This month marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The men who signed up for the Depression-era jobs program built local trails and improved parks that we still use today. The program's alumni are now in their eighties and nineties. Correspondent Tom Banse spoke to several who say now may be a good time to revive a version of the C-C-C.
Mortgage foreclosures, bank troubles, economic stimulus... today's headlines are old news to Americans who grew up during the Great Depression. Back in the 1930's, economic stimulus included giving about three million unemployed men temporary jobs in the woods.
President Franklin Roosevelt described what became known as the C-C-C in one of his radio fireside chats in 1933. "In creating this civilian conservation corps we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and at the same time, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress."
That's what the Civilian Conservation Corps did for John Hamilton. Back then, he was the son of a recently disabled longshoreman in Washington state. Hamilton dropped out of high school to join Roosevelt's tree army — his parents' mortgage on his mind.
"They bought this house in 1935 for $1500 — $15 down and 15 dollars a month, plus the water and that," he explains. "So, where's the money coming from? Where you're going to eat? What are you going to do? Even when you're 18, you think of that. But that's what it was."
Hamilton worked in a road building camp in the backcountry of the Cascade Mountains. He, like the others, was required to send most of his 30 dollar a month paycheck back home to his family. "They made a cook out of me," he recalls. "And then it was fighting fire."
Another common task was tree planting — reforestation. Other projects included installing telephone and power lines, putting up fences, and even making furniture. The young men also built trails, shelters, and overlooks for the fledgling state park systems. Those improvements survive to this day at some of the nation's most popular parks.
John Hamilton's 18-month stint in the C-C-C left enough of a mark on him that the 86-year-old gets together each month with other veterans of the program.
The Seattle alumni chapter president is the widow of a CCC'er. Berniece Phelps says she celebrates small victories: "I think this month we didn't have any deaths to report." A chapter in central Washington State disbanded last fall because too many of its members passed on. The national alumni association knows of only five CCC veterans still living in Idaho.
But Lucius Chapman of Seattle is still hanging on at the age of 88. He knows why his year in a North Cascades forest camp means so much, seven decades later. "It made a man out of you," he says. "You had to learn to live with other people." His wife Margaret adds, "I think it kind of helped save that whole generation. It's too bad that there isn't something that kids just out of high school can go into that will help them grow up."
The closest they can come today is to join a public service job-training program like AmeriCorps or the Forest Service Job Corps. In the current economic downturn, large-scale economic stimulus takes the form of rebate checks from the government. "That's fine to give them money," Margaret Chapman observes, "but what they ought to do is give them jobs that they can do and that are interesting enough to keep them going."
The original Civilian Conservation Corps lasted until 1942. By then, most of its recruits were being drafted for World War Two.