If you’ve been to a national or state park, chances are you’ve seen something built by the Civilian Conservation Corps: a wall, a road, a trail, a picnic shelter, a set of steps to a waterfall.
Most of these monuments to the CCC are unmarked. Today, people use them for fun, but they were built by young men who were desperate for work.
The CCC began in the depth of the Great Depression, in 1933. At the time, a quarter of American workers could not find jobs. Many of those who did have jobs did not have fulltime work. People lined up on the street to get bread or soup. Charities were overwhelmed.
Back then, there was no federal welfare and no social security. Local governments provided some help to needy people, but it was meager at best, and they could not begin to keep up with the need as the economy spiraled downward.
In that era, it was assumed that if you were out of work it was your own fault. But as unemployment kept rising, it became clear that for thousands of people, idleness was not a moral failing. They were not working because there were no jobs.
The country’s new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposed a dramatic plan. The government would hire thousands of young men and create jobs for them in parks and forests.
Roosevelt suggested the plan the day he took office, in his 1933 inaugural address:
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.
“Direct recruiting by the government” was a radical idea. To many people, it smacked of socialism. But Roosevelt insisted that the government had to do something, and he said it would be better to hire people to do useful work than to give them handouts.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was Roosevelt’s own idea. He sketched out a plan for its structure on a notepad on inauguration day. The CCC addressed two of his pet concerns: fighting unemployment, and conservation.
A few weeks into his presidency, Roosevelt talked about the new Civilian Conservation Corps in a radio address to the country, his second “fireside chat.”
[W]e are giving opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, to go into the forestry and flood prevention work. This is a big task because it means feeding, clothing and caring for nearly twice as many men as we have in the regular army itself. In creating this civilian conservation corps we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.
It was an audacious plan. Most of the young men the program aimed to help were city boys. They’d never wielded an ax or a crosscut saw. But Roosevelt proposed to send them into the woods to clear trails, fight forest fires, plant trees, and build roads.
Some of his own cabinet members had doubts about the idea of gathering large groups of unemployed city boys. And some people in the rural areas that would receive the recruits were nervous about the plan. Would these young men bring crime to the countryside, or try to date their daughters?
But the CCC wound up earning wide public support.
Hundreds of thousands of young men signed up. By mid-summer of 1933, just a few months into the program, more than a quarter of a million young men were living in CCC camps. The program accepted unemployed, unmarried young men between 18 and 25 years old (later, the age limit was expanded to 17-28), but most of the enrollees were under 20. They called themselves “CCC boys,” and so did everyone else.
The CCC boys got $30 a month; $25 of their pay was sent directly to their families, leaving them with just $5 to spend on movies in town, or gambling in camp.
They lived in tarpaper barracks and ate simple food, but for some of them, it was the first time in years that they’d had three square meals a day. In spite of doing hard manual labor, they gained weight. Expert masons and carpenters taught them new skills. At night, the boys could take classes. Some of them learned to read and write.
The Roosevelt administration published a booklet in 1938 that touted the achievements of the corps. It said the CCC had taken young men from “the congested parts of our cities,” and in some cases saved them from lives of crime:
Losing confidence in themselves over inability to find work, and beaten down at an age when they should normally be getting a start in life, these young people presented a problem of the first magnitude. The worst danger was that many of them would become so embittered and discouraged they would never be able to rehabilitate themselves.
After the CCC’s first year of operation, the booklet went on, “a remarkable amount of work had been done despite the fact that the majority of CCC enrollees were inexperienced and a great many even wholly ignorant of the fundamentals of the work they were doing.” That first year’s accomplishments included planting 98,000,000 seedlings, putting up 15,000 miles of telephone lines, building 25,000 miles of “truck trails” and spending 687,000 man-days firefighting.
Historian Richard Kirkendall says the program did more than simply provide jobs. It also “took young people who would otherwise have been standing around on street corners, and maybe thinking bad thoughts. You know, governments can be overturned. Roosevelt was well aware of that. And he thought in terms of programs like that as way of stabilizing things as well as promoting recovery.”
The CCC was the first and most popular of FDR’s programs to put Americans back to work. And it left a vast infrastructure that Americans still use every day. CCC boys didn’t only build trails and ranger’s cabins in parks; they also built larger things, such as dams, bridges and flood-control projects.
In some parts of the country, the infrastructure the CCC created still supports important economic engines. In Vermont, for example, skiing draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the state every winter. The ski industry was created by the CCC.
By the time the Civilian Conservation Corps shut down in 1942, more than three million men had enrolled. Many of them went on to careers using skills they had learned in the camps. Former member Lanyard Benoit went on to do carpentry and road work he learned in the CCC. Former member Emerson Baker learned map-making in the CCC, and made a career of it. And former member Herb Hunt, after learning military discipline in a CCC camp, moved on to a career in the Army.
Thousands of CCC boys went on to be soldiers. When the United States entered World War II, the camps emptied out and the boys traded in their CCC clothes for military uniforms. The program was finished.
Former member Emerson Baker says when he meets another CCC boy, they’re instantly friends.
“We have a basis of commonality that everybody doesn’t have,” Baker says. “Because we all started out with nothing and became something.”
“Bridge to Somewhere” is an American RadioWorks production as a part of Blueprint America. Produced by Catherine Winter and edited by Mary Beth Kirchner; help from Scott Hunter. The American RadioWorks team includes Kate Moos, Ochen Kaylan, Craig Thorson, Marc Sanchez, Ellen Guettler, Emily Hanford, Suzanne Pekow, and Stephen Smith.