There were 30 boys from my county in Arkansas who went into the CCC the same day in 1936. We took a train west from Little Rock, and they called our names when we stopped at Clarksville. It was about midnight. They put us on a truck and hauled us to a camp in the woods at the end of a dead-end road, in rugged country. It just worried me. I was 17 and scared of most everything.
"The boys in camp came out in their skivvies hollering: "Fresh meat?" They meant us. We were all poor, hardly anybody had been away from home before. Three of the 30 ran off that night and never came back. They issued us two dress uniforms and two work uniforms and two pairs of Army shoes, and that scared me too because it was more clothes than I'd seen before. And they said that if we lost any clothes our parents would have to pay, and I knew mine couldn't."
Wayman Wells, a 75-year-old retied machinist, smiled as he recalled the skittish teenager he was on that long-ago summer midnight he became a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps. But like every other CCC veteran I met on a swing through four states in search of them, he remembered with pride his time in what was arguably the New Deal's most popular agency: "I believe I'd be there yet if they'd-a let me," he allowed.
Wells and the other men whose lives were changed for the better by the experience are one of the great legacies of the program that began at the dawn of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term in 1933 and persisted until 1942. Another is the work they left behind, a splendid heritage of parks, dams, bridges, buildings, roads, and hundreds of conservation and restoration projects in every corner of the country.
The CCC got out of the blocks with what may be an all-time record for bureaucratic speed. Only 35 days elapsed between FDR's Inauguration and the enrollment of the first CCC boy-they were always called "boys"-on April 7, 1933. In that time, legislation was written, passed and signed, guidelines were set, campsite selection begun and most remarkable of all, four Cabinet departments-Labor, Interior, Agriculture and War-were harnessed together to run the program. By July there were 274,375 boys in 1,300 camps.
To qualify, a boy had to be between 17 (18 at first) and 25 (2b later on), single, jobless, in good physical condition and needy. He signed up voluntarily at the local relief agency designated as the selection office. He enrolled for a six-month term, which he could extend for up to two years-longer if he was promoted to a leadership job. Five percent of the original 250,000 washed out in the first few months, most for refusing to work or going AWOL. Enrollees were paid $30 a month, $22 to $25 of which was sent home to their families. At its peak, in September 1935, the CCC mustered 502,000 members in 2,514 camps. Overall, 2.9 million served in nine years.
The Army built and ran the camps, which normally included four barracks with 40 to 50 men in each, along with a mess hall, recreation building, officers' quarters, a school for night classes, and a latrine and bathhouse separate from the barracks. The boys got up to a bugler's reveille, stood morning and evening formations, and showed up on time, for meals or went hungry. When they trucked or trudged to work each morning, the Army bowed out and, most often, the U.S. Forest Service took over. Civilian foremen and "local experienced men," called LEMS, ran the work crews. Most of the work was manual labor; their tools were shovels and mattocks and sledgehammers, double-edged axes and crosscut saws. The bulk of the CCC's 200,000 black enrollees served in segregated companies. The rules were relaxed for Native Americans and for World War I veterans. The veterans were, of course, older men; and in the case of the Indians, the tribal council administered the projects, and enrollees were assigned to work in their own communities.
The average CCC enrollee, according to a statistical portrait compiled by the agency, joined at 18 1/2, stayed in for nine months, and gained from 12 to 30 pounds and a half-inch in height during this tour. He had finished the eighth grade, had held no regular job before the CCC, and had three to four family members dependent on his paycheck. Sixty percent were from small towns or farms.
But if the CCC was lifeline for the undernourished sons of the Depression, it was a boon of another kind for the country at large. CCC veterans have only slowly come to realize that the work they performed to help their families survive produced a national treasure of fine and lasting structures.
