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Is it time to build up the Minnesota Conservation Corps?

Panorama of a typical conservation camp
A panorama of a typical Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s.

How do we create jobs, rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure and reinvigorate the value of national service?

Barack Obama listed these goals as key parts of his third-way presidential administration. Perhaps he should talk to people like Len Price, whose blueprint for a program to accomplish all this has been around for more than 75 years.

A former DFL legislator, Price is executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Corps, a nonprofit organization that traces its legacy to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal. Granted, skeptics would say there's only a passing comparison between the army-sized CCC of the 1930s and today's MCC, which underwrites public-service jobs for fewer than 100 young adults each year and provides eight-week summer conservation experiences for a hundred or so teenagers.

Compare that to the 77,000 single men who "enlisted" in Minnesota's CCC between 1933 and 1942 and lived in some 160 military-styled camps throughout the state. (For a list of where those camps were located, go here.)

Working for a dollar a day, the young men planted more than 123 million trees — basically reforesting land in northern Minnesota that had been clear-cut and left barren by the timber industry. They spent 283,000 man-days fighting forest fires and an equal amount of time working on fire suppression and prevention. They built 149 fire lookout towers. They constructed 4,500 miles of new roads and did maintenance on 23,000 miles of existing roads. They strung 3,300 miles of telephone lines. They built structures, including magnificent log buildings, in Minnesota's state parks, which grew from 30 to 47 parks during the CCC decade.

In Minnesota's agricultural areas, CCC "boys" engaged in soil conservation efforts on more than 160,000 acres, building small dams and spillways, digging hundreds of wells and constructing numerous bridges. Their efforts can still be seen today in the curved, contoured fields of southern and western Minnesota and in the terraces and woodlots they created on steep slopes.

"There's always a difference between then and now, but there are plenty of people — young people in particular — who would embrace this kind of opportunity," Price said. "There are people willing to do it. They just need the motivation and structure to make it happen. Maybe now is the time to find the stimulus to get things rolling again."

'Alphabet agencies' beefed up numbers
Those who say the New Deal didn't end the Depression and may even have exacerbated it tend to ignore the crisis that was addressed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "alphabet agencies." In 1933, the average enrollee in the CCC was 10 pounds underweight and shorter than average height. He was, in a blunt word, malnourished. During the standard six-month enlistment, the typical "C" gained 10 pounds and grew an inch.

The CCC program was launched with a speed that is astonishing. A product of FDR's first days in office, the act creating what became the CCC passed through Congress on March 31, 1933. The first CCC camp opened a week later and within six months there were 1,520 camps in operation across the country, with a total enrollment of 249,000 unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25.

CCC barracks
CCC workers in military-style barracks.

One of those enrollees was my father, a skinny 18-year-old from a small hamlet in West Virginia. Like most of the 3 million men who eventually joined the CCC to serve enlistments that ran from six months to two years, my dad was thrilled by the opportunity to earn $30 a month — with the requirement that $25 of his pay went to his family back home.

As it turned out, his enlistment lasted only a few weeks; his father, my grandfather, suffered a massive stroke and my dad was "discharged" to return home to take care of his parents.

Many years later, when I came home on leave after completing Army basic training, my father nodded knowingly when I described barracks life. "Just like the Cs," he said.

And it was. The typical CCC camp of about 200 men was operated in military fashion by Army officers and NCOs. In most camps, the men lived in prefabricated barracks buildings that were hauled to remote areas and set up almost overnight. The "boys" were given food — "three hots and a cot" — and initially wore surplus World War I uniforms.

During the day, the enrollees worked under the supervision of various agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Soil Conservation Service, along with state forest and park services and even municipal park authorities. The camps also employed "Local Experienced Men" (LEMs) to teach on-the-job skills to the young "Cs."

Free time, what they had of it, was often devoted to completing academic classes. In 1933, the average enrollee had an eighth-grade education. Many completed high school during their CCC years, and some ultimately got college and graduate degrees.

CCC's work lives on in state parks
Among their lasting accomplishments, the CCC built more than 500 so-called "rustic-style" buildings in Minnesota's state parks. Some were magnificent — such as the massive stone and log Forest Inn in Itasca State Park or the three-story log headquarters building of the Forest Service in Cass Lake.

"They had the time and the labor to do everything exactly right — or do it over," said Rolf Anderson, an amateur historian from Bloomington who has written studies on CCC projects.

"In the case of the Forest Inn, one horizontal joint the entire full length of a wall didn't feel rustic enough, so it was torn down and built again," Anderson said. "That kind of quality was unique for its time — and for any time."

Camp Rabideau, 1935, moving logs
Moving logs at Camp Rabideau, 1935.

At Gooseberry Falls State Park on the Lake Superior North Shore, park manager Paul Sundberg remains astonished at how CCC workers, using hand tools, managed to build a stone wall more than 100 yards long and deep enough to house large restrooms.

"Some of those boulders weighed a ton," said Sundberg, who since 1983 has lived in a park ranger's log house that was built by CCC workers. "It's amazing when you think about it."

