5. The camps were built near communities in mostly rural areas
Most of the camps were built near communities of all sizes, but the meager amount of pay which enrollees were allowed to retain limited their ability to avail themselves of the entertainments offered. Some of them were offered in the camps themselves. Mess halls could double as movie theaters or stages for live productions. So could recreation halls, which offered various entertainments and gym facilities. Medical facilities and a dispensary were part of the camp structure. Most camps eventually had a camp store or commissary where cigarettes, chocolate bars, soft drinks, and magazines could be purchased. Alcohol was not allowed in the camps – though it frequently found its way in.
The men in the barracks kept their clothes in footlockers near their bunks, and were required, upon rising in the morning, to make their beds in the approved army fashion before starting out upon their day. It was their responsibility to ensure that the cleanliness of their barracks and the grounds around them were maintained by army standards, while the mess halls and recreational facilities were maintained by the men assigned to staff them. The camps were fully integrated during the first weeks, a fact intolerable to powerful southern Senators, and by mid-1935, at their insistence, reinforced by their control of funding, the CCC camps were segregated.
6. The Indian Division of the CCC did not reside in camps
The Great Depression was particularly hard on the Native American tribes in the west, and the CCC created the Indian Division to provide work on and near the reservations where many resided. On paper, they were designated in groups which were called camps, but the Indian Division did not erect camps, instead moving the enrollees and their families from job location to job location, providing an allowance to offset rental expenses. Enrollees from the Native American tribes were accepted between the ages of 17-35 and they worked on diverse projects including the construction of roads and dams, and erosion control systems.
The Indian Division provided training which went beyond the on-the-job training offered to and by the rest of the CCC. Classes were established to improve literacy and to provide specific job skills outside the range of a particular construction or improvement project. There was training as truck drivers and heavy equipment operators, animal husbandry, carpentry, surveying, gardening, and many more areas which provided skills not previously offered on the reservations. The training expanded to include academic subjects by 1941, and more than 80,000 Native Americans participated in the programs offered by the CCC in conjunction with tribal leaders and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
The CCC worked on projects which fell within ten classifications, which included, erosion control, flood control, forest protection, forest culture, transportation, structural improvements, recreation, range management, wildlife control and protection, and emergency projects required due to natural disaster or phenomena. They built fire towers and woodland structures, logging roads and firebreaks, dams and irrigation channels, planted trees and shrubs, as well as created campgrounds and outdoor recreation areas. On the open ranges, they established livestock driving paths and worked to eliminate the threat from predators. They stocked streams and lakes with fish. They worked in mosquito abatement programs and swamp management.
They built stone retaining walls along the national parkways and in the national parks. The overlooks, stone retaining walls, and grades along both sides of Virginia’s Skyline Drive were built by the CCC (the first CCC camps were built in or near Shenandoah National Park). Eventually the CCC built much of the roadway too, including the section between Thornton Gap and Front Royal, completing the project in 1936. The construction of the roadway included the boring of a tunnel through Mary’s Rock. Also built along Skyline drive were campgrounds, ranger shelters, service buildings, picnic areas, and backcountry hiking trails which included wooden bridges and stairs cut into the slopes, with treads of stone or wood.
8. The CCC was enormously popular while much of the New Deal was not
FDR’s New Deal was not well-received by large segments of the population, uniformly viewed with contempt by conservatives as a solid push of the United States towards socialism. But the CCC was favored with overwhelming public approval from the outset. The public approved of the employment being offered and the projects being completed. In 1936, a Gallup Poll reported that 82% of those queried whether they were in favor of the CCC camps responded with a yes. 67% of Republicans favored the camps and 92% of Democrats agreed. Enrollment in the camps had, by then, been reduced to 350,000 down from its peak of 505,000 in August of 1935.
In 1937, Congress formally established the CCC as a separate entity and funded it for another three years. The age for participation was altered to include men aged 17-23, and the requirement for the enrollees to have been on relief was eliminated. At least ten hours per week of vocational training for all enrollees was implemented. Academic classes were also made part of the program for enrollees who had not completed high school. Students on summer break were allowed to enroll in the program on a temporary basis. Although the CCC was placed on an independent basis, it was still considered to be an emergency measure rather than a permanent agency of the government.