The masonry dam and bridge at Cumberland Mountain State Park near Crossvile, Tennessee, built with hand-hewn sandstone, is a graceful yet solid edifice reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. "I've met three old boys who claim they built that dam by themselves," Wayman Wells joked. The red pine log headquarters of the Chippewa National Forest in Cass Lake, Minnesota, one of the largest log buildings anywhere, is a masterpiece of precisely notched and proved logs. The magnificent amphitheater at Mt. Tamalpals State Park in California, modeled after a Greco-Roman theater in Sicily, contains 5,000 stones weighting more than 600 pounds each. The limestone boathouse at Backbone State Park in Iowa, a delicate building with intricate and playful stonework, stands in Iowa, a delicate building with indicate and playful stonework, stands guard like a miniature castle over a CCC-made, 135-acre lake.
Robert Ritichie, a CCC vet from Hansell, Iowa, who worked at BackBone Park, expressed the late-blooming pride that many veterans share: "I thought of the C's as just a phase in my life, but as you go on, you feel that it, that you, were a part of the country and of history. We have this park; it was wilderness before, and now it's a nice place to go, and I had something to do with that. I was part of an important event."
Life in the CCC, with such niceties as three squares a day, indoor plumbing and electricity, was a step up for many boys from destitute rural families. "It was better than what I was used to," Clinton Boyer of St. Louis said. "At home we had no running water and used oil lamps." Lonnie Goddard of Bradley, West Virginia, recalled making a single egg do for two meals on is family's Appalachian farm. "I'd have the White for breakfast and put the yellow on corn bread for lunch at school."
These were boys whose horizons were pinched by poverty. Doyle Jones of Jamestown, Tennessee, recalls every detail about his train ride to CCC camp because he'd never made a trip like that before. "They took us on the Southern Railway to Knoxville and then by the Louisville and Nashville to Chatsworth, Georgia. I recollect it even now because there wasn't much going on in my life at the time." At camp, Jones was startled to find such exotic foods as bananas and oranges on his try. Jones' family used his $25 monthly allotment to pay off their grocery bill. "Kirby Johnson at the store, he'd just subtract $25 from what they owed."
They remember the food with a fondness born in deprivation. "Oh, they really fed us, especially breakfast," recalled Harry Marsanick of Florissant, Miissouri, "ham and potatoes and sausage, all the eggs you wanted. The kitchen was enough to keep me happy."
In 1942, when CCC funding stopped and most of the boys had changed to other uniforms, the agency issued a report summarizing its accomplishments. The numbers on the volume and variety of work were awesome: 46,854 bridges of various kinds built, 3,116 fire-lookout towers, more than 28 million rods of fencing, 318,076 "check dams" for erosion control, 33,087 miles of terracing. CCC lads fought forest fires and mosquitoes and soil erosion, they planted trees and grass, and excavated channels, canals and ditches; they laid pipe and improved wildlife habitat and built or maintained thousands of miles of hiking trails. They did every conservation job that any land manager could think of. And some died; there were accidental drownings and falls; 47 were killed in forest fires; nearby 600 perished when a hurricane flattened three camps of war veterans on the Florida Keys in 1935.
In extremely cold or stormy weather they stayed in camp. "We didn't go out if it was colder than 5 below," Robert Richie of Iowa recalled. "We had three weeks like that once. The guys sat around making cigarettes with their machines."
They went to work at 7:15 and quit at 4, with break for lunch served back at camp or trucked to the site. "They brought lunch in big old kettles, and we'd eat the beans and applesauce all slopped together in our mess kits," Lonnie Goddard remembered. The work was tough. "I filled holes in a road," said Burl Hutchison of Columbus junction, Iowa. "My station was the business end of a wheelbarrow or shovel. We called the wheelbarrows 'silver streaks' or 'Irish buggies.' "Goddard quarreled and set sandstone. "We'd blast it and then split the rock into smaller chunks with hand tools and load it on trucks with a hand crank." His proudest accomplishment was a stone wall in a state park. "We dug footings and filled them with stone to a depth of 17 feet. Seventeen feet! Do you believe it? And it was beautiful."
The lucky ones learned about craftsmanship. Arthur Jackson, who later owned a successful drilling company in Lebanon, Tennessee, cut blocks of sandstone for the Crossville dam. "It was amazing what the engineers could do with a bunch of ignorant kids," he recalled. "They were patient. They said we were going to do it right, and if you rebelled you got another job. They only wanted boys who were willing to learn."