The CCC program was disbanded shortly after America's entrance in World War II, and it's been said that one of its inadvertent legacies was the creation of a generation of men who were accustomed to the military lifestyle.

Unlike the Works Progress Administration, which put its WPA stamp on everything, including nearly every square of most city-park sidewalks, the CCC left little imprinted with its name. The 4,500 CCC camps quickly disappeared, the buildings taken down and hauled away, burned or left to quickly rot away.

Camp Rabideau is historic landmark
One exception — and it's a major one — was Camp Rabideau, located in the Chippewa National Forest about 20 miles northeast of Bemidji in Beltrami County. During World War II, the camp was used to house German POWs. After the war, the camp was used for decades by the University of Illinois for summer programs.

"It could be the most historically intact CCC camp in the nation," said Andrea LeVasseur, an archaeologist at the Forest Service's office in Cass Lake.

Camp Rabideau, which is open to the public during the summer months, includes 13 of the camp's original 25 buildings.

"They were mostly prefabs that were shipped in on rail, trucked out and put together by a CCC group from Missouri that never got over the weather up here," LeVasseur said. "There are several barracks and officers quarters, a hospital, mess hall and education building. It's a beautiful setting, too."

The camp was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. And in 2006, it became one of Minnesota's 22 National Historic Landmarks. To learn more about Camp Rabideau, go here.

And to read more about the Civilian Conservation Corps in Minnesota, find a copy of Barbara W. Sommer's "Hard Work and a Good Deal," published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Sunsets for some; sunrises on the horizon?
As a group, the veterans of the CCC are seeing their final sunsets. In 1996, while I was employed by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I covered the annual reunion of the National Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni Association when it was held that year in Rochester, Minn. At the time, the St. Louis-based organization had 8,700 dues-paying members. Veterans who belonged to local organizations instead of the national probably swelled active alumni participants to 15,000, I was told.

Since then, the St. Louis headquarters has closed and its CCC artifacts and archives have been transferred to an organization called the Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, located in Virginia.

Minnesotans remain active, says Mary Halbert of St. Paul, whose husband, Ralph, was a CCC enlistee working at a camp near Two Harbors. In 2007, corps alumni helped place a statue of a CCC worker at Gooseberry State Park, near the extraordinary wall the boys built in the 1930s. And last year, the local group helped restore a monument that was built in St. Paul's Phalen Park in 1937 to honor some 7,000 CCC workers who died while in service.

The monument, about five feet in height, contains stones from every state and four federal buildings.

CCCVets1000.jpg

CCC veterans pose in front of a monument to CCC workers. Click on photo to enlarge

"We may pass, but the memory of what the CCC did deserves to be remembered," Mary Halbert said.

Indeed, many think the corps, or something like it, should be revived.

"In the 1930s, it did not seem difficult to man these camps with 200 young men and live in remote areas," historian Anderson said. "Whether that could be achieved today is a question mark. I've often felt the approach the CCC took could be adapted, but it may not be possible to replicate it."

But there's no doubt that veterans of the CCC remember a life-changing experience. Back in 1996, I remember listening as Jim Ronning, a Rochester resident, talked about the CCC with great pride and emotion. A farm kid from Montevideo, he had enlisted in 1934 and stayed in for nearly two years.

"Every month, $25 went home to put food on the table," Ronning recalled. "But my dad was so proud — he would never use the money. But one day, he asked if he could borrow some of it, and I said, 'No you can't. You can't borrow it because it's your money.' "

I remember watching Ronning's eyes glitter as he stared back at that memory.

"That was something to say that day," he continued after a pause. "The CCCs made me a man."

Freelance writer David Hawley can be reached at dhawley[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (14)

I'm all for conversation. But I think your initial headline ("Is it time to build up the Minnesota Conversation Corps?") meant to refer to "conservation," no?

The CCC was an amazing enterprise and aspects of its programming should certainly be considered now.

In 1937, my father, Joseph Meszaros, visited his boyhood home in Barberton, Ohio, taking a long car trip with his sister, from their home in Passaic, N.J. His father had arrived in Ellis Island, from Hungary, in 1901, with five dollars. He married and started a family in the Hungarian community there, but moved to Barberton, Ohio during WWI to work in a war plant, where he earned enough money to buy a large home for his growing family in Passaic, N.J.

This home became their refuge during the Great Depression.

Fortunately, my father procured a little Kodak Brownie camera for his Ohio trip, and recorded for posterity dozens of pictures of the industrial town of Barberton. WPA projects from the FDR New Deal especially impressed him, and he provided some commentary to his pictures of WPA projects, which centered around water development:

“Water Scenes: Lakes and Reservoirs in and around the old home town. Besides being a thriving industrial city just 7 miles outside the world's largest rubber plants – Barberton is blessed with natural beauty, greatly improved in the past by WPA work.
“Spillway – takes care of overflow.
“Lake Ann in the center of town. Almost perfect oval in shape. Beautiful!
“Beautiful lakes, surrounded by trees, well kept lawns. Water to drink - water for swimming – water for industry. Life itself!”

