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Bruce Reichert, Host:
The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Three Cs, the Tree Army, call it what you will, there is no denying the CCC had a major effect on Idaho and the rest of the nation.
Started during the Great Depression, the CCC put millions of young men to work.
In Idaho, CCC boys planted millions of trees and built thousands of miles of roads and trails, transforming Idaho’s backcountry.
Outdoor Idaho looks back at the CCC, how it changed Idaho and a generation of young men.
If you’ve spent any time in Idaho’s backcountry, chances are you’ve hiked on a trail or driven on a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the 1930s the so-called Tree Army descended upon the nation. And here in Idaho thousands of young men set up camp in Idaho’s forests and range lands.
Hi, I’m Bruce Reichert and welcome to Outdoor Idaho.
You know, during their stay, the boys of the CCC built campgrounds and lookouts and thousands of miles of trail that we still use today.
Now for some of these boys this was their first outdoor experience. But for all of them it was a chance to escape hard times.
They called it the Great Depression. Business was at a standstill following the stock market crash on "Black Tuesday" in late October, 1929.
Drought was turning the nation’s heartland into a dustbowl, uprooting thousands of farmers.
Millions were unemployed. Some 15 million Americans, one of every four workers, had lost his job.
Across America, desperate men, including thousands of World War I veterans, stood in line for hours hoping to find work.
Most had no luck.
Jobs were few and far between, and those that did exist didn’t pay much.
Rusty Clemons, CCC Veteran:
I remember I worked for a farmer one summer, 50 cents a day and my board and room. I got my board and room but I didn’t get my 50 cents a day. He really just didn’t have the money.
Joe Bradish, CCC Veteran:
Things were tough, and like the kids at school, they used to say, "We had meat at our house last night but I didn’t get any." Another kid says, "Well, don’t feel bad, see my hand? We had meat and my brother, I was reaching for it and my brother beat me to it and stabbed me in the hand."
One kid said, "Well you think it is tough here in Chicago, the breadlines, they’re starting to use crackers."
In cities across America, breadlines stretched for blocks, crowded with hungry men, women, and children, waiting for a government handout.
Doug Eier, CCC Veteran:
I remember the relief food we used to get. The cans had white labels with black printing, you know, tomatoes or noodles and stuff like that. And it was tough.
Unable to find work, some turned to crime.
But in 1933, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a "New Deal" for American workers.
During his first 100 days in office, FDR proposed dozens of government programs. Many were known by their initials, the WPA, TVA, FDIC, and others. An alphabet soup of federal programs designed to put Americans back to work.
But Roosevelt’s pride and joy was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Voice of President Roosevelt:
In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources, and at the same time, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress. And we are conserving not only our natural resources, but also our human resources.
The program was open to unmarried, unemployed, young men between 18 and 25, whose families were getting government relief.
During the next nine years, more than 2 million young men signed up.
I got in the first month they started. Of course, I was a high school dropout bumming the streets of Chicago. There were millions of us kids just floating around doing nothing. If you were 18 years of age, not over 25, single, out of work, why then you were eligible to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. So, it was the greatest thing that ever happened for all these kids. It took them right off the streets. It took them out of the slums.
Roosevelt turned to the Army to make the program work.
Military vehicles shuttled recruits to makeshift camps, equipped with Army tents and cots.
Once there, the recruits were examined by military doctors. If they passed, they were issued Army surplus uniforms, many left over from World War I.
They must have had warehouses full of that and they preserved it pretty well. It took you about a year to get the mothball smell out of it. And one size fits all.
When they issued you the clothing, they didn’t bother asking you what size. Because most of it was extra large. If you complained about it, they’d say, "Don’t worry about it, you’re going to grow into it."
Surplus equipment or not, the CCC boys put it to good use.
In the field they worked on projects for the Forest Service, the Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other civilian agencies. But back in camp, they were under Army rule.
You could get as dirty as you wanted to and work as hard as you want to but when you got back into camp, once you got out of the showers, you were back in Army command.
