The Civilian Conservation Corps
A Research Report and First-Person Narrative regarding the Civilian Conservation Corps
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a New Deal Program that lasted from 1933 to 1942, It aimed to conserve the resources of America by building campgrounds and state parks, enhancing fire and flood control, and improving trails. California was in the area called Region 5 and its activities were monitored by the Army Corps Area 9.
BY MINNIE WU
Nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” or “the Boys,” the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the New Deal era hired young men from around the country to build environment-friendly projects that also benefited the public. Created to bring an “end to the economic chaos and unemployment that had ripped the nation,”—the Great Depression— the CCC was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt within his first 100 days in office to “recruit thousands of unemployed young men, enlist them in a peacetime army, and send them to battle the erosion and destruction of the nation’s natural resources.” 1
Officially ratified on March 31, 1933, the Emergency Conservation Work Act – another name for the CCC—got to work immediately, and worked on both government and private property. The recruits worked under the plans of the Agricultural and Interior Departments. The CCC planted trees, built dams and ditches for flood control, protected and improved parks, fought plant diseases, made reservoirs, and raised bridges. Recruits were paid an average of one dollar a day and $25 of the $30 per month was sent home to family. Although seemingly a small amount, particularly by contemporary standards, the money helped many families obtain a better lifestyle. By providing work relief and teaching job skills instead of providing government handouts, the CCC also preserved the pride of the American worker. The association of this job to an environmentalist cause is commonly seen an extension of FDR’s personal philosophy. 2 Like President Herbert Hoover before him, FDR believed that the only way to truly pull out of the Great Depression of the time was to find a short-term program that could educate and put to work. Both believed that government handouts would be useless and drain the treasury; at the same time it would also weaken the morale of the former workers. The belief was that the poor, in general, would become accustomed to relying government handouts, or could adopt the mentality that they were not strong enough to stand up for themselves and their families; thus, handouts were seen as an ineffective process of action and New Deal programs focused on job creation rather than handouts. Furthermore, the CCC exemplified the need for education as well as work: classes were held regularly for those who had yet to receive a high school diploma; vocational skills were recommended to those who had. After the maximum two years in the CCC, corps members would go on to become efficient and diligent workers in the industry; employers could easily teach any employee the mandatory training specific to the job, but the work ethic and mindset of a CCC member was very valuable to employers and made them more competitive in the job market.
Enrollees had to be healthy, physically fit, unmarried, unemployed citizens between the ages of 18 and 26.The terms of service were six months, but many recruits reenlisted after the conclusion of their term. Governor Jerry Brown of California was so impressed that he created the California Conservation Corps in 1976, modeled after the original CCC. Only men were allowed in the original CCC, but in the modern version, women were welcomed into the ranks as well. After a fortnight of training and preparations, the enrollees were shipped to their camp locations, ready for the real work to begin. The typical day in both camps began before sunrise with room clean up and breakfast. After roll call, the different crews—consisting of 10-15 members each—traveled to the day’s project site. At the actual site, work began after a “tailgate session” discussing the work and safety precautions of the job and continued with a brief break for lunch until late afternoon. There was time for a shower and dinner before classes commenced. In some locations, Friday was completely devoted to studies. Classes helped the corps members work towards their diplomas or other educational opportunities and included time in the computer lab, a Conservation Awareness class, and a Career Development class for post-CCC life. After classes, the evenings were free time for the corps members to spend at their discretion, knowing that the bell the next day will ring at the same early time. Occasionally though, in the case of a disaster, the crews would be pulled off their usual projects to attend to the catastrophe. In addition to their usual work, all corps members were expected to volunteer for other activities; distinguished members were rewarded with scholarships after their term. Other positions, such as a crew leader would receive bonuses. In addition, exemplary behavior was rewarded at the end of the month with a small one time bonus or a slight raise. Likewise, bad behavior was punishable by a one time lowering of wages. These select few would be chosen each month by the crew leader. Many times CCC members would seek later employment at a place they had volunteered at before. Employers were eager to accept these CCC-conditioned workers for their good work ethic and habits.
