It was coincidence last week that in two different sources, I ran across mention of a brief period of American history that made a big impact on many lives. I was reading the book, Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door. It’s a fascinating autobiographical account taken from the author’s letters and journals from 1944 to 1946. The book chronicles Etta Koch's life after she, her husband and three daughters leave their comfortable home in suburban Cincinnati, fit whatever they can into a 23 foot trailer and follow her husband's dream of making natural history films in what was to become Big Bend National Park in Texas. Throughout the book, Koch makes reference to the Civilian Conservation Corps – the remnants of an abandoned CCC camp had been turned into Park Service Headquarters, and the “CCC boys” built some of the roads in the area.
I may have heard about the Civilian Conservation Corps, or even read a paragraph or two about it in a high school history book; I remember neither. It was an article in our local newspaper that appeared shortly after reading Koch’s book that spurred my interest in learning about this Depression-era program. The newspaper article announced a CCC film documentary would be shown at the college campus in town, to be followed by a discussion led by the filmmaker.
It’s not surprising I don’t remember the CCC. Though it was one of the most popular programs of its time, “The CCC was one of the most overlooked chapters in American history,” says filmmaker, author and songwriter, Bill Jamerson. “Most of their efforts were forgotten – only remembered by the trees that grew silently in their absence.” His PBS documentary “Camp Forgotten” strives to make remembered the stories and efforts of the more than 3.5 million young men who were given the nickname “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.”
As part of newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal package, the Civilian Conservation Corps was an environmental program designed to both put unemployed young men back to work during the Great Depression, and to aid in the restoration of the country’s natural resources.
Across the nation from 1933 to 1942, “The CCC Boys” planted over 5 billion trees, built National Parks, fought forest fires, prevented soil erosion, and helped to construct the country’s infrastructure. Here in Michigan, in addition to building roads, bridges and buildings, over 484 million trees were planted. It’s interesting to think that many of those white, jack and red pines may have come from the nursery where I work; the timing is right – the nursery started in 1932 as a conifer seedling nursery, supplying large quantities of evergreens to aid in the reforestation of the thousands of square miles of pine forest ravished by the lumber industry.
Michigan once led the nation in lumber production, but decades of over-harvesting without regard to conservation resulted in a destruction of the state’s natural resources as forests were clear-cut. In addition, once fertile land was over-farmed. During the Depression, unfertile farms were abandoned, reverting back to state ownership, or acquired by the Federal Government. These lands, reforested by the CCC, became our state and national forests. “Michigan would have blown away if not for the CCC,” says one former CCC Boy.
Another former CCC member was in attendance at the viewing of “Camp Forgotten,” and got up to speak during the discussion. Fred was born in downtown Detroit in a speakeasy. His grandfather made beer and sold it for a dollar per bottle during Prohibition. After Prohibition ended, the family moved to farmland up north, which proved a worthless, unfertile piece of property. When the farm failed, the family actually resided in the chicken coop. “I thought I was rich with the $5.00 per month I earned in the CCC,” he said.
The men, ages 17 to 23, lived in camps, earning a dollar per day. A required $25.00 of their monthly income was sent home. The CCC Boys not only worked for themselves, they were often the breadwinners of the family. “That was the genius of the program. It not only gave work to these young men, but it put food on the family table, and more importantly changed their lives,” says Jamerson. It gave these often poor, malnourished, under-educated and inexperienced young men work, food, and a place to live. It renewed faith and boosted morale during a time when few of them had any other chance for gainful employment. It also helped bolster local economies; unemployed teachers, trader-workers and lumbermen from nearby towns taught the enrollees skills, and enabled many of them to receive their high school diplomas.
In 1937, the United States was on its way to economic recovery and soon after, the CCC began to be looked upon as an unnecessary government extravagance. When the draft began in 1940, and with the looming possibility of the U.S. entering the war, federal programs shifted toward national defense. The Civilian Conservation Corps disbanded in 1942, with most of its ranks going directly to fight in World War II.
Nearly seventy years later, the accomplished writer and filmmaker travels the country to schools, libraries, and other venues, retelling the often dramatic stories of the CCC through Bill Jamerson's multimedia presentation of storytelling, songs, and his films. He provides a thoughtful perspective on its relevance today: “Lessons learned from the CCC are invaluable for teaching skills to our youth. Put them in nature, and something wonderful happens to them.” Though the program cannot be duplicated on such a massive scale, the CCC serves as a model for present day national, state and local programs that serve our youth through community service and educational opportunities. Groups such as the Student Conservation Association, whose motto is “Changing lives through service to nature,” continue in the CCC’s tradition to give young men and women the ability to change their communities and improve their own lives.