The CCC boys were civilians, but G.I. discipline governed their camps. "When I first reported, the officers asked me some question and I sapid 'Yeah/'' and they shouted 'What did you mean, Yeah?'"Burl Hutchison of Iowa remembered. "They wanted a 'Yessir.' and I was thinking, 'Oh my, what did I get into?' " "They had a bugle or a whistle for everything," Lonnie Goddard said, "and I was used to roosters and not a bugle waking me up. You made your bunk with six inches of white below the pillow, and everything had to be just so in your foot locker. If you there your cigarette on the ground you wore a butt can around your neck for a day."
"I laugh whenever I remember that"
Practical jokes were a CCC tradition. New arrivals were dispatched to "water the flagpole." There were dozens of variations on the "snipe hunt"; rookies raced off in quest of "striped paint," "bunk spacers," "sky hooks" and other imaginary objects. It was a simpler time: they gleefully short-sheeted one another's beds and tied neatly folded clothing in knots-"that would kind of disappoint you, especially if it was 15 minutes to reveille," said Burl Hutchison.
They concocted their own slang. A cigarette was a "stuffy,: its makings, tobacco and paper, were" sawdust and blankets." The officers' orderly, who delivered meals to the brass, was known as "Dog Robber" because he got the choice leftovers the dog might otherwise have enjoyed. If you wanted something at the end of the mess table, Lonnie Goddard remembered, you called out "Butts on the beans!" or whatever it was, and you finagled a drag off another's cigarette by crying "Butts on that cigarette!" In the evenings they played cards or Ping-Pong or music, Guitar picker Doyle Jones joined a band that played for local square dances, while Wayman Wells recollected Arkansas as "harmonica country" those boys could wear a harmonica out".
CCC boys were by and large neither rebels nor troublemakers; they had chosen to be there, and most accepted the discipline and hard work. But from the beginning there were some who did not, and there were occasional uprisings if not full-scale mutinies. Desertion, always a concern, accounted for 11.6 percent of those leaving the corps in 1937, and the percentage increased in later years. A boy was counted a deserter if he was AWOL for eight days. Nobody pursued them, but Harry Dallas of Overland, Missouri, ran into an ex-enrollee 58 years later who was worried that they might still be looking of him. Most deserters left in the first few days, often out of homesickness.
They staged work stoppages and food strikes to protest curfews, cold-weather work and the quantity or quality of the food. In Wayman Wells' Arkansas camp the issue was neckties. "We wore wool uniforms and neckties for retreat review in summer when it was real hot, and they checked to make sure our ties were tight. Well, we called a food strike and nobody ate supper for three days. The doctor got into it, and they finally said we could unbutton the top button of our shirts and wear the tie loose."
The real conflict was not between CCC enrollees and the military but between the boys from the C's and townsfolk in nearby communities. Some towns posted "No CCC Allowed" signs. "I think people in general looked down on us," Carl Denoff of Lansing, West Virginia, said. "It was like we were trash, we weren't recognized as equal. But when we'd pass farmhouses on our way to town the girls would holler and wave." On weekends they rode to town, where they sometimes muffled with the local boys. "That's what bound us together." Lonnie Goddard said. "If the boys in town jumped you they'd have to whip all of us. We were like brothers."
Often enough, the CCC transformed sky, backward country boys who thought of themselves as losers into physically stronger, effective men. Self-esteem, we call it today. "I felt I was going downhill, like the CCC was the bottom of the barrel," said Robert Ritchie, "but I wasn't alone, and I came out positive, more positive as time passed." I was scared to death of everything." Arthur Jackson of Tennessee recalled. "Just timid. I didn't think I could talk to people. I'd only gone to third grade. The C's gave me confidence that I was as good as anybody. It made me know I could do things, gave me some push. I'm proud that I worked on that Crossville dam. I wasn't afraid to tackle anything ager that."
Please can you write a paragraph telling about life in the Civilian Conservation Corps.