Regardless of its apparent success, the CCC received much criticism. Labor unions objected to the low wage, hark work, and miserable conditions. American Federation of Labor member William Green went as far as to tell a House-Senate committee that it was “facscism, of Hitlerism, of a form of sovietism.”3 After the CCC’s end, as the United States entered World War II in 1942, knowledge of the CCC’s existence and work dwindled. Later, the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni (NACCCA) was created in California to “identify the work of the CCC,” erect memorials, and spread knowledge of its existence.4 Federal funding of the CCC stopped to pay for construction of war equipment; in turn, work was found in factories and other places, leading to a decrease in the number of enrollees. Its goal to provide work accomplished in the war effort, the CCC faded away. Unfortunately, it is now so obscure and unknown that few people know where the camps and project sites—or at least their remains—are.
Across the country, boys that met CCC enrollment qualifications—regardless of all else— gathered to complete tasks commissioned by either state or private sources. What resulted was a melting pot of ethnicities, hometowns, and perspectives; despite this, “relations with local communities were very positive and racial and ethnic tensions [were] minimal.”5 Although the majority of the program centered around environmental concerns, some social rehabilitation was taken into account. Crew members were required to complete their education; those who already had a diploma were encouraged to acquire vocational skills. Most amazingly, some workers could teach in bankrupt school systems in addition to building post offices, city halls, recreational facilites, public buildings and roads. They would wield great new machinery such as tractors and graders and compressed air drills in addition to the traditional shovel and pickaxe.
In CCC terminology, the State of California was known as Region 5. Under Regional Forester S.B. Show and Army Corps Area 9, Region 5 was assigned the most camps in the initial enrollment period—and under his guidance, 19 national forests were established over the CCC’s nine years. On May 20, 1933, the first of a total of 148 camps in California was occupied at Buck Meadows Camp (F-82). Initially, corps members resided in tents; by summer though, simple buildings of tar- papered siding had sprung up and by fall, barracks, a mess hall, and a recreation building were insulated with plywood.6 Welfare and recreational programs in these new buildings took form soon after, and each camp was supplied with athletic equipment. Early jobs consisted of boundary surveys and range management, but overall the projects focused on transportation, recreation, fire prevention, structural improvements and forest culture—protection against natural disasters, prevention of tree diseases and tree planting.7 As they worked, they strung telephone lines and widened vital roads to fire lookout towers, including the road to the then nonexistent Palomar Observatory. In addition to working on state parks and forests, corps members in Region 5 found work in the beaches. There they built barriers to separate beach from road and also built concrete walkways for even footing. Their work was later mimicked by other groups and used to build similar huts and rest stations. The CCC built the foundations for the beaches and oftentimes a few campsites or picnic areas around them. In California specifically, the largest project undertaken was the 800- mile Ponderosa Way firebreak and truck trail, which stretched down the Sierra and North Coast Range. In Southern California, Inspector George H. Cecil led the intensive rush to complete horse and truck trails according to the state’s conservation work plan. Some of this plan included the preservation of roadside beauty by eliminating insect infestations and thinning suppressed trees.
As a part of this project, I visited Doheny Beach in Dana Point and a nearby campsite. Although the origin of the projects could not be determined—and most CCC projects by now have collapsed or been demolished—I was able to procure photos of the kind of projects the CCC undertook. Of various things, I identified tables (Figure A) lying unused along the path, road boundaries (Figure B) then made of wood, and rest huts (Figure C). Although these were not the original items, they were the kind of work done by the CCC. Dotting the beach were camping and picnic plots (Figure D) and people gathered in tents and trailers, enjoying the area that was first carved for that purpose, over half a century ago; I was hard pressed to find an unused one in the masses of people. Sadly, the people I talked to were clueless about the CCC and even after asking for something as general as “historic sites of the 1930s” I was not directed anywhere definite. Basically, the various beach officials sent me on a three-hour goose chase to ask people that did not know any information anyways. Nevertheless, I strolled along with a strange feeling of exhilaration, and taking pictures of the ground—a walkway (Figure E) and the concrete path next to the sand (Figure F) as representations of paths and even footing—thinking, “This is the kind of stuff they were doing 80 years ago. And it—or its remodeled version— is still here.”