Ed Elliott, CCC Officer:
They were under our authority until we turned them over to the workforce at eight o’clock every morning and came back at 5 o’clock at night.
You had to make them mind, take care of them, feed them well, clothe them well.
Things were strict. You had to polish your shoes, keep your uniforms pressed, keep your bed made. When they come in and flipped a quarter on your bed and it didn’t bounce, they’d tear it up and you’d make it over again. And that made my mother happy to think that I was making my own bed. It was good training, good training.
And good pay.
For their efforts, CCC boys got 30 dollars a month. 25 dollars of that went home to their families. They got to keep the rest for themselves.
Fred Blood, CCC Cook:
That five dollars that we were able to keep, we could go to town and have a hamburger and a Coke and go to a show three or four times a month, if you didn’t blow it on beer.
25 dollars went home, which often paid the rent and some of the food for your parents and family at home.
That 25 dollars went home, hey that was great because that saved the families. Let’s see, I think bread was a nickel a loaf, hamburger was two pounds for a quarter. I think milk was 10 cents a quart.
In the first year alone, CCC boys sent home more than 70 million dollars.
The CCC camps pumped millions more into local economies buying food, clothing, and tools to keep the camps going.
During its 10 year history, the CCC spent more than 80 million dollars in Idaho alone.
Every part of the country was helped as CCC boys worked on a wide variety of projects around the nation.
They excavated historical sites and restored nearly 4000 historic buildings.
They reclaimed millions of acres of cropland damaged by rodents, drought, and erosion.
They built fish hatcheries, wildlife refuges, campgrounds, and nearly 50,000 bridges.
CCC crews strung nearly 90,000 miles of telephone line – 3000 of it in Idaho.
And, when floods devastated the East and Midwest, CCC boys were called in to help, providing much needed relief.
Across the nation, Roosevelt’s Tree Army was considered a success. And no one was prouder than FDR.
Voice of Roosevelt:
It’s very good to be here at these Virginia CCC camps. I wish I could see them all over the country. And I hope that all over the country they are in as fine condition as the camps that I’ve seen today. I wish that I could take a couple of months off from the White House and come down here and live with them because I know I’d get full of health the way they have.
And the recruits were healthy. Most gained weight within a few weeks of joining, an average of 12 pounds each.
For many, it was the first time they’d ever gotten three square meals a day.
Oh, the meals were ideal, I mean it was a variety, too. I mean poor people, the menu was the same thing five days a week. I think we used to have like a dessert on Sunday or once a month. Well, every meal in the CCC there was either a pie, cake, or oranges or something like that, which was something special.
It was Fred Blood’s job to feed the CCC boys.
As one of the camp cooks, Blood worked in the kitchen while the rest of the boys built roads, trails, and elaborate rock picnic shelters at Heyburn State Park along Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The boys collected all this rock and jack hammered and brought it in by truck for the masonry man. You can see where they’ve used the chisel and the hammer to chip it out so that it’d take the bump off and kind of square it up so it would fit in place.
The old time hand masonry people knew how to do it and they did a heck of a good job.
They worked hard and had big appetites.
We had steaks once a week. And then the rest of the week we’d make braised beef and short ribs. And stew, we’d make once in a while. Every now and then on Sunday we’d have chicken or a special roast or something.
A lot of boys come in pretty hungry, pretty thin. And the first month, six weeks, they’d gain 10, 11 pounds. That was not unusual.
Blood was a local boy. Raised in nearby Sandpoint, he was accustomed to the outdoors. But for many of his camp mates, this was their first exposure to the outdoor life.
They brought in some new guys from New Jersey. Those poor guys had never been in the woods. And we had a little fire close by here that didn’t last too long. We put them out on that and I tell you, when they saw that flame and everything, those kids went every direction. It took them half a day to gather them up out of the woods. They were still running, some of them. They just absolutely panicked.
Joe Bradish was used to hard work. He lived on a farm in Illinois but he had never been West. So he and a friend enrolled in the Three Cs hoping to make it to California. Instead they were loaded on a train and shipped to Idaho. Three days later they were let off in southern Idaho, the camp nowhere in sight.
We started off on this country road, a gravel road. Every once in a while we’d yell to this gentleman that was leading us to the camp, "How much farther?" "Oh, just a short ways, just a short ways up. So keep walking." And we’d walk and walk. Finally he said, "Well, you’re here." We looked around. Here was nothing. It was desert. The term desert didn’t mean too much to me until then.
While Bradish was helping turn that piece of desert into home, Herb Van Kirk was getting his first experience with Idaho living.
A city boy from New Jersey, Van Kirk thought he knew about hard work. But he wasn’t prepared for what was expected when he got to Idaho.
Herb Van Kirk, CCC Veteran:
One of the first few days on the job, I said, "Don’t they get the day off when the temperature goes down to 20 below?" And the older CC or Forest Ranger or L, LEM, which is a local employed man, said, "What do you want, to have the winter off?"
Van Kirk and his buddies were put to work building a tunnel along Fish Hook Creek near Saint Maries. Van Kirk’s job was to drive a flat bed truck, specially equipped with at two-story platform complete with jackhammers and drills.
We would back in and drill these holes and load them with dynamite, blow them out, get the truck out of the way, and come in and clean out the mess and then back the truck up and do the same thing all over again.
It was slow, hard, and dangerous work.
Van Kirk remembers the day one of his crew was killed in a blasting accident.
They said, "Fire in the hole" three times and they fired and I saw this coat go through the air and I said, "Somebody’s coat went down in Fishhook Creek." So I ran down there and there was a man in there. And he was just full of stones, like shrapnel from a war.
Van Kirk and his buddies also fought fire, planted trees, and battled blister rust.
The disease was destroying North Idaho’s valuable white pine forests. The Forest Service had been fighting the disease for years without success.
Cort Sims, Forest Service Archeologist:
The solution at that time was to pull up the secondary host of the white pine blister rust, which was gooseberry bushes, Rybies. To do that by hand you need a really large work force. And up until 1933 that wasn’t really effective. When they got these thousands of people in the Civilian Conservation Corps building roads to access these areas and then actually going out and pulling the brush, it had some effect. It slowed down the white pine blister rust until we came up with some other means of controlling it.
Blister rust control may have been the CCC’s greatest contribution to North Idaho, but it is Fishhook Tunnel that bring Herb Van Kirk back after all these years. He left the Cs before the tunnel was completed.
It was a satisfying trip to come out and finally, like I say, "See the light at the end of the tunnel."
Fred Gibson still appreciates one of his accomplishments while in the Cs.
Just 17 years old, he helped build the Manning Bridge over the Salmon River.
Fred Gibson, CCC Veteran:
I helped build this in 1935, but mostly it was drilling in the anchor bolts, and I should say, concrete on this side. But this bridge holds quite a bit of memory for me.
That summer, Gibson and his friends also put jackhammers, bulldozers, picks, shovels, and strong backs to work building a winding mountain road.
Sure it was tough work. But, 17 years old, you’re still pretty strong then, coming off a farm where you’ve had exercise so you knew how to work. That wasn’t like you come off the city boys life like the New York and New Jersey boys. When they got out here they’d never hit a lick in their life, but they learned. A lot of them left here knowing how to work.
The Idaho boys also learned some lessons, not about work but about city life. Two-thirds of the nearly 90 thousand CCC boys in Idaho were from out of state. Many were from eastern cities and had far different backgrounds and values.
After watching these kids, I learned to be thankful for what I had and how I was brought up. Because those kids had a tough lift, a lot of them. They’d been around. Like I said, I thought I knew a few things but I really got an education just being acquainted with these guys.
And the CCC boys got a more formal education as well. Many of them took advantage of classes offered at the camps.
A lot of the boys finished high school and got their GED, I guess you’d call it, and we taught other things. We had radio, morse code, and we had how to run a copy machine. We taught typing and running different type of office machines. A little bit on bookkeeping.
