United States government has moved quickly before in time of crisis

Capt. Leo Donovan, U.S. Army officer, gives a word of caution to newly arrived forest army at Luray, Va., that they must guard against accidental fires from cigarettes while working in the woods, April 18, 1933. The group, known as Forestry Camp No. 1, is ready for work in George Washington National Park, near Luray. (AP Photo)

During this past year our news has been mostly about the COVID-19 vaccine, and now, we are hearing reports on how our lives will soon be returning to normal due to the vaccine.

Supposedly, there is a sufficient supply available for all that want to be inoculated against the virus. It is hoped by the end of April this will be done. I have heard it reported many times that it has been a miracle that the government was able to move so quickly to have a vaccine produced. However, this is not the first time that our government has worked incredibly fast to create somewhat of a miracle.

During the Great Depression, there were over 5 million men unemployed and families standing in long lines for food. On March 21, 1933, (88 eight years ago), President Franklin Roosevelt sent a message to Congress in which he proposed the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Within 10 days, Congress agreed and passed his proposal, which was indeed a miracle.

On April 7, 1933, Henry Rich of Alexandria, Virginia, became the first CCC enrollee to have signed up. Henry was sent to Camp Roosevelt located near Luray, Virginia. The initial call went out for 250,000 boys. These young men were to be unemployed, between the ages of 18 and 25, unmarried and to come from families on relief.

On April 22, 24,000 local, experienced men (LEM) were authorized to be hired. These were older men, with experience working in the woods, that were given the task of supervising the thousands of enrolling youth.

Two men are shown studying drafting as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Mount Hermon, La., March 26, 1937. They are working on farm maps. (AP Photo)

The next call went out for World War I veterans who were men in their 30s and 40s. At this time there was a problem with the military bonuses to be given to the veterans, and many WWI vets were unemployed.

The vets who enrolled were put into their own conservation camps. An enrollee had to enlist for six months, with the option of re-enlisting for another six months. A maximum of a two-year enlistment was allowed. An enrollee was paid $30 a month, of which $25 was sent directly home to their families. The remaining money was for the enrollee’s personal use. Room, board, clothing and tools were furnished.

A new enrollee was called a Peavy. The work week was 40 hours, and strict rules were to be followed. Initially, the recruits were sent to an existing army base to be toughened up for their life in the woods.

Several camps for women were established in New Hampshire and New York, however, the CCC was mainly a man’s organization. By 1942, more than 4,000 camps had been established. Enrollment peaked in September of 1935, with 502,000 men enrolled in the CCC. Between 1933 and 1942, more than 3 million men participated in the program. The entire cost of the CCC was almost $3 billion during its nine-year history. Adjusted for inflation, that would be more than $567 billion in today’s money.

Although the program was praised for its good work, there were internal and external problems. One problem was that the CCC was never given permanent status. Its original life was set for two years and, after that, Congress had to approve extensions. These extensions were a constant hassle, with enrollment and work programs being stopped and not started until the whims of the Executive Department and Congress were met. In 1937, Roosevelt tried to make the CCC a permanent program. Although the Senate approved, the House did not, and the CCC was again given one of its many extensions.

Civilian Conservation Corps 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. (AP Photo/Ward Wicart)

Each camp held approximately 200 men. The average camp had 24 buildings, including a kitchen and mess hall. Most camps started out as tent cities, with permanent buildings built to accommodate 40 to 50 men. Later, precut buildings were erected so a camp could be dismantled and moved to a new location when the work in the area was completed. Camp life was a far cry from anything the enrollees had ever experienced. While many camps were in the west, most enrollees came from the east, making the CCC a real adventure for many of the young men.

In the early years, five applicants were received for each opening. The recruits had to pass a physical examination. Most young men who enrolled were underweight. However, in the first three months of service, a peavy gained an average of 11 1/4 pounds. The recruit also had to take an oath of enrollment.

A typical day began with reveille at 6 a.m. and breakfast at 6:30. After breakfast, a sick call was held and policing of the campsite. At 7:15 all trucks were loaded with men and tools ready to start the day’s work. Thirty minutes were allowed for lunch and, by 4 p.m., the trucks were headed back to camp. A flag-lowering ceremony was held and announcements were made at 5 p.m. Dinner followed and then the peavy was free until 10 p.m., at which time it was lights out.

An enrollee was allowed to leave camp on weekends. Also, two trips (leave) home were allowed on each six-month enlistment. The amount of time allowed on leave depended on how far the enrollee had to travel to get home and the availability of public transportation.

Sport activities were encouraged, with baseball being very popular. The official motto of the CCC was “We can take it.” There was pride in being in the CCC, which lives on even today. A person would have a hard time finding anyone who was not proud of being a peavey in the CCC. Raymond Burr, who was best known as TV’s Perry Mason, was a proud CCC veteran.

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sits at the head of a mess table for lunch at Camp Fechner in Big Meadows, Va., one of the five Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps that the president visited on Aug. 12, 1933. Seated with the president are, from left, Gen. Paul B. Malone; Col. Louis Howe; Secretary of the Interior Department Harold I. Ickes; Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps Robert Fechner; and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace; and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford G. Tugwell. In the background are the young men employed in the CCC program initiated by the president as part of the New Deals Program during the Depression. (AP Photo)

In Pennsylvania, there were an average of 74 camps a year in operation, with more than 194,500 men from the state enrolled in the CCC. Total financial obligation within the state was $126,400,000, costing an average of $1,000 per enrollee a year in 1940. This included food, clothing, overhead and allotments to dependents.

Training and education were also part of the program. Ten hours a week could be used for general education and vocational training. The average schooling for recruits in 1935 was 8.7 years.

The end of the CCC came with the beginning of World War II. The manpower drain was tremendous as thousands left the CCC to enlist in the military service to fight a war. Could the CCC have helped win the war? It had already trained young men to the regimental life in the service. They knew discipline and hard work.

Today, we still enjoy some of the work done by the CCC, such as roads, lakes, stone retaining walls and forests that were either planted or saved from forest fires due to the fire lanes established by the CCC.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.


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