America in the 1930’s was a desperate place, mired in a deep depression. The failure of banks, businesses and farms put millions out of work. In cities across the country, desperate young men, including thousands of World War One veterans, stood in line for hours, hoping to get a job. Most had no luck. And the jobs that did exist didn’t pay much. "I worked for a farmer one summer for fifty cents a day and board and room," says W.R. "Rusty" Clemons. "I got my board and room, but no fifty cents a day. He just really didn’t have the money," Clemons says.
In 1933, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a "New Deal" aimed at putting Americans back to work. He proposed a variety of programs, including his favorite, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The plan called for able-bodied young men to be put to work in the nation’s forests, parks and public lands. Roosevelt hoped the CCC would accomplish two goals – "conserving" the nation’s "natural resources" and its "human resources."
Over the next nine years, more than two million young men were put to work building roads, trails, bridges and other projects across the country. For their efforts, the recruits were paid $30 a month. Of that, $25 was sent home to the families. "That saved the families," says Doug Eier. It helped pay the rent and feed the families. CCC boys sent home more than 70-million dollars in the first year alone and nearly 700-million dollars during the life of the CCC program. The CCC pumped millions more into local economies to feed, clothe and equip the enrollees.
During its ten-year history, the CCC transformed the countryside. CCC accomplishments includes construction of thousands of miles of roads, trails and bridges, opening the backcountry to the public. The CCC boys built campgrounds, lodges and improved national and state parks. They reclaimed millions of acres of cropland and forests damaged by rodents, insects, disease, drought, erosion and fire.
Perhaps the CCC’s greatest accomplishment was its effect on a generation of young men. It helped many escape lives of crime and poverty. Many learned valuable skills and gained confidence in their abilities. "I wish kids today could build something to be proud of," says Fred Gibson. "Any time you accomplish something that you might say was hard labor, you come out of it a better man." Gibson, like many of his CCC buddies, fondly recall their time in the CCC and credit the program with changing their lives. "You take a callow farm boy and put him to work in the mountains like this, you come out a man," Gibson says.