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During this time of economic uncertainty and record-high levels of unemployment, many of us are turning to the government for help. Today, that help looks like small business loans, emergency grants, and stimulus checks.

For historians, we look to the past to find events that are similar and look to see how leaders responded. We want to know what they did, and more importantly, what worked and what didn’t.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States’ government helped the American people differently. The government provided millions of young men with jobs, food, toiletries, education, vocational training and a place to live.

The Civilian Conservation Corps

Just a few weeks after taking office in March 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented the Emergency Conservation Work program. This program is better known as the Civilian Conservation Corps or the CCC. President Roosevelt took the framework of a conservation program he oversaw as Governor of New York and transformed it to fit the entire nation. He saw that not only were states like Michigan in need of reforestation and fire protection, but that Americans were visiting state and national parks in record high numbers.

These parks did not have proper trails or facilities to support such high visitation. The CCC was the answer to solving both the unemployment of American men and the critical conservation needs on state and federal lands. By the end of May 1933, 12 CCC camps were established in Michigan. By the end of the program in 1942, Michigan had operated 125 CCC camps.

Program Enrollment

To enroll in this male-only program, men had to meet several requirements.

  • Their family had to be on some type of government assistance.
  • They had to be single and weigh at least 107 pounds.
  • They had to be between the ages of 17-23.

Veterans of the Spanish American War and World War I could also enroll. Race relations of the time also affected enrollment. Even though African American and Native American people saw unemployment rates well above those of Caucasian populations, their enrollment in CCC camps was tightly controlled. African American enrollment, for example, could only be 10% of national CCC enrollment. Early efforts to integrate camps faced opposition and, in 1935, the CCC was segregated. By the end of the program, Michigan had one Native American camp operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and 12 African American camps.

Operated by the War Department, Michigan CCC camps supplied everything enrollees needed. This included clothing and toiletries. Many enrollees came from urban areas and wondered at the wilderness, deep snow and strange animal noises of the northern lower and upper peninsulas. Don Ashcraft, a CCC enrollee, recalled his experience travelling to camp:

The only possession most of us had were the clothes on our backs. On the way to Camp Steuben, a few guys in my truck struggled with English and others chatted together in their native tongues. All of us marveled at the beauty of the Upper Peninsula.

When historians compare the average CCC enrollee with modern young men, the differences are startling. These boys were malnourished and underweight. Most of them had not completed eighth grade. It was even typical to see shoeless enrollees departing for camp.

Their Work

Enrollees were rewarded for their hard work and time away from home with $30 a month. That is the equivalent of about $1,620 today. CCC boys got to keep $5 while the rest went directly to their families.

Michael Rataj, an enrollee at Camp Mackinac, remembered receiving a letter from his family explaining that they were able to purchase a coat, food and wood for the stove. Michael said that “you felt for the first time that you were helping your family, and nothing could induce you to leave the CCC.”

For the most part, these boys were new to hard work and rural life. Fighting fires, planting trees and restoring streams in icy cold waters were just a few of the difficult tasks the CCC boys accomplished.

George Yannett, an Odawa enrollee from the Grand Traverse Band of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, admitted that “I never thought I could get hurt. [But] there I was with a spade and a hoe, in the middle of a blaze!”

Enrollees worked a regimented schedule, 8am-5pm, Monday through Friday. During their time off, they could read and play games in the canteen and take part in all manner of sports.

Most importantly, camps provided these men the opportunity to prepare themselves for life after the CCC. Enrollees could attend educational classes to finish 8th grade or high school. They could even participate in correspondence courses through the University of Michigan. Enrollees also had the opportunity to take part in vocational training. The types of training offered were broad and deep. Some boys might choose automotive repair and others plumbing. Many camps specialized in specific trades. At Camp Higgins Lake, for example, boys could learn mapmaking and surveying skills.

Their Legacy

When the CCC ended in 1942, more than 100,000 Michigan men had participated. Not only were they prepared for life outside of the CCC, but they also had transformed the landscape of Michigan in ways that can still be seen today and sent millions of dollars to their families.

Have you noticed trees growing in perfectly straight lines along northern Michigan roadways? Those are some of the 484 million trees the CCC planted. If you have used state park trails, campgrounds or bathrooms, then you most likely enjoyed the work of the CCC. Does your family lives in a rural area of the state? If so, it was most likely the CCC that brought electricity to your home.

Nicknamed Roosevelt’s Tree Army, this conservation program had wide-ranging benefits for Michigan’s economy, landscape, and enrollees. Michigan’s lush forests, extensive truck trail and firebreak system, Isle Royale National Park, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, countless state parks and miles upon miles of fertile rivers were conserved and improved by the hard work of CCC enrollees.

Even though the program’s successes are still seen and enjoyed today, not everyone agreed with the program. Comments like “that costs the American people too much money” and “the government will turn my son into a soldier” were common. Indeed, the program did cost American taxpayers millions of dollars and many CCC boys enlisted during WWII, quickly rising through the ranks and excelling in military life.

Learning from the Past

In times of crisis, historians look to the past to find guidance. With the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it makes sense to look to how America survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. The CCC played a significant role in keeping Americans employed, fed and sheltered, while also providing a public service that advanced the conservation of Michigan’s natural resources.

Would a CCC program work today? The answer is not as simple as you would think. There is a popular saying that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” But each significant event, turning point and crisis in American history has its own unique causes and circumstances. A direct comparison really isn’t possible. So, how can we use the past to inform the present?

We can ask questions and find the answers. How is the Great Depression like the COVID-19 pandemic? And how are they different? While both feature economic instability and high unemployment, the Great Depression didn’t have a worldwide public health crisis to the extent we are seeing with COVID-19.

Would a CCC-Type Program Work Today?

What would a federal program that provides jobs, food, and education, like the CCC look like today? Would the need for social distancing make camp life impossible? In the 1930s, our natural resources needed help recovering from irresponsible logging practices and other damage. What infrastructure projects need the most help today? How did the U.S. pay for the CCC in the 1930s, and would that work for America today? How is the social and political climate of American different today than it was in the 1930s? Would present day Americans join in a national effort like this?

Programs like the CCC do exist today. Many states, including Michigan, have small versions of the CCC. There is even a national AmeriCorps program that puts young people to work in conservation fields and rewards them with educational grants. Would it possible to use one of these programs as a framework, like how President Roosevelt modeled the national CCC after his New York program?

These and others are all questions that historians, as well as government leaders and advisors, need to ask themselves. The answers can help identify courses of action that might be successful. What questions would you ask? And, after thinking through the answers, do you think a CCC-type program would work today?

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