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Michigan historian tells story of Depression-era CCC Boys

Published: Friday, March 2, 2012 12:11 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 2, 2012 12:16 p.m. CDT

Michigan-based historian Bill Jamerson presented Newton residents with an American history lesson Wednesday evening at the Newton Public Library. Through stories and songs, Jamerson told the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

President Franklin Roosevelt created the CCC in the 1930s as part of the National Recovery Act, a response to the Great Depression. The “CCC Boys” generally were single men between the ages of 17 and 25, mostly in the lower income brackets. They were sent to rural areas, many times in deep woods in self-sustaining camps. The men were free to leave at any time, but the isolation and nature of the camps made it difficult to leave. The men were fed well, often with local produce, and received new work clothes and shoes, often much better than what they arrived with.

They planted 50 million trees over the course of the program, as well as fought forest fires, built libraries, built state parks, including Backbone State Park, and several others in Iowa. They installed telephone poles, built county roads and many times performed good deeds for the local populace.

“The CCC Boys made a big impact on the local communities,” Jamerson said.

The men were paid $1 per day for their hard work, the equivalent of about $20 in today’s economy, Jamerson said. Many of the men sent money home, which helped their families immensely. He told of a case where the money actually saved the CCC employee’s grandmother’s farm from bankruptcy. The camps each had an infirmary, and many of the locals would come to them for treatment, which they were given without charge. CCC members also were credited with several cases of finding lost children, saving locals from fires and other heroic deeds.

Not all the CCC men were angels, however. Jamerson said many times the men would get into trouble at the local bars, and there was one incident in which a couple of them stole a small plane and crashed it into a field.

Still, during the short time the CCC was in operation, it proved to be a great success, with many lasting parks and buildings to its credit. It served as a great learning tool for the men as well, and many of the participants learned to read and write and learn a skill during their time in the CCC.

Jamerson said he felt such a program would be difficult to implement today. It would need to be operated by the Army, he said, and a problem now would be getting the young men to do the dirty and back-breaking work that was done by the CCC men in the 1930s.

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