This personal eyewitness view of FDR's New Deal refutes the current moronic and stupid commentaries of modern neanderthals (Garry Wills, “ 'Just Say No to a new New Deal' FDR's Program may have prolonged the Depression.” Nov. 30, 2008) who deprecate the lasting effects of the WPA. Just look around modern cities, and you will find them everywhere.

What a headline - Obama too establish conversation corps.

Brilliant -- think of the stimuli found across the country as dialoguers open up new coffee houses, wine bars, dinner groups and salons. Members of teh corps doing the heavy lifting for rafts of post modernist novels or gently guiding streams of lyric poetry. Epoc tales of conversation recreating the American dram and mythos anew.

Change happens

That's funny.

Just the other day, my colleagues and I were sitting around the burn barrel sharing a can o' beans, and we all agreed that if our careers in engineering are kaput, we couldn't think of anything we'd all love more than to move into a barracks, dig ditches and cut down trees.

This article led me to believe there would be more info about the MCC programs and how MCC and other corps in our country can be utilized for job training and employment to put young men and women on the path to paying off school debts, building skills, improving our natural resources and infrastructure, and filling these important jobs when they leave the corps with a sense of pride and the skills to succesfully manage our state's resources.

I can't think of a better use of our limited resources than to invest a portion of it into the future of our state by giving youth and young adults a chance to serve their communities while developing needed job skills, earning money for school, and improving our parks, trails, waters, schools, and communities. This on eis a no-brainer and only faces opposition by uninformed fear mongers whose only response is to cry socialism!

A modern-day program like the Civilian Conservation Corps would most certainly benefit today's younger generation. Young men all over the country gained both financially and in personal character from the CCC program, with many participants citing self-discipline and self-respect as two of the greatest benefits. Our country gained from their hard work through the CCC conservation and building programs. Read their personal stories in The CCC Experience (http://stories.mnhs.org/stories/mgg/scene.do?id=2) on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Minnesota’s Greatest Generation project web site, and explore a real CCC enrollee’s footlocker (www.mnhs.org/footlocker).

Glen Mesaros - I think you mean George Will not Gary Wills.

As I see it, the big difference between now and the 1930's (aside from the idea that we are in a severe recession rather than a depression) is that we should send young men to a new CCC to lose 10 pounds.

My husband and I were talking just last week about how Obama should build a new CCC. Come June I think there will be a lot of college and high school grads looking for work. While we aren't in the same depths of depression as we were in the 30's it may not be too long before we are.

There are many jobs that could be done with CCC, aside from coffee shops. The Superior Hiking trail needs to be finished. Trails in the BWCA are still a mess from the big blow down. I'd love to see some more hiking and camping opportunities closer to the twin cities. Invasive species need to be removed. There is lots of clean up along the Mississippi that can happen.

Good article. There is some evidence that the CCC was more successful than the WPA. Keep up the good work.

One additional benefit to this kind of program is that there is lots of evidence that students who do service also do better in school. We can tackle multiple issues by connecting such CCC service with education and improve our chances of a much stronger Minnesota of tomorrow.

The CCC has a great history and I am a lover of history, but Minnesota has thousands of unemployed construction workers. Workers who already have the skills to build and rebuild our infrastructure. First, we should put those trained unemployed construction workers back to work. That is a more efficient use of our money.

Yes my father spoke fondly of his experiences with the CCC prior to volunteering for WW2. It brought stability to his fatherless family that he tried to support by dropping out of high school after his pa's death. Let Starbucks build new coffee shacks or wait a minute they're going under. And let the young who need the dignity of work rebuild the infrastructure built something that will last as the efforts of the CCC and the other alphabet agencies of the new deal have endured. Like it or not this are monuments to successful economic policy.

I live near the site of the Sawbill CCC camp north of Tofte on the Sawbill Trail. They are few and far between now, but we used to get a lot of the old CCCers in our store. To a man, they spoke with pride about their experience. Many felt that it set them on a good path for life.

In the BWCA Wilderness, and all around the Superior National Forest, the work of the CCC can still be seen and is providing practical benefit to this day. Bridges, trails, buildings, timber stand improvement, campgrounds, and the list goes on.

I'm sorry to read some of the cynical comments. Hard work in the northwoods is just as relevent and rewarding as it was in the 30s - recession or no recession. I heartily support bringing it back.

PS - As a historical note, there was another CCC camp on the Sawbill Trail that was a segregated camp for black CCCers from the St. Louis area. For a number of reasons, it was short lived. The well and the remnants of the sauna(!) can still be seen.

Thanks to David Hawley for the story on the Civilican Conservation Corps and the Minnesota Conservation Corps. The work done by the CCC in the 1930s and early 1940s and work done by the MCC today are gifts for now and the future.

I appreciate David's mentioning my book, Hard Work and a Good Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps in Minnesota, in his article. It is based on oral histories with enrollees and others in the CCC. Their stories give us first-person Minnesota history and David, through this article, helps keep our interest in that history alive.