The year 1937 was a year of severe flooding in many sections of the United States, including New York State and the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. The following year saw a major hurricane strike the coast of New England, with disastrous results. The CCC, already held in high public regard, responded to the natural disasters as an emergency relief and recovery operation, removing debris and restoring damaged infrastructure. CCC camps provided the manpower and the expertise to restore much of the damage from the floods in the Midwest, and the creation of dams and levees to avert similar disasters in the future.
In 1939, Congress placed the CCC under the administration of the Federal Security Agency, ending its short period as an independent agency. At the time, there were about 5,000 army reserve officers in charge of the camps. They were transferred to the civil service. The link between the army and the CCC was thus eliminated just as war clouds were gathering over Europe. The government began assigning work projects which were needed for the expansion of the army and national defense, and the agency began building infrastructure for the use of the military, including training camps and airfields. Though the army no longer controlled the management of the camps, the CCC was increasingly involved with military projects by the beginning of 1940, the year Congress passed America’s first peacetime draft.
10. The CCC had some alumni, who later became famous for other pursuits
Some of the men who served in the CCC became famous for reasons other than the skills acquired during the time they were enrolled. Major League baseball Hall of Famer and the hero of the St. Louis Cardinals Stan Musial was enrolled at one time in the CCC. Nor was he the only baseball star to have served, Red Schoendienst also spent time in the CCC, during which he suffered an eye injury that had a detrimental effect on his playing career, or so he later said. He and Musial were later teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals. Another athlete who worked for a time in the CCC became the Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Archie Moore, who organized boxing competitions in his camp at Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
Several actors who later achieved lasting fame worked for the CCC during harder times. Among them were Robert Mitchum, who worked as a ditch digger, and Raymond Burr, who worked planting trees and shrubs as part of the CCC’s landscape management projects. He later achieved fame portraying Perry Mason on television, as well as performing in numerous memorable movie roles. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, was with the CCC in 1939 and 1940. Alvin C. York, famous to history as the World War I hero Sergeant York, was a project superintendent with the CCC, directing the creation of Byrd Lake in Cumberland Mountain State Park in Tennessee.
11. The CCC built much of the infrastructure of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park
In the Great Smokey Mountains, 23 CCC camps were established for the purpose of building logging and forest maintenance roads, firebreaks, hiking trails, observation towers and fire control towers, bridges and traffic roads, and service buildings. They constructed retaining walls, installed fresh water distribution systems, campgrounds, picnic areas, and mapped trail routes. The Rockefeller Memorial in the park was built by the CCC. The CCC also landscaped many areas, planted trees and shrubs to control soil erosion, dammed or re-routed streams, and were responsible for renovating many of the historic buildings which can be found in the park.
After the Tennessee Valley Authority (another New Deal Agency) built Norris Dam/Norris Lake, the CCC was dispatched to the new lake to create recreational facilities to allow the taxpayer to take advantage of the lake which they had paid for. Cove Lake State Park was laid out and built by the CCC nearby. Norris Dam State Park was also designed and built by the CCC to take advantage of Norris Lake, which was also stocked with various game fish by the agency. Big Ridge State Park was likewise built by the CCC, and what had originated as a project to provide electrification for remote areas of the Tennessee Valley led to the creation of a major recreation area still resorted to with acclaim by tourists and locals.
12. The CCC taught many young Americans to read and write
The educational level of the young men who enrolled in the CCC varied widely, with some having little to no education, while others had reached college before financial straits forced them to withdraw. Some arrived at the camp functionally illiterate. Educational initiatives within the camps were at first at the discretion of the camp’s authorities, and in some barracks better educated men began to teach the less fortunate to read and write on their own time. By the late 1930s, formal education classes were offered. During its existence, the CCC taught over 110,000 men who had entered the camps illiterate how to read, how to write, and basic arithmetic, beginning in the first year of existence on a volunteer basis, at the first camp in Virginia.
In 1991, one of the men who arrived at Camp Roosevelt in the first group of men enrolled in the CCC, George Dant, described the early days at the camp. He recalled the dreariness of the camp, then still under construction, and the efforts to alleviate the boredom by the camp’s officers. After a request for books and magazines was sent to authorities, a truckload of books arrived from Washington, donated by libraries, and he was astonished at the voraciousness of those who could read assaulting the books. Most of the books had been donated because they could not pass the libraries’ censors, due to their pornographic nature. “They were almost too educational”, he reported. The books were soon replaced with others deemed more suitable.
