Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
HOPE IN AN ERA OF DESPAIR
Purses were empty, stomachs growled, crops failed and people were scared. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s work force was unemployed. As banks and factories closed their doors, several million people aimlessly drifted from place to place. Many "homeless" rode freight trains, which were jammed with men, women, and children in chase of a dream. Someone had heard of a place where there were jobs--and all raced to the oasis to find nothing.
Journalist Maxine Davis toured the country interviewing young people, and concluded that the Depression "robbed an entire generation of time and opportunity." Millions of able-bodied men had no prospects of earning a living. Federal welfare did not exist. What hope did young people have of starting a family when there was no way to feed and clothe the children?
The severest part of the equation was, that the nation faced an environmental crisis. Three-fourths of the forests had been used up, farming techniques had produced massive erosion stripping the soil of fertility and there were dust storms caused by drought and overgrazing. The Plains were rapidly turning into desert.
When Congress authorized emergency conservation work in March 1933, the nation was ripe for help from the federal government, and almost any work program was bound to be successful. Iowa soon had 34 CCC camps up and running with 12,800 men enrolled. By 1942, enrollees in Iowa totaled 46,000. The program was a huge success!
In addition to board and room and clothing, the average enrollee received $30 per month, and $25 was sent back home to his family. Men enrolled for six months and could re-enroll for up to two years, although some managed to continue longer. The drop out rate was 12%, but this was largely because of homesickness.
The men lived in single-story, wood frame barracks with a pot-belly stove for heat. Of 46 camps in Iowa, 41 were assigned to park projects. Camps came to life at 6 am and within a few minutes everyone was outside doing exercises. After breakfast, chores around the barracks were handed out, everyone took turns at kitchen duty, and by 7:45 am, crews were ready for a day’s work.
A nickname for the CCC was "Roosevelt’s Tree Army." The CCC developed a rustic architectural style as they made structures and improvements using native building materials. They split stone for walls, felled thousands of trees, quarried rock, and mixed concrete. Local expert men (LEMs) taught stonemason skills in the beginning.
In Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, several stone bridges, a handsome picnic shelter, the bath-houses, and the stone lodge near the west entrance are surviving examples of park architecture that they employed. The indigenous style has drawn admiration from around the world, although the men likely did not realize that their regional designs would become historic. The natural, rustic, picturesque stone and wood beam construction succeeded in fitting human activity into nature in dramatic fashion and produced a charming legacy.
The CCC modeled their organization after the Army, mainly because the US Army housed, fed, clothed and supervised all of the activities of the organization, including recreation. Critics complained of the Army-like atmosphere, but this happened because the Army was the only agency of the federal government capable of handling such a monumental task.
The benefits of the CCC are not easily calculated. Communities had an immediate benefit from the increased economy, and a lasting benefit from the programs that employed the men. Men enjoyed a "bonding" experience and feelings of belonging and friendship.
The CCC accepted blacks and other races with no discrimination officially. Race presented a difficult problem for Southerners. In the South, the number of black enrollees were limited, and usually they were kept together on special work tasks away from the white workers. Sometimes camps were segregated and blacks were housed separately. This was still a generation before mandatory integration.
Camp life also included recreational sports such as baseball, basketball, football, boxing, track, and less intense contests such as table tennis, pool, checkers and card games. Journalism, music and cooking classes were offered and the men were allowed to construct and maintain a garden with flowers and vegetables, gravel paths, railings, and stone fireplaces. They were allowed to socialize in the community with taps sounding at 10:15 PM and a bed check at 11 o’clock.
Our community has reaped many benefits from what the local CCC camp accomplished. At the time it employed local men. Some of the workers who came from other communities brought their families and stayed in Keosauqua. It should be remembered, however, that the efforts of this organization were borne out of very unique circumstances. The CCC gave to many men an opportunity that their generation otherwise could not afford.
For thousands of young men, this was a turning point in their lives, as it relieved them of economic stress and allowed them to plan a future around training and job skills that had expanded their horizons. Bob Wimer wrote, "They were the years that took me off the streets where I was about to be in a lot of trouble; they were the happiest years of my life. Not only were they formative years, they were informative ones."
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick