The Great Depression caused so much trauma partly because it came so suddenly, quickly turning a period of unprecedented prosperity, optimism and confidence into a discouraging struggle to survive for many Americans.
The seemingly invincible U.S. economy had proved vulnerable because of a weak banking structure and unstable business organizations.
When the stock market collapsed millions of people fell into absolute poverty. No public welfare or unemployment benefits assisted them. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lined up for the free soup that churches and private charities began to provide.
For many the sudden descent into poverty and helplessness, and an accompanying sense of failure and lack of self worth, caused more pain than the hunger and physical hardships they had to endure. On his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Roosevelt began creating an alphabet soup of agencies to help battle the economic woes of the Depression. He put able-bodied but broken-spirited young men back to work.Although he did not at first have a clear strategy for economic recovery, he understood one important thing: that part of the problem was a lack of confidence. In his inauguration speech he inspired the American people with the words, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In the first 100 days of his presidency, Congress passed 13 major measures for economic recovery and federal relief for the needy.
During March 1933, Roosevelt summoned Congress to an emergency session to hear his plan to enlist men in an effort to “preserve the natural resources of these United States.” He proposed putting unemployed city men to work restoring the country to its “former beauty.”
“We can take a vast army of the unemployed out into healthful surroundings,” he told Congress. “We can eliminate to some extent at least the threat that enforced idleness brings to spiritual and moral stability.”
During the period of 1848 to 1898, Michigan lumber barons cleared the land of trees, netting $4 billion dollars, a billion more than came out of California during the Gold Rush of the same period. They stripped 19.5 million acres, none of which was replanted, leaving vast tracts of barren wasteland. Much of the land reverted to state ownership as the lumber barons abandoned it, ignoring tax bills on the now worthless tracts.Roosevelt’s plan was to repair the damage done to the nation’s forests by 19th century loggers with a Civilian Conservation Corps made up of out-of-work young men
Four departments — Labor, Agriculture, Interior and the Army — worked together to establish and operate the camps. The Labor Dept. helped select the volunteers, the Army ran the camps, and Agriculture and Interior provided technical support.
Enlistments ran six months with the possibility of re-enlistment. By June of 1933, 270,000 men were working in 1,330 camps throughout the nation, with an average of 200 men per camp. The Corps allowed blacks and American Indians to enroll, but most camps were segregated and were led by white officers and advisors. Native Americans worked on their own reservations and did not live in camps. Eventually nearly 3 million men served in the Corps.
In Michigan, the “boys” performed a variety of conservation and reforestation projects. Between 1933 and 1942, the Michigan CCC planted 485 million trees, spent 140,000 days fighting forest fires, constructed 7,000 miles of truck trails, built 504 bridges and constructed 222 buildings.
They built 4,000 fire towers and strung 75,000 miles of telephone wire. They built 132,000 miles of road, and diked flooding river banks. They worked eight-hour days and attended school at night. The program was credited with curbing juvenile delinquency and reducing the prison populations. It revitalized the Michigan park system, and helped to establish Isle Royale National Park along with improving campgrounds in Michigan’s forests
The first applicants in Michigan were signed up April 10, 1933. Most were aged 18 to 25, but many were World War I veterans in their 30s and 40s.
On May 2, 1933, two hundred “city boys” from Detroit and Wayne County arrived at the Hiawatha National Forest near Sault Ste. Marie, were they set up temporary tent lodging and named their new home Camp Raco. Within a few months their numbers grew. In April 1933, only a month after Roosevelt’s inauguration, 9,500 Michigan men were working in 10 hastily constructed CCC camps up north.
By 1936 there were 77 camps in Michigan. More than 55,000 men had served terms of either six months or a year. Participants were paid $30 a month and most sent $22 to $25 home to their families.
Initially the men were derogatorily dubbed “wood lice” by neighbors of the camps. But later, gaining the respect of most Americans, they became “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” During the day the men worked under the authority of the National Forestry Service or the Michigan Emergency/Conservation Work. At night, they were under the command of the military officers who ran the camps.
In Michigan, a CCC candidate would began his journey by applying at a local section board organized by the Department of Labor. Applicants had to be single, unemployed young men in good health willing to send at least $22 of his $30 monthly wage home to his parents and family.He underwent a physical examination similar to military recruits, was inoculated, took the CCC oath and received supplies and an allotment of clothing that included a blue denim worksuit and an army olive uniform for dress purposes. For many recruits these uniforms were the only new clothing they had received in months.
Initially the CCC camps were small tent villages, but as winter approached, the tents were replaced by permanent barracks, mess halls, officers’ quarters, vocational centers, medical clinics, bath houses and of course, latrines. The structures offered no frills. A regular army officer or reserve officer commanded each camp.