There was better luck at the campsite. Pulling into a parking space before the deserted-looking Orange Coast District Office, I was certain I had entered the address wrong or that there was some mistake—the area didn’t look much like a campsite. After stomping through brown leaves to take a picture of an ancient-looking yellow water hydrant (Figure G) and telephone wires (Figure H), I flagged down a blue van crawling through the area, heading home. Luckily for me, the driver knew exactly what I was talking about. According to him, the CCC had built the entire campground around us—buildings included. Now the residential buildings house park rangers and employees.
On the side accessible to us, there were five residential buildings, including the mess-hall-turned-house where the man lived: three of adobe (Figure I) and two of wood (Figure J). The man I had spoken to earlier indicated that he lived in the former mess hall—essentially the dining room for the entire camp-- which was made of wood and standing in perfect condition. (Figure K) Adobe was made of a mixture of clay, manure, and other fibrous roots. For something composed of almost entirely clay and manure though, the buildings had stood strong for almost 80 years. Both types of houses were of a white-gray color, but the material on the roofs appeared different. The wooden buildings had brown thatched roofs, typical-looking compared to those of adobe buildings, which were a brown- orange material and looked like curved tiles that had been overlapped over each other in a deliberate process. The most picturesque house in my view was, according to a faded green number on the wooden post of the porch of the adobe structure, residential house number six (Figures L and M). Just standing there, with the birds and other life chattering in the trees, and the highway close— but not close enough to be more than a familiar hum in the background—established a sense of calm. A gentle breeze drifted by and I could feel as if I were transported into the past: I could see the corps members in their surplus army uniforms, totting bags that had carried lunches as they filed into the house. I could see a few people outside, playing poker in the evening and laughing at a joke I did not hear. The illusion vanished as quickly as it had appeared. From one of the backyards a smoky orange-gray cat strolled out and stepped lightly on my shoe with a paw and peering up at my camera before walking away to curl under the man’s blue van. As I refocused on the present, something struck me: there was a certain sense of pride that lived on in the veterans of the CCC. If to no one else, the CCC was, to them, a big deal. Even to this day the dwindling numbers of CCC veterans “have an intense pride in what they did” and through their training “gained a foundation on which to build a lifetime.”8 There was no such thing as an ex-corps member; they might have been out of the program, but they never lost the mindset that was drilled into them and went on to build honest, diligent lives for themselves. In a modern twist, the 2009 movie Avatar puts that “There’s no such thing as an ex-marine. You may be out, but you never lose the attitude.” Finally, I trudged out of the campsite, tired from all the walking that day but thrilled with the structures I had seen. I took one last photo of a walkway in the campsite (Figure N) and continued on the path home.
The Civilian Conservation Corps of 1933-1942 was an extraordinary extension of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal philosophy that promoted an earth-friendly approach to providing for the public’s safety and recreation. Governed as a peacetime army, CCC members prided themselves for their work and made good use of their habits and values later in life. Although not all of the projects and camps commissioned survive to this day, the memory of their work is entombed in the foundational layout of simple, overlooked sights. A simple stroll down the beach—even without ever touching the water—could reveal dozens of little aspects about history that would never jump out as historic sites. The CCC’s tranquil and pro-environments legacy and environmental spirit lives on in the form of the California Conservation Corps, and the various state parks and beaches that it built; even now, 77 years after its founding, the work of CCC boys lives on.
1: “Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).” United States History. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Jun 2010. <http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1586.html>.
Minnie Wu was born 49 years after D-Day. She hopes to attend University of California, Irvine and major in pharmaceutical science. In her free time she enjoys reading and writing fiction, drawing or painting on Photoshop, and pondering philosophical ideas.
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