CCC’s peacetime army built the nation

Posted by Teresa Leonard on May 8, 2014 

The Civilian Conservation Corps, composed of men such as this company in Caldwell County, helped to preserve North Carolina’s natural resources.

NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES, WILSON LIBRARY, UNC-CHAPEL HILL

The Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put 3 million young men to work across America. Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the CCC’s establishment. Former Raleigh Times writer Mary Burch profiled W.T. Brock of Raleigh as he prepared in 1984 to attend a CCC reunion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which the CCC helped create.

The purpose of the CCC was to recruit thousands of unemployed youth into a peacetime army to combat the destruction and neglect of the nation’s natural resources. Countless national and state parks, recreational areas and camping sites were built or improved. The men, often dubbed “Roosevelt’s tree army,” reforested depleted lands, undertook soil conservation projects and built endless miles of roads. …

Without the modern tools of today, most of the work was done by hand, with picks and shovels.

A typical workday started about 8 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. “In the afternoon, we would go play baseball or kick football or pitch horseshoes …” Brock recalled. “The idea was to try to entertain rather than having the boys get into something you got no business getting into.”

For a month’s work, Brock said he was paid $30 – considered a goodly sum. At the end of the month, he said, the duty captain would line up the money on the table and call each youth forward. He would give out $5 pocket money, and the rest was sent home to the youth’s family.…

“My mother said afterward that that $25 a month was just a tremendous help,” Brock said.

“Nowadays, you hear people say it was rough back then, but we as a family grew what we wanted to eat and had what we needed to wear,” he said. “We didn’t think of ourselves as poor, because we had as much as other families around.”

The $5 a month pocket money didn’t seem paltry at all, Brock said. It was the first time most of the young men had ever earned any money.

“It’s hard to believe, but we made that $5 last a whole month,” he said.

The CCC program provided lodging, three meals a day and uniforms. And when you were up in the mountains, there was little to spend money on.

Occasionally on weekends, Brock said, they would pile into the one Army truck and go to Sylva, Bryson City or Cherokee – the nearest towns. There they could go to a movie – for about 10 to 15 cents – or wander around town until the truck reappeared about 10:30 that night to take them back to camp.

On weekday nights, Brock said there was a meeting site at the camp where the boys could take education courses. Brock, who had a sixth-grade education when he went in, said he attended some night classes.

“The time I served in (the CCC) was as educational to me as the money I got,” he said. “You go places and you see things. And today, when you go back and see the trails in the mountains, you think, ‘I helped put that there.’”

One of his greatest thrills came near the end of the program when Roosevelt visited the CCC project. Brock said he was near Newfound Gap when he caught a glimpse of Roosevelt.

“He stood up and waved at us and said a few words. … Of course that was a big thing for us at that time,” he said. –The Raleigh Times, 8/18/1984

In 1985, former N&O writer Melanie Sill visited with some CCC veterans and shared their memories of those days.

Bill F. Fowler was out in the yard playing one June day in 1934 when his friend, Robert Hammond, dashed up and announced that he’d just signed up for a $30-a-month job in the Civilian Conservation Crops.

Fowler was 15, fresh out of the ninth grade in Durham, and he wasn’t really sure what the CCC was. But Hammond said the pay was guaranteed and the boss, the U.S. government, provided meals and a bunk in camp barracks.…

“It was about quarter of 5 o’clock, and (Hammond) had signed up a the local post office about three miles away,” Fowler … recalled. “We started running, and we ran all the way there, and I signed up before the post office closed.”

More than 3 million boys and young men – including 60,000 from North Carolina – enrolled in the CCC from 1933 to 1942, the hard years of unemployment and poverty known as the Great Depression. President Roosevelt moved Congress to create the corps with a March 21, 1933, speech, saying the government could “take a vast army of these unemployed out into healthful surroundings. We can eliminate to some extent at least the threat that enforced idleness brings to spiritual and moral stability.”