But it wasn’t all work. The CCC boys knew how to have fun. Many camps had bands. Some had mascots, including a deer adopted by the boys at Heyburn State Park.
He was wandering around through camp. We’d feed him and keep track of him, pet him. And of course Rocky Point, naturally you’d call him Rocky. So he was named Rocky.
Most camps had some form of sports. Nearly all had boxing rings. Not just for entertainment, but to help keep the peace.
Every camp I ever knew about, they had a ring down there. If these two kids had a squabble, they’d say, "Well go down there and squabble it out."
Jim Matlock, CCC Veteran:
I did have one boxing match. They said it was a draw. He hit me in the right jaw hard enough that my left ear bled for three nights. So I don’t know, I kind of think I come out short on it.
We’d do baseball to the extent, that you only had one base. No three bases and home plate. Basically, what I did for entertainment was hike to the lakes.
After we once got, should we say, hardened up a little bit, why it wasn’t a chore, it was an enjoyable thing to go for a hike like that.
For many, the CCC was their first exposure to the outdoors. It created memories that are as fresh today as the day they were made. Like the time Doug Eier’s buddy shot a black bear.
The kids were out there with hammers and chisels trying to get a bear tooth as a souvenir. But then everybody had to have their picture taken with that bear skin, you know, and send it home. About a month and a half later, the captain gets up and he said, "Well fellas, by the way, how did you like your dinner tonight?" "Oh great, great we should have more of it." He said, "Well I just wanted you to know that you ate that bear that GI Stuart shot out of the tree." Complete silence. All of a sudden half a dozen run for the door and they got outside and they lost their cookies.
Despite their different backgrounds, the CCC boys learned from each other. Working, eating, sleeping, and playing side by side taught them all a valuable lesson – teamwork.
It’s a lesson that saved many lives.
Voice of President Roosevelt:
I ask the Congress to declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941 a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.
In 1941 many of the young men traded their CCC clothes for military uniforms. They hit the ground running. After spending months in the CCC camps, they were tough, used to hardship, and the military life.
I believe we went through the basic things quicker probably than a young guy just coming in off the street, because we’d had some Army life.
We practically had the biggest share of the training except the trying to stay away from live ammunition, you know, and things like that. But for the rest of it, your obedience and your camp life, you’d been there done that. So you felt like you could handle it. A lot of those people that had come in were drafted, couldn’t handle it. You know, too much.
They’d complain when it was raining and the water would come off the tent and go into their stew. Well we were used to that in the CCCs, I’ll tell you. You know, I’d swear I heard some of those soldiers, they’d be weeping at night, so homesick and all. And you feel like telling them, get a life. Everything’s okay.
Ultimately World War II ended the CCC program. The country couldn’t sustain the war effort and the civilian job program.
And with industry gearing up to help fight the war, jobs were plentiful, certainly not the case when the CCC started a decade earlier.
During that decade, the CCC program transformed the countryside. The CCC boys planted billions of trees, built hundreds of parks, and thousands of miles of roads and trails. It put three and a half million young men to work, rescuing many from lives of poverty and crime.
At the same time, it pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy, pulling the nation and its youth through the dark days of the depression.
Everybody was helped by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the floods back in New York. The CCC made a great contribution to this country.
I often say that I’d have probably wound up in Joliet Prison. The CCCs gave many others, I’m sure, a chance to make something of themselves, to grow up to be a useful citizen. Gibson:
Anytime you accomplish something that you might say was hard labor or you had to think to save yourself, you come out of it a better man, a little more confident.
That was not only adventure, that was one of the best experiences of my life.
You take a callow farm boy and put him to work in the mountains like this, and the things that we did before that summer was over, well you come out a man. That’s what it amounted to.
It’s been 60 years since the boys of the CCC worked along the Selway River to build the Fenn ranger station. The building is now a national historic landmark, testament to the hard work that went on in Idaho and across the nation.
But the CCC program did more than build buildings and bridges and trails, it built a generation.
Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next time.
Transcript by Kelly Roberts