How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked

Young men showed up in droves to sign up for the CCC. Here, they're seen lining up outside an Army building in New York City for a chance to join.
Young men showed up in droves to sign up for the CCC. Here, they're seen lining up outside an Army building in New York City for a chance to join.
New York Times Co./Getty Images

Things had never looked so bleak for the American people as in the early 1930s. By 1932, unemployment had skyrocketed to more than 20 percent, and the despairing country was ready for a change in leadership. To that end, the people elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, who immediately set to work implementing programs aimed at alleviating the hurting economy. And we do mean immediately -- he called Congress into an emergency session to push through such programs during his first 100 days in office. Though not all of these initiatives worked out as well as he had hoped, one stands out as especially successful and popular: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The CCC was a kind of pet project for FDR, who had already established his dedication to conservation projects when he was the governor of New York. As the CCC Legacy Web site explains, the program was a way of solving the problems of two "wasted resources": unemployed youths and the environment [source: CCC Legacy]. The idea was to put young men to work on special projects that pertained to land conservation.

Not only could needy families benefit from a son's steady paycheck, but the work itself could offer a facelift to communities while improving the local environment. What's more, the program was one solution to authorities' worries about the dangers of idle youths. Officials reasoned that if they kept young boys busy with work in the great outdoors, it would prevent these young men from slipping into an "underworld" life of crime [source: Barry]. It seems to have worked, as some officials credit the CCC with lowing the crime rate in communities [source: CCC Legacy].

Most consider the CCC a smashing success. In its nine years' existence, the CCC put nearly 3 million men to work. It also earned high approval ratings from the public on both sides of the political aisle. But, because such a program was unprecedented and needed to be put together so fast, it was no easy task.

Setting Up the Civilian Conservation Corps

Fresh CCC recruits receive their official uniforms.
Fresh CCC recruits receive their official uniforms.

The speed at which the government implemented the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was phenomenal. It took the cooperation of several departments and branches, but by the time of the first enrollment on April 7, 1933, it had been less than 40 days since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inauguration. It helped that the CCC (originally known as the Emergency Conservation Work program, or ECW) didn't face much opposition. Among its few critics were those from organized labor, who worried that the CCC would steal jobs away at lower wages [source: Maher].

To ease labor unions' worries, FDR hand-picked Robert Fechner, the vice president of the American Federation of Labor, to be the national director of the program. FDR also established an advisory council made up of representatives from the cabinets of war, labor, interior and agriculture to oversee the program.

Recruitment wasn't difficult. Qualifying CCC candidates needed to be single males between the ages of 18 and 25 (the age range was later expanded between 17 and 28). Beyond that, they just had to be in good health and in need of a job. By July, more than 250,000 CCC boys (as they were known) were set up in 1,300 camps [source: Jackson]. Retaining these recruits proved to be more of a problem, however. The boys were kept on a volunteer basis. If they found that the work wasn't for them, some would just leave. The CCC lost 5 percent of its original 250,000 recruits through desertion within a few months, and desertion remained a persistent problem [source: Jackson].

Every month, the government required the CCC boys to send $22 to $25 -- a hefty chunk of their $30-per-month paycheck -- to their families. But this didn't put the boys out much, as life in the camps provided them with all the necessary amenities.

 

Life as a Civilian Conservation Corps Boy

CCC boys rotated kitchen duty. Here, men wait in line for food at Camp Sanders in Mount Herndon, La.
CCC boys rotated kitchen duty. Here, men wait in line for food at Camp Sanders in Mount Herndon, La.

The U.S. Army was responsible for building and running the camps that housed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) boys. The camps typically consisted of four barracks, each housing 40 to 50 boys [source: Jackson]. Each camp also included a mess hall, bathhouse and recreation building in addition to officers' quarters. Life in the camps was very structured. Every morning began with wake-up bugle calls, and the boys had to stand in formation and be on time for meals. They were also required to bathe, shave and keep their hair short.

By 1932, the CCC began incorporating education programs in these camps, and the Army constructed buildings for night classes. Education made the boys more employable, and the classes helped the Army structure evening time, when the young men would tend to get restless. What's more, the education programs created even more jobs in the CCC -- teachers were recruited [source: Barry]. The nature of the programs varied from camp to camp, and some were more successful than others. But by the time the CCC ended, 400,000 illiterate boys had learned to read and write [source: CCC Legacy].

Boys had the opportunity to join sports programs as well, including baseball, boxing and, in some camps, basketball. Major league baseball scouts frequented the CCC games and recruited 20 boys, one of whom was future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst.

A quota on the CCC recruitment restricted the number of blacks who were accepted to 10 percent. Although blacks represented 10 percent of the general U.S. population at this time, the black community suffered disproportionately in the Great Depression [source: New Deal Network]. Camps were racially integrated at first, but this changed in 1935, when Southern-born director Robert Fechner witnessed "unfortunate relationships" forming in the integrated camps and was worried about the backlash from letting black workers into white towns [source: Cole]. Thus, most of the CCC's 200,000 black recruits were moved to segregated camps [source: Jackson].