The CCC’s work was largely unglamorous – tree planting, soil conservation, road building, and fire control. Of their monthly pay, $25 went home to support struggling families, and $5 – “a BIG five,” Fowler said – was pocket money for the young men who earned it. …

“About the best thing I can remember was ordering $5 worth of jelly beans from Sears & Roebuck,” said Fowler, who was sent first to a camp in Old Fort, east of Asheville in the mountains. “It was enough to fill up a footlocker and still have some left over.”…

“We participated in one of the most interesting chapters in the history of our country,” said Wayne C. Foster of Kansas City, Mo., a CCC alumnus and president of the national organization. “We hear all about our armies that went to war, but nothing about the truly great peacetime army organized for the purpose of conserving our resources and bringing beauty to the land.”

The boys of the peacetime army are in their 60s and 70s now, many are retired. Their legacy is in the trees they planted, the parks and lakes and dams they built, the trails they carved out of forests, the Blue Ridge Parkway and other roads, the brush and grass anchoring the dunes on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

In the 1930s, America’s poverty was a wound in its pride. The CCC, which became one of the most popular programs of Roosevelt’s New Deal, was medicine for both.

“It wasn’t just the money,” said Dr. Harley E. Jolley, a Mars Hill college history professor and CCC veteran who is writing a book about the corps’ work in North Carolina. “It was the programs, the association and the teaching of a trade. It was one of the most marvelous rehabilitation things ever done culturally.”

North Carolina was the first state to fill its initial quota of CCC enrollees, 6,500 in April 1933. Eventually, Jolley said, some 60,000 boys and men from North Carolina served in the corps.

Enrollees were supposed to be 18 to 25 yeas old, though the range was extended to 17 to 28 and many were younger. They had to be unmarried, unemployed, physically fit and willing to stay at least six months in camps that could be far from home. ...

“It was discipline, and the money, well, it was needed at home and gave me freedom,” said Clegg G. Baxley, retired owner of Baxley’s Restaurant and Baxley’s Food Service in Raleigh.…

Like Fowler, Baxley was 15 when he left his mother and brother in High Point and joined the CCC. Boys were allowed to join at age 16 with their parents’ permission, but Baxley slipped past the age requirement and earned a spot in a CCC camp near Brevard in the North Carolina mountains.…

Baxley stayed in the corps a little more than four years, in camps in Franklinton, Brevard, Fort Bragg, High Point and other North Carolina sites.

The CCC took something from Baxley – the tip of the pinky finger on his left hand, which he lost in a blasting accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the high school education that was interrupted when he left the 10th grade to join the corps. But it also gave him something: training as a cook and mess sergeant, the beginning of a career in food service.…

On Independence Day 1934, Hollis F. Murph jumped on a truck with a bunch of other boys and left home in Davidson County, bound for a CCC camp in Balsam Grove in the North Carolina mountains. Murph, then 19, had been turned down when he applied for the corps because his farm family “had seven bales of cotton on our front porch and three bales in the barn,” making them too wealthy for the program.

But Murph went along with two buddies who’d signed up at his urging, and when several boys were turned away because of health problems, Murph was tapped for duty.

The Balsam Grove camp, near Rosman, was “nine miles in on a one-lane road,” recalled Murph.…

“We had to cross the French Broad River on a foot log to get to the post office,” Murph said. An old man who lived nearby helped Murph hide his 1922 Dodge, which he brought back to camp after he missed his bus on a return trip from home one weekend. Once a month or so, Murph would crank up the car and pack six or seven other boys in with him for the long drive down dirt roads to Davidson County for a weekend visit.

Crews from the Balsam Grove camp cut roads through rugged, rainy forests and trails, including one leading up to Devil’s Courthouse, a mountaintop in northwestern Transylvania County. Murph got out of the back-bending labor by becoming the camp mechanic, electrician and plumber. After work, the boys played baseball. Sometimes there were boxing matches, with challengers coming from other camps. It was a fine life for a young man, Murph said, especially with money coming for the boys and their families. –The N&O, 9/1/1985

Read more about the CCC

Civilian Conservation Corps: Records From The Great Depression Era

Guide to Federal Records

Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy - Camps in North Carolina

Forest Army blog

The Forest Service and The Civilian Conservation Corps: 1933-42 (full text)

The Civilian Conservation Corps at Work – Erosion Control (film)

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