They came from the farms and from the cities, from Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee, from small towns like Pine River and Tomahawk and from good farms and those less so. They represented a generation of the nation’s young men who, because of no fault of their own, could not find a job because there were no jobs.
Many of these young men were hungry, as were their families. It was a dreary, dangerous time. Nearly two million men had given up any hope of finding a job. They traveled on foot and in freight cars. They slept in caves or shantytowns as they drifted aimlessly around the country searching for work or at least a bite to eat. Nearly a quarter million of these “tramps,” as people sometimes called them were young men in their teens and early 20s “wandering the land looking for a future.”
Many of these forgotten young men signed up for this new program, which was dedicated to conservation and became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps or simply the CCC. It officially began in 1933. It was a new idea for the nation to devote a sizeable amount of money and manpower for the improvement and protection of the nation’s natural resources.
People were skeptical. Another top-down government program. A handout of taxpayer money to the poor. But times were tough, across the country and in Wisconsin. People were willing to try something, anything, because they had to eat and have a roof over their heads. The number of people having neither was on the increase.
So the CCC was born, with a clumsy administrative arrangement that asked three major government agencies, the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and — of all organizations — the U. S. Army, to cooperate in setting up the program and making it work. On paper it looked impossible. What connection could there be between the U. S. Army and the Department of Agriculture, especially those working in forestry and soil conservation, and the Department of Interior and its National Park service?
Their missions were undeniably different. The Army fought wars and defended us from wars. The Department of Agriculture was about food production, saving soil and managing forests. The Department of the Interior, among other duties managed our national parks. But the agencies came together. They cooperated, and the program worked — beyond anything anyone could ever have imagined.
That’s not to say that the CCC didn’t have its critics — it did, especially at first. Some critics wondered if those who organized the program saw the irony of having a program run by the military be given a civilian name. There were other criticisms. But the accomplishments of the program soon out shadowed the concerns about it. Young men had work, and their families benefited as well for a major part of their monthly salary, $25 of the $30 dollars the enrollees received each month went home to help an impoverished family, because the Depression years were tough and challenging years for everyone.
For the young man who worked for the CCC it turned out to be much more than a job and a salary of $5 a month. For many of them, some said it flat out, “We came to the CCC as boys and we left as men.” Young men learned how to work, gained employment skills, and some even learned to read and write. They learned about discipline and following orders. They developed leadership skills. They acquired the ability for getting along with each other — 200 plus men in a camp, 40 men and sometimes more crowded into a single bunkhouse.
While these boys were becoming men, they were making a tremendous contribution to the improvement of the natural resources of this country — something that had been sadly ignored for several generations. These CCC boys, arguably, changed the attitudes of millions of Americans who had believed that the natural resources of the United States were there for the offing and could never be depleted or despoiled, as they were so abundant. By planting trees and building windbreaks, by helping introduce contour farming and erosion control, by developing state and national parks, these young men not only helped people of this nation see how terrible conditions in the environment had become by the early 1930s, with forest depletion, soil erosion, floods and much more, they did something about it. And they did it well, and they did a lot of it.
Excerpted from “The Civilian Conservation Corps in Wisconsin,” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2019). Go to www.jerryapps.com to learn more about Jerry’s work.