13. CCC workers gained an average of 12 pounds during their stay at the camps
At the time the CCC camps were started, the United States Army spent forty-five cents per day per man feeding its troops (about $8.50 in 2018). The average for sustenance spent by the CCC was $1.50 per day beginning in 1933. Breakfast in the CCC camps varied by location and the availability of local produce, but oatmeal was a staple, as were eggs and bacon, potatoes and hominy, fresh bread, coffee and milk, and fruits in season. Lunch was equally hearty while in the camps, though sometimes those at more remote worksites relied on the same canned rations distributed to the army, supplemented with canteens of water. To atone for the often unpalatable c-ration lunch, dinner was expanded.
Throughout its existence, the CCC enrolled men who were suffering from want and the shortages caused by the lack of money during the Great Depression. Approximately 70% of the enrollees entered the CCC showing the effects of malnourishment, and underweight. The physical labor performed outdoors and the quality of the food provided improved their health and physical fitness at the same time that it provided lasting benefits to the nation. Nearly all of the men gained weight, but not to the level of it becoming a danger to their health. The camp newspaper Happy Days, from a CCC camp in North Carolina, extolled, “This is a training station; we’re going to leave morally and physically fit…”
14. Daily life was a routine similar to that of the Army
Another of the veterans of Camp Roosevelt, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, recalled life at the camp as, “the longer I stayed, the better I liked it”. Camp life was routine, with the day beginning at 6.00 AM, the men rising, making their beds, and straightening up their barracks area. Following breakfast they dressed in the work clothes which had been issued them, which were army fatigues for the most part. They then went to the nearby headquarters of the government agency responsible for the work they were doing, in the case of Camp Roosevelt, the Forest Service, where they received their assignments for the day. When inclement weather forced them to pause their main project, they were given other assignments for completion in the camp.
One night per week, at Camp Roosevelt, men were allowed to go into the nearby town of Edinburg, Virginia, where the entertainments offered included movies, bars, and other distractions traditionally sought by homesick young men. The men were allowed to wear their civilian clothes during the visits, though some preferred their CCC issued clothing, since their own had been so tattered when they enrolled. Transportation to town was by CCC trucks or buses, and those who missed the return ride to Camp Roosevelt faced a nine mile walk, as well as punishment for being late returning to camp. Punishment could be a monetary fine, extra camp duties, or the loss of privileges.
15. The CCC provided medical care to all of its enrollees
Since many of the men entered the CCC malnourished they were at first prone to illnesses, and the camps contained infirmaries to provide for their care. The nature of the work performed also led to accidents, some of a minor nature and others more serious. Hard work on rocky terrain led to sprains and twisted joints, woodworking and carpentry led to splinters and cuts, and accidents led to bruises, and other misfortunes. Baseball Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst suffered an eye injury which nearly led to him losing the eye, though he ignored the suggestions of doctors to have the eye removed, and eventually recovered most of his vision.
Minor cases were treated by medical personnel within the camps. Those which were too serious for local treatment were sent to the closest military hospital; in the case of Camp Roosevelt, Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. There were occasional fatalities, from work accidents and from illnesses, but they were lower overall than the statistical average for men of their age group. Overwhelmingly, the men who enrolled in the CCC left the organization in better health than when they entered it, stronger, better nourished, and with a far more positive outlook for the future.
16. The success of the CCC was due to the leadership of Robert Fechner
When President Roosevelt appointed Robert Fechner as the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps in April 1933 he all but ensured that the new agency would be a success. Fechner had a well-deserved reputation of having exceptional organizational and administrative skills, and his immediate work with the CCC did nothing but enhance it. Fechner was a labor organizer who approached the CCC with the understanding that unionization of the workers within the agency would detract from its mission, and stoutly opposed efforts from labor unions to infiltrate its ranks. When union workers persisted in attempting to recruit CCC members, Fechner expelled them from the camps.