Despite the army’s role, the camps remained civilian in nature. There were no military drills and no restrictions about leaving camp as long as the men were back for lights out at 10 p.m. The isolated locations of the camps restricted the amount of mischief they could get into.A worker’s morning began at 6 a.m. with calisthenics followed by a hearty breakfast, roll call and inspections. By 8 a.m. the troops went to their work projects. They ate lunch in the field and by 4 p.m. they returned to camp and had free time until dinner at 5:30, after which they could do as they wished.In 1933 The Detroit News sent Nat Barrows to one of the camps to report on the conditions.
“My companions represented all types and all kinds of homes,” Barrows wrote. “Some were wane and thin. Many were pale. There was only one fat lad among the entire 50 or 60 in the quarters. There were boys in the group who never had a chance before to work. Some never had been away from home. Others had lived lives of adventure until they were caught in the Depression. Many had been factory workers. But now enlisted in the forestry army, they were members of the same fraternity.”
Because most of the camps were in national and state forests, enrollees planted seedlings, fought forest fires, eradicated tree diseases, and built fire towers and firebreaks to prevent forest fires.Once the national program proved to be a success, more expansive complicated projects included building bridges and fish hatcheries.
One notable 1935 project involved the men of Camp Germfask who established the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula. These recruits transformed 95,000 acres of wetlands and marshes into a residence for wildfowl. They built an elaborate system of dams, pools, and spillways and planted hundreds of acres of millet and wild rice to attract and feed the birds. Today, it is recognized as a national treasure.
But working in the wilderness could be dangerous as well as rewarding. In May of 1937, while fighting a fire in the Huron National Forest, Andrew D. Lindgren and his men became trapped. Lindgren directed the men to safety, but lost his own life. He was awarded the North American Forest Fire Medal for bravery.
The worst tragedy occurred in 1935 in the Florida Keys when a Labor Day hurricane swept though. Many of the men at three CCC camps in the Keys had returned home for the holiday, but more than 600 remained. As the hurricane winds grew a rescue train left to pick up the stranded men. Winds estimated as high as 200 miles ripped through the buildings, pulverizing the structures and the bridges, the only means of escape. Of the estimated 634 men in the three camps, 44 were found dead and 236 were missing and assumed swept out to sea.
President Roosevelt, impressed with the results of the early camps, expanded the program to include better training and education. “As muscles hardened,” Roosevelt said in a radio address, â€œand you became accustomed to the outdoor work you grasped the opportunity to learn by practical training on the job.”
The new programs added educational advisors, often an unemployed teacher, to each camp. Classes held at night included vocational and academic courses. Collections at camp libraries increased and many local camps began producing their own newspapers.
On a national level more than 100,000 men learned to read and write, with more 25,000 receiving 8th grade diplomas and 5,000 earning high school degrees.
Local newspapers took up the call for businesses to employ the returning “Depression Doughboys.” The Detroit News ran an editorial in 1937 extolling their accomplishments: “The discipline and training in usefulness acquired by the boys of the CCC have been assets to many of them when the time came to cast about for private jobs. Employers value the qualities the corps instills in the material coming to it, the attitude toward work, the readiness to comply with direction, the notion that a living is to be earned. They have been hardened physically and matured mentally. This looks less like welfare work than a chance for many Michigan employers to acquire willing hands who have gone through a conditioning process that private enterprise would be put hard to duplicate.”
The CCC produced another, unintended benefit as well. Although it started as a civilian jobs program, the CCC formed the backbone of America’s military forces after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Many soldiers, sailors and marines were recruited directly from the forest camps. Their experiences in the camps helped ease the adjustment to military life.
Over the years “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” held many reunions.
In 1985 a group returned to North Higgins Lake State Park to reminisce and evaluate the work they did in the early days. They sang around campfires once again, ate pot-luck dinners and recalled how it was for city-bred boys who knew nothing about backwoods existence to swing axes and plant trees.
Mike Obnolewicz came from Mt. Clemens. He told of an endurance contest in which one man planted 12,000 trees three feet apart in a single day.
Robert Fyvie of Newberry remembered bitter winters in the wooden barracks when somebody had to sit up all night tending a pot-bellied stove. “But the kid on duty would often fall asleep and when we’d wake up the next day our boots would be frozen to the floor,” Fyvie recalled with a mock shudder.
Those CCC workers struggled through the hardships of the Great Depression with ingenuity, pride and grit. And along the way they left their children and grandchildren a legacy of renewed forests, lands and streams.