In July 1936, the nation was firmly behind the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC, as it had come to be known, was a program created for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and put millions of unemployed young men – my father among them – to work, building bridges and trails, parks, and public places.
More than half the young men were from rural areas, according to a 1940 CCC publication, “Your CCC: A Handbook for Enrollees,” and many of them were poor and uneducated. The $30 paid to each man every month gave the men a little “walking around money” but most of their pay, $25, was sent home to their families, many living in small towns and “wide spots in the road” across the country, where $25 a month had a real impact.
Roosevelt had created the program in 1933 and over its nine years of existence, three million men, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, were part of the CCC.
The program was controversial at times. By May 1942, with young men needed for wartime military service, a headline out of Washington, D.C. noted, “A hero today, heel tomorrow – Civilian Conservation Corps takes big push-around.”
But back in July 1936, a poll by George Gallup, then the director of the American Institute of Public Opinion, had found in a nationwide poll that 82% of Americans polled supported the CCC.
And why not? The “CCC boys” not only built many projects and improvements to areas that had been clear-cut for growth or, because of their remote rural locations, had been largely overlooked by progress, but provided work, discipline, and pay to hundreds of thousands of young men every month. The program addressed widespread unemployment: the jobless rate was as high as 25% as the country struggled to recover from the Great Depression.
Today, many of those young men are gone, but they’re remembered by their families and in Facebook posts and on state park websites. The buildings and roads and dams they built remain and they dot the U.S. map in state parks and roads that cut through remote areas to help the nation travel.
CCC Camps Across the Country
At Pickett State Park in Tennessee – renamed Pickett CCC Memorial State Park a few years ago – CCC enrollees created the 20,000-acre park between 1934 and 1942. They excavated and created a 12-acre lake and built trails, cabins and a ranger station.
Group photos of the CCC boys who built the park hang on the walls and children and grandchildren who visit the park study the pictures, sometimes easily spotting the younger selves of the men they knew; sometimes they’re not quite able to recognize their pas and grandpas without lined faces and gray or thinning hair.
Tennessee was home to 77 CCC camps during the life of the program. Those camps gave the CCC boys a quasi-military experience: the camps were home base to the volunteers, who wore what looked like military or scouting uniforms.
My father’s honorable discharge from the CCC in September 1939, at the end of his two years of enrollment in the program, specifies he was born in Gernt, a town in Fentress County, Tennessee. During his life, he always told people he came from Jamestown, the county seat and, even with its population of fewer than 1,000 people for the first three decades of the 20th century, Jamestown probably felt like the biggest town around, the hometown you’d think a young man would claim because people had heard of it.
Like many of his CCC fellows, my father’s occupation was listed as “farmer.” After he served in the CCC and Army, his profession was a factory worker in Tennessee. He would not return to farming until he bought 20 acres outside Muncie in the early 1960s and raised chickens, pigs and cows for the family table.
Across the country, nearly 1,500 CCC camps were quickly created to put men to work and tackle large public works projects. An early national CCC camp opened in the George Washington National Forest in the Virginias, according to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
The CCC boys planted trees, built parks and campgrounds, irrigation systems and dams, roads, bridges and airfields.
In 1937, CCC workers completed a final stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, according to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. The CCC built the roads and recreation areas in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
They stocked fish in the Monongahela River in the national forest of the same name. They were responsible for the plantings along long stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from Virginia to North Carolina.
It’s still possible to point to specific structures and roads, like Pickett State Park, that were built by CCC enrollees. Harder to discern are projects that made rural and small-town life better. The Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy page notes not only the 97,000 miles of road but 84 million acres of rural farm ground that needed improved drainage, a task taken on by the CCC.
The CCC boys were paid about $30 a month, according to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. But they got a lot more out of it than that.
Tim Montgomery, who helped maintain a Facebook page, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, said the CCC program meant a lot to the men in it.
“(They got) hope, self-respect and in many cases, some adventure,” Montgomery said in an interview. His father served two one-year enrollments in Minnesota and Kansas between 1933 and 1937.
‘A Sense of Pride’
According to that 1940 CCC handbook, 53% of the CCC enrollees came from rural areas and many had not graduated from high school. The CCC Legacy website notes that many of the enrollees had never been out of the states of their birth and, when their CCC service ended, many of them “would choose to remain in towns and villages near their camps.”
The CCC in many ways followed the segregated conventions of American society at the time. In the south, CCC camps were segregated. Separate CCC groups were also created for Native Americans.
The faces of CCC enrollees smile out from hundreds of photographs taken at the time. Although the CCC boys were not trained as if they had joined the military, photos often show them, in their uniforms, standing ramrod straight. More “at ease” photos show the young men laughing and kidding for the camera, secure in knowing that while they might be assigned to dig a ditch tomorrow, they’ll have a bed to sleep in that night and food to eat – a rare guarantee in Depression-era America.
“From the boys’ perspective, during the Depression, to be able to even eat three meals a day, that in itself made it worthwhile for many of them,” Vince Montano, a historian and writer, said in an interview. “Their time in the CCC didn’t just benefit them. They were paid $30 a month and $25 of that went home to their family.”
In the CCC Legacy page on Facebook, sons and daughters and grandchildren post photos of their CCC fathers and grandfathers. Often they seek information about a particular CCC company, in government parlance. Sometimes they post photos of their CCC boys back when they really were little more than boys.
The CCC program had grown to 4,500 camps by the time it ended in 1942 not with a bang, but a whimper, as Congress discontinued funding. The nation’s populace – and coffers – were aimed at the war effort, and rightfully so.
The CCC had planted 2.5 billion seedlings, the Encyclopedia of Appalachia says. More than 89,000 miles of telephone line were strung. The “boys” worked on 125,000 miles of road and 13,000 miles of trails. The CCC built fire towers, shelters and lodges along the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.
The CCC also built men.
“Men needed work and they needed a sense of pride,” Montano said. “The country needed environmental restoration. The CCC melded all that into one of the most successful programs in history. It’s only today getting the recognition it deserves.”
In Nashville’s Bicentennial Park, opened in 1996 to mark 200 years of Tennessee history, a plaque pays tribute to the state’s CCC boys:
“Few men have the satisfaction of knowing they have made a contribution in their lifetime that will last through the ages and touch the lives of thousands. Men of the CCC know that feeling well.”