Fechner initially resisted the attempts to provide educational classes within the camps (beyond those necessary for providing knowledge regarding the specific jobs) but gradually yielded to those who argued that basic education was necessary. By the time he died in 1939, classes were available in the camps corresponding to the educational needs of nearly all members, from illiterates to high school students. Upon Fechner’s death, of a heart attack suffered while he was still serving as Director, Roosevelt wrote to his widow, “As Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps he brought to the public service great administrative ability, vision, and indefatigable industry. His death is a loss to the CCC, and to the nation”.
17. The CCC began to take on a military nature in 1940
Although the CCC had from the outset shared many characteristics with military organizations, it had avoided being considered militaristic in reputation due to the voluntary nature of its enrollees and the direction of its projects being in the hands of civilian organizations of the government. In 1940 that began to change. In anticipation of the expansion of the army following the 1940 peacetime draft, the CCC began to build camps and training facilities for the military. Some of its own camps were converted for military uses. In the late 1930s the CCC was no longer being used solely as a relief organization, and the life in the camps began to take on a more regimented routine, including mandatory daily physical fitness activities.
Conscription and the growing American economy, which was benefiting from the American programs to support Great Britain (and later the USSR) reduced the number of men eligible for the CCC, and the shift of focus towards national defense limited the budget for internal conservation projects. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor all CCC work was shifted to support of the military, expanding existing bases and facilities. Men serving in the CCC were eligible for Selective Service. Some CCC camps were disbanded, with the CCC units transferring to the military bases where their work was performed, and by then both the work and their living situation was under military control.
Back in the days when the Congress of the United States passed budgets which followed the fiscal year, expiring on June 30, the 77th Congress decided the CCC was redundant, and funding for its operations ended on that date in 1942. Many of the camps were absorbed by the War and Navy Departments, others by state organizations, and still others were simply abandoned. Congress continued to fund the liquidation of the CCC (resolving and archiving records, establishing the status of incomplete projects, etc.) until 1948, when the process was declared complete. By then FDR was dead and Harry Truman expressed little interest in renewing the agency in peacetime.
Some former CCC camps were expanded during World War II to serve as internment camps for German, Italian, and Japanese nationals who were in the United States when the war began. Others were used to house conscientious objectors, who performed public service projects similar to those of the CCC but on a much smaller scale throughout the war. Other camps were expanded even further as housing facilities for prisoners of war as they began to arrive in the United States, beginning with Germans and Italians captured in North Africa in 1942 (most of the interned Japanese Americans along the west coast were held in camps built by the army).
19. The CCC was never officially closed by Congress
Officially the Civilian Conservation Corps was never terminated by legislative or executive order. Congress merely ceased to fund it in 1942. The equipment it operated was transferred to other agencies, both federal and state. Its forest fire fighting capability and equipment was absorbed by several federal and state agencies responsible for the maintenance and protection of public lands, and many of the techniques developed by the CCC are still used in combating forest fires. Many state agencies employ young men and women in a manner similar to that adopted by the CCC, providing food, housing, and work training for those who enroll in their programs.
There are over 100 programs across the United States in the 21st century which operate along the lines of the CCC model, spread across 41 states. Some are federal programs, some are state programs, and some are both, with state operated programs receiving federal funds. The Departments of the Interior, Labor, Agriculture, and Education are some of the federal level departments which support CCC model agencies across the country. Several philanthropic organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Mott Foundations, provided funding to create new corps organizations, and continue to support them with funding. The AmeriCorps program supports many of these organizations.
One must but open one’s eyes in one of America’ National Parks, most of its state parks, and in many of its community parks, to observe the legacy of the CCC. During its existence, the men of which it was comprised planted over 3 billion trees, in parks, along roadways, and lining city streets. One of the largest urban parks in the United States, Cincinnati’s Mount Airy Forest, was built almost entirely by the CCC; until the early 21st century the former CCC camp served as a homeless men’s rehabilitation center. Many of the former CCC camps still stand, at least partially, restored as museums or recreational facilities.
Some camps, such as Rabideau Camp in Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, continue to serve the public as education centers. The Camp for the CCC members who built New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park now serves as the administration facility for the park, and provides a museum describing the park and its construction to the public. Several states have within their community’s monuments and memorials dedicated to the CCC, inarguably one of the most successful federal programs ever established by the United States government. It gave hope, work, housing, and sustenance for over 3,000,000 out of work American men during the course of its existence while literally changing the landscape of the United States, and of its history.
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