By Pat Rand
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President on March 4th, 1933, the country was in the midst of the worst depression ever experienced in the United States. It had begun with the stock market crash of 1929, and deepened until almost 14,000,000 people – one in every four workers – were unemployed in the country, and business was at a standstill.
Roosevelt had pledged a “New Deal” to the American people, if elected, and began a series of “alphabet” programs – WPA, PWA, NRA, and many others. Two days after his inauguration, Roosevelt called a meeting of high government officials and proposed the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps, which would provide financial relief by combating the unemployment of the nation’s youth, and fight the waste of the country’s natural resources through conservation projects.
His plan was to put 500,000 unemployed youths to work in forests, parks, and range lands. The Army would run the camps, the Agriculture and Interior Departments would be responsible for work projects and provide the personnel to manage them, the Budget Director would provide financial assistance, the Justice Department would offer legal advice, and the Department of Labor would coordinate the selection of enrollees.
In the record time of 25 days, Roosevelt received the go-ahead from Congress to establish the CCC on March 31st, 1933. A good friend of Roosevelt’s, Robert Fechner – a Boston labor leader – was named to head the new organization. On April 7th, 1933, the first enrollee was inducted. The initial call was for 250,000 young men to be enrolled. They were to be unemployed, between 18 and 25 years of age, unmarried, and were to come from families on relief. On April 14th, an additional enrollment of 14,000 Native-Americans was authorized because of chronic unemployment and soil erosion on the reservations. These men would stay on the reservations and live at home under the jurisdiction of the Office of Indian Affairs.
Since the Forest Service, which was responsible for most of the camp projects, did not have the manpower to manage the thousands of enrollees, 24,000 LEM – or “Local Experienced Men” – were enrolled to act as foremen. Later, 24,000 World War I veterans – men in their 30s and 40s – were authorized for enrollment. The enlistment period was for six months, with an option for re-enlistment for other six-month periods up to a maximum of two years. The enrollee was paid $30 a month – a dollar a day – of which $25 was sent to his family. The remaining $5 could be used by the enrollee at the camp canteen or for personal expenses of his choice. He was expected to work a 40-hour week and adhere to all camp rules. By July 1933, approximately 275,000 men were enrolled in the CCC.
The enrollees were initially sent to conditioning camps at existing Army bases, and then were sent to their assigned camps. These were designated according to the agency sponsoring it, such as DG – Division of Grazing, Interior Department; F – Forest Service, Department of Agriculture; etc. The first camp was established in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
The great Midwestern drought known as “The Dust Bowl,” which devastated millions of acres of farmland, called for drastic steps to be taken. Hundreds of camps were established in the area, which greatly increased enrollment in 1934. Enrollees planted trees, repaired levees, installed drains, and worked on many other projects to help control soil erosion on farmland that would have been abandoned otherwise.
By September 1935, enrollment peaked at 502,000, organized into 2,514 camps in every state and several territories. Financing was always a constant hassle, and the number of enrollees and camps kept going up and down at the whim of the executive department and the appropriations from Congress.
In the beginning, most camps began as a collection of Army pyramid tents housing four to six men each. These were replaced by permanent buildings that were usually erected by the enrollees themselves. By 1936, camps were being built of portable pre-cut buildings that could be moved after work was finished in the area. The country was divided into nine districts, and New Mexico was grouped with Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. Headquarters for the region was in Houston.
All the camps were made up of one company of about 200 men each. The average camp had 24 buildings, including kitchen and mess hall, recreational building, school building, infirmary, barracks for the enrollees, and quarters for the officers and enlisted personnel. Each camp was a city within itself. It had food, health, educational, religious, and entertainment facilities, along with facilities for blacksmithing, plumbing, and automotive repairs.
A typical day began with reveille at 6 am and then breakfast. Following sick call and policing the area, the men were loaded into trucks for the day’s work. Thirty minutes were allotted for lunch, and then the trucks headed back to camp at 4 pm. The retreat ceremony and announcements were held at 5 pm. Dinner followed, and the men then had free time until lights out at 10 pm. They could leave camp on the weekends, and the local people often invited them to Saturday parties and to their Sunday church services.
In New Mexico, reforestation and soil erosion projects were at the top of the priority list. Also, extensive work was done in road building, laying of telephone lines, building small dams, and the development of springs and small reservoirs. Rodent and predatory animal control was done successfully. An outstanding project was the construction of the Elephant Butte Fish Hatchery. Also, much work was done on the Indian reservations. An average of 32 CCC camps operated in New Mexico from 1933 until 1942.
Camps located in the Sacramento Mountains and nearby included F-16-N in Sacramento, F-24-N in High Rolls, F-28-N in La Luz Canyon, F-32-N in Mayhill, F-37-N in the Guadalupe Mountains, NP-1-N at Carlsbad Caverns, and DG-39-N in Tularosa. The camp in Mayhill operated from 1935 until 1942. It was then converted into a Prisoner of War Camp, housing German and Italian military, which operated from 1942 until 1945, when World War II ended. Most of the CCC camps are but a memory, with nothing to show where they were located.
The Mayhill camp, however, still has three stone buildings that are used by the Forest Service today.
Roosevelt proclaimed a national emergency in 1940 after Hitler’s troops overran France, and CCC camps were established at many military bases, where they built airfields, artillery ranges, ammunition storage buildings and other military structures. The CCC had now become part of the national defense. Following December 7th, 1941, all conservation work, except for fire fighting, was cancelled off military reservations. On June 30th, 1942, with enrollment almost at a standstill as young men entered the military service instead, Congress voted to not appropriate any further funds for the CCC, and it officially went out of existence.
In its nine year history, the CCC had done an almost unbelievable amount of work. Some of its accomplishments include: 39,000 miles of telephone lines laid, 3,400 fire lookout towers built, more than 6 million man-days fighting forest fires, 68,000 miles of fire breaks, 52,000 acres of public campground development, 814,000 acres of range revegetation, 972 million fish restocked, 13,100 miles of foot trails established, 154 million square yards of stream and lake bank protection, 3,980 structures received historic restoration, 248,000 acres of mosquito control, 35 million acres received timber estimating, and more than 2 billion trees were planted.
The Civilian Conservation Corps served its country well, and later generations are still reaping the benefits of its accomplishments.
Editor’s Note: Most of the information in this article came from a notebook on the CCC Camps that was compiled and donated to the Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum by Beth Mahill, who grew up near the Mayhill camp. The High Rolls camp information was fleshed out by Jim Cadwallader, whose parents’ land was adjacent to the camp. Jim often went there to watch the movies they showed in the evenings. Thanks to both of these people for their help.
Photos courtesy of fs.usda.gov