Friday, June 16, 2017
A Tree Army & a Godsend: The Civilian Conservation Corps
(An updating of a very old piece from The Way-Back Files –The Farmington Valley Herald, July 1979.)
“I propose to create [the CCC] to be used in complex work, not interfering with abnormal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Roosevelt’s Tree Army. That’s what they called it. In April 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were established by executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Always passionate about conservation – what else would one expect from a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt? – he had set up a smaller but similar program in New York when he was governor and knew that it could work on a national scale as well.
The CCC became one of the most successful and most popular of all the New Deal relief programs, providing unmarried young men between 18 and 26 across the country with work, housing, and food. During its nine-year run, it supervised such projects as the construction of roads and trails through state forests; fire prevention and control; and forest planning. Other projects involved re-seeding grazing lands; soil-erosion control; stream improvement; the erection of fire towers; and the building of wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, and animal shelters.
There were also educational programs in the camps. The success of these programs “was determined by the initiative and qualifications of the Educational Adviser stationed in each camp,” observes the National Association of the Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. “The attitude and cooperation of the camp commander was also important. These programs varied considerably from camp to camp, both in efficiency and results. However, throughout the Corps, more than 40,000 illiterates were taught to read and write. Since most of this training was on the enrollee's own time, undoubtedly each gained that for which he worked the hardest, be it high school diploma, learning to type, or wood carving.”
In Connecticut and New York state, workers doggedly fought the gypsy moth epidemic, Dutch elm disease, and the European pine shoot moth. When the Colt Dike in Hartford burst in the spring of 1936 and flooded one-fifth of the city, the CCC offered its services to Governor Wilbur Cross.
The state “turned CCC men out of camps to help wherever they could,” recalled former State Forester W. F. Schreeder. The program was, he added “cheap for what they [the government] paid.”
Schreeder, who had worked for the CCC as a surveying engineer, said that when the program began, each state had the “privilege” of maintaining camps. There were 20 of them scattered throughout Connecticut.
George Mueller, one of my parents’ oldest neighbors, had worked in a CCC camp as a young man. The work was, he told me, “a wonderful opportunity for the boys who liked it. Jobs were nil – there just weren’t any.”
Mueller had worked on gypsy moth control with the CCC in upstate New York for a year. He remembered going through given sections of the woods, checking each tree, and cutting down infested brush. Forest rangers would occasionally put up false egg clusters made of clay to make sure that the men were doing the job thoroughly – and they “raised particular hell if they found out you hadn’t.”
The program was semi-military in its insistence on following regulations. Inspections were held in the mornings, and “if you took a day off, you were AWOL, same as you were in the Army.” Repeating offenders would be dropped from the CCC: there were always more men looking for work.
The army “actually ran the camps,” feeding, clothing, and housing the men, Schreeder explained. They received $30 dollars a month: $25 would go home to their families, and they’d keep $5 for personal expenses.
One camp in Connecticut was, Schreeder recalled, made up entirely of World War I vets. They more than appreciated the work. The Hoover administration had denied them their bonuses, and they had suffered heavily from public disapproval of American involvement in the war.
“After World War I, Army enrollment lowered,” Mueller corroborated. “The government didn’t want a big standing army. Being assigned to the CCC camps was good duty for them [the vets].”
Both he and Schreeder agreed that the program was run satisfactorily for the amount of time and money put into it. “If we had a program like that today, the state would be better off,” the latter declared. “It took the boys off the streets, taught ‘em to work, and made men out of ‘em.”
Mueller compared the CCC favorably to some of the current Comprehensive Employment and Training (CETA) programs, which he viewed as being sloppily set up and a waste of money. Perhaps, he speculated, being run along military guidelines kept the New Deal program from taking a similar turn.
“I’m not sure if young men would work for those wages now,” he remarked. “At the time, we thought it was a godsend. People were able to say, ‘I’m still working and supporting my family. I’m earning what I’m getting.’”
Schreeder took a slightly more wistful tone. “I wonder,” he said in a letter written after our interview, “how many people realize that many of the facilities they now enjoy at state parks and state forests were originally provided by the work of the CCC.”