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Minnesota gained more than 123 million trees thanks to the Civilian Conservation Corps

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Civilian Conservation Corps workers building a road near Roosevelt, Minnesota, ca. 1933. Photographed by J. A.Gjelhaug.

The U.S. Congress paved the way for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) when it passed the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) Act in March 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. This New Deal program offered meaningful work to young men with few employment prospects. It resulted in a lasting legacy of forestry, soil, and water conservation, as well as enhancements to Minnesota’s state and national parks.

Like other government programs launched during the Great Depression, the CCC was the brainchild of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). Five days after Congress passed the ECW Act, he signed Executive Order 6101, creating the CCC.

Several federal agencies had responsibility for the CCC program. The Labor Department handled recruitment. The War Department managed camp organization, induction, housing, food, and clothing. Army personnel supervised the camps. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior developed the work projects.

The government set a nationwide quota of 250,000 young men ages eighteen to twenty-five. To qualify, candidates had to be healthy U.S. citizens, out of school, unemployed, unmarried, and on public assistance. Recruits reported to an assigned camp for a period of six months. Those with a good work record had the option to sign up for a second six-month term. Each man received thirty dollars per month. Enrollees were required to send twenty-five dollars home to their families, and kept five dollars for personal use.

The CCC program permitted African American men to enroll, but it became harder for blacks to be accepted into the program as white enrollment increased. According to historian Barbara W. Sommer, African Americans made up only about 10 percent of all recruits. Once enrolled, they found that the camps followed the U.S. Army’s racist segregation policies. Most black men served in all-African American camps at such locations as Fort Snelling State Park and Temperance River State Park. Those sent to white camps lived in segregated barracks and ate their meals apart from the rest of the recruits.

Blacks in the CCC faced discrimination from local citizens and from some white camp commanders. Ignoring the program’s integration requirements, administrators stopped accepting blacks into Minnesota camps in 1938. They sent those already enrolled to camps in Missouri and other southern locations where Jim Crow laws were common, despite protests from the African American community in Minnesota.

In April 1933, the government extended enrollment to older men known as Local Experienced Men. These men had useful knowledge of camp locations and offered more advanced skills for tasks such as stone masonry and forestry than their younger colleagues. The large number of unemployed veterans of World War I prompted FDR to further expand the CCC program. He created the Veterans Conservation Corps in May 1933 with an enrollment goal of twenty-five thousand men.

On June 19, 1933, the Office of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior established the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID). Based on Minnesota’s American Indian population, the government set a quota of four hundred workers for each enrollment period in the program. In less than one month, Minnesota’s first CCC-ID camp opened at Nett Lake.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs administered the CCC-ID camps, instead of the U.S. Army, and provided work projects both on and off the reservations. In line with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, many CCC-ID projects focused on preservation of Ojibwe and Dakota culture, including management of wild rice habitat and teaching modern methods of maple sugaring. These men also built roads and cleared diseased trees in local forests. The Grand Portage camp completed an archaeological study and reconstruction of the North West Company Fur Post historic site on Lake Superior. The result is one of the best-known examples of CCC-ID work.

Minnesota’s camps were located in the Seventh U.S. Army Corps Area. This area included the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. Based on the state’s population, Minnesota was to have sixty-one camps with a total enrollment of six thousand men. The first Minnesota camp, Company 701, opened at Lake Gegoka (near Isabella) on May 8, 1933. Other camps quickly followed, including the first state forest and state park camps.

Each camp had barracks to house two hundred men, a kitchen, a mess hall, and a camp canteen that sold personal items. Other camp structures included tool sheds, an infirmary, a reading room, and a recreation hall. A typical work day was eight hours, starting at 6:00 a.m. with exercises and breakfast. Morning and afternoon work sessions allowed for breaks for lunch and supper, with the noon meal sometimes served at the work site if it was located too far from camp. Evening hours provided free time for recreation and study, with lights out at 9:30 p.m. Many camps offered vocational training programs and church services. The men could join organized sports teams and play card games or billiards as leisure time activities.

Minnesota CCC projects centered mainly on forestry and state and national park projects. They also supported soil and water conservation. The men in forest camps cut and cleared brush to help conserve existing forests and planted 123,607,000 trees. They participated in tree disease prevention programs, built roads, strung telephone lines, and fought forest fires. Fire prevention efforts included clearing deadwood and building water towers, ranger stations, and firebreaks.

Park projects focused on the building of permanent “rustic style” structures of local stone and logs following National Park Service guidelines. The CCC built and improved camp grounds, picnic areas, parking lots, and scenic overlooks. They worked to restore historic structures, such as the commissary building at the Fort Ridgely historic site.

Severe drought conditions in the mid-1930s, particularly in southeastern Minnesota, made soil and water conservation an important part of the work of the CCC. The enrollment quota increased to 350,000 in 1934, and to six hundred thousand the next year, to meet the program’s needs. The CCC planted windbreaks, built dams, dug drainage ditches and put up fencing. Working with local farmers, they created custom plans for each farm incorporating modern farming methods such as terracing, contour farming, and strip cropping.

The accomplishments of the men of the CCC are evident throughout the state. Examples of rustic-style structures, many on the National Register of Historic Places, still stand in Minnesota state parks. The trees planted have revitalized Minnesota’s forests. Soil conservation measures adopted in the 1930s resulted in the passage of the 1937 Soil and Water Conservation Districts Law. Under this law, Minnesota farmers continue to use the methods promoted by the CCC to prevent soil erosion, water conservation, and flooding.

The CCC program peaked in Minnesota in 1935 with 104 active camps. Enrollment nationwide began to decline in the early 1940s as young men joined the military for World War II and as the economy began to rebound. Despite efforts to make the CCC permanent, funding for the program ended on June 30, 1943. All of Minnesota’s camps closed in 1942. More than seventy-seven thousand Minnesota men found employment with the program. The CCC-ID program assisted more than twenty-five hundred American Indian families in the state. The young men of the CCC credited the program with teaching self-discipline and leadership, instilling confidence and self-respect, and helping them to develop useful career skills.

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