the problem failed. By 1932, a financially desperate nation elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s recovery plan– dubbed the New Deal – was a series of programs designed jump start the economy. Decried by some and praised by others, programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps put millions back to work. Between 1933 and 1942 the boys of the CCC made improvements to the land that can still be seen today. And, as Paul Yeager reports, the CCC’s legacy runs deeper than the stone shelter houses they left behind.

The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps

     Many of the lodges, picnic shelters, dams and trails found in state and federal parks across the U.S. were built by 8 decades ago by young men who were in many cases not even old enough to vote. They were members of the Civilian Conservation Corp and often referred to as the “Boys of the CCC.”

Bill Jamerson, CCC Historian:  “They were paid a dollar a day, thirty dollars a month.  A dollar back then was worth twenty dollars today.  You could buy a dozen eggs for seven cents, a new pair of shoes for a buck and a half, five gallons of gas for a dollar.  So, it was actually a pretty fair deal.  Three square meals a day... A lot of food… It was a big step up for a lot of guys.”

    Bill Jamerson has spent a lot of time researching and interviewing the young men who were part of the federal conservation effort that stretched across the United States.  He has written a book titled “Big Shoulders,” produced the documentary “Camp Forgotten,” and performs on the CD “Crazy Khaki Kids” which is a collection of songs he wrote about life in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Bill Jamerson, CCC Historian:  “A lot of people become a little teary eyed in my programs.  These are heart felt stories.  Abject poverty really brings families together.  And people in my audience, anyone in their 70’s or 80’s, they know.  They know how hard it was and what they struggled.  And these stories bring back memories.  They bring back memories.” 

    In 1933, the United States was suffering through the Great Depression, a time when stocks lost 89% of their value and nearly one in four Americans out of work.  Many voters felt it was time for a new deal from a new president.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt became that new president and in his first month in office he created number of back-to-work programs known as the New Deal.  The Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC was one of the first New Deal programs that made the federal government the employer of last resort. 

Owen Beaman, CCC Boy:  “Times were tough, my dad had died and my mother, I and my brother were still at home and you couldn’t find a job or anything.  And we lost the farm, my dad had spent his lifetime saving up a little to buy the farm and he owed quite a bit on it and lost the farm.  We needed eating money, my mother needed eating money.”

    Only single men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, whose families were on relief, were eligible to join the Civilian Conservation Corp.  A CCC Boy received room and board, clothing, training and a monthly paycheck of $30 dollars, 25 of which was sent home to his family.

Universal Newsreel:  “After inspecting Skyland, the Commander and Chief takes a seat at the head of the table to eat with the boys.  And he enjoys every bite of the plain wholesome food furnished at the camp. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “It’s very good to be here at these Virginia CCC camps.  I wish I could see them all over the country.  I wish I could take a couple of months off from the White House and come down here and live with them because I know I would full of health the way they have.  The only difference is they’ve put on an average of twelve pounds apiece since they got here and I’m trying to take off twelve pounds.”

    Despite its name the Civilian Conservation Corps was in many ways a military organization.  U.S. Army officers commanded the camps.  Even the equipment was military with much of it, including the uniforms, being World War I surplus.   A typical day in a CCC camp started with reveille at 6am followed by roll call, calisthenics, breakfast and then clean up.  At 8am sharp the work began.

Don Foley, CCC Boy: “They would take us down to a big area there where we would all line up.  And then the government would turn us over to the state, to go to work for the state.  And it was all state work from then on.  Till four o’clock in the afternoon.  Then they turned you back over the government again.”

    The purpose of the CCC was to help the nation’s human resources while simultaneously improving America’s natural resources.  The work of the Civilian Conservation Corp extended well beyond the many stone structures found in state parks today across the United States.  Often referred to as Roosevelt’s Tree Army the work of CCC boys extended to projects including reforestation, revitalization of overworked agricultural land, and preventing soil erosion.

    In fact, 75 percent of CCC work projects were administered by the Department of Agriculture.   Besides fighting fires, erecting more than 3 thousand fire towers and planting 3 billion trees, CCC boys constructed dams, built irrigation canals that provided essential water to western farms and dug ditches that drained more than 84 million acres of agricultural land. 

Otto Schwartz, CCC Boy: “We were in a soil conservation group and there was lots of shovel work involved.  I think we had one little cat that they could use for moving larger quantities or heavy rocks and stuff like that.  Bit most of it was done by hand with picks and shovels.  I grew up in a hurry, I can tell you that.”

    During the Great Depression, the CCC provided economic relief to families by putting approximately 3 million young men to work.  It gave the CCC boys the tools they would need to become successes later in life.  And the CCC gave the nation improvements to natural and agricultural resources that are still visible across America’s landscape 80 years later.

Owen Beaman, CCC Boy:  “I look at it now and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to us as young people then that didn’t have a job.  And I think it was a good deal.  I think Franklin Roosevelt knew what he was doing.”

 For Market to Market I’m Paul Yeager. 

Tags: CCC Civilian Conservation Corps FDR Franklin Delano Roosevelt New Deal The Great Depression