The CCC also recruited a total of 80,000 Native Americans. Instead of living in the Army camps, the Native Americans lived in their own communities and worked on projects controlled by tribal leaders.

FDR made an exception to the age restrictions for CCC recruitment in May 1933 when he signed an executive order authorizing veterans to join. Approximately 250,000 veterans were allowed into the CCC. At first, these CCC members were also segregated to do work according to their age and ability in their own separate camps.

Accomplishments of the Civilian Conservation Corps

CCC boys work on an adobe building at Mission La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima near Lompoc, Calif., Sept. 23, 1938. The boys go shirtless in the afternoon heat even though Army officers in charge of the camp say it's against regulations.
CCC boys work on an adobe building at Mission La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima near Lompoc, Calif., Sept. 23, 1938. The boys go shirtless in the afternoon heat even though Army officers in charge of the camp say it's against regulations.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) boys worked every day except Sunday from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. Although the U.S. Army ran the CCC camps, it didn't usually handle the work projects. Once the boys arrived on the work site, another organization, such as the U.S. Forest Service, administered the project. Here's a rundown of some of the CCC's major accomplishments:

  • Approximately 125,000 miles (201,168 kilometers) of roads built
  • 46,854 bridges constructed
  • More than 3,000 lookout fire towers built
  • 318,076 check dams built for erosion control
  • More than 8 million hours of fighting fires
  • 33,087 miles (53,248.4 kilometers) of terracing implemented
  • Upwards of 3 billion trees planted
  • About 89,000 miles (143,232 kilometers) of telephone wire strung

[sources: CCC Legacy, Jackson].

In addition, CCC boys built thousands of miles of hiking trails and improved wildlife habitats. They also laid pipe and performed excavation work on canals and ditches. The CCC Legacy Web site credits the program with advancing certain fire-fighting techniques [source: CCC Legacy]. In addition to fire fighting, the CCC performed other emergency response work after floods, hurricanes and blizzards. As many as 47 CCC members died while fighting forest fires, and hundreds of veterans died when a hurricane struck their camps in the Florida Keys.

Although Congress once considered making the CCC permanent, this never happened. World War II ushered in its end. In the late 1930s when war broke out in Europe, production increased in the United States. This created more jobs, which meant that fewer young men were signing up for the CCC. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the War Department needed to divert attention to the war, and the CCC came to an official end in 1942.

In all, almost 3 million young men enrolled in the CCC, and as many as 500,000 were actively serving at its peak in the Great Depression [source: Sterling]. Aside from its more tangible accomplishments, the CCC helped improve local economies when working men and their families finally had cash to spend. Many former CCC boys claim that the regimented structure taught them the discipline they needed for serving in World War II.

Most of all, former CCC men claim to have learned skills and fostered the kind of work ethic that helped them throughout the rest of their lives. One CCC graduate, Harry Dallas, admits being irked when he sees the CCC commemorative postage stamp that depicts a figure holding a pickax improperly -- the CCC taught the boys not to hold it the way it's depicted [source: Jackson].

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Sources

  • Barry, Arlene. "Is the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s a 1990s approach to dropouts and literacy?" Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. May 1999, Vol. 42, Issue 8.
  • CCC Legacy. "CCC Brief History." CCC Legacy. (May 14, 2009) http://www.ccclegacy.org/CCC_brief_history.htm
  • CCC Legacy. "CCC Facts." CCC Legacy. (May 14, 2009) http://www.ccclegacy.org/ccc_facts.htm
  • CCC Legacy. "What is the Legacy?" CCC Legacy. (May 14, 2009) http://www.ccclegacy.org/ccc_legacy.htm
  • Clancy, Patrick. "Conserving the Youth." Virginia Magazine of History & Biography. Autumn 1997, Vol. 105, Issue 4.
  • Cole, Olen. "The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps." University Press of Florida, 1999. http://books.google.com/books?id=ytIQlRZGpy0C
  • Jackson, Donald Dale. "They Were Poor, Hungry, and They Built to Last." Smithsonian. Dec. 1994, Vol. 25, Issue 9.
  • Maher, Neil M. "Nature's New Deal." Oxford University Press US, 2008. (May 14, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=6AiHWz4MZfgC
  • New Deal Network. "African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps." New Deal Network. (May 14, 2009) http://newdeal.feri.org/aaccc/index.htm
  • Phillips, Sarah T. "This Land, This Nation." Cambridge University Press, 2007. (May 14, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=C9J333PlbpMC
  • Sterling, Keir B. " Encyclopedia of World Environmental History: Civilian Conservation Corps." Routledge, 2004. (May 14, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=nUMKF4IKQkAC