Boys of the CCC

The work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the federal works program during the Great Depression of the 1930s that beautified many of Iowa’s state parks, is featured. This aired in 2003.


Morgan: Here's a question for you. If your family fell on hard times, really hard times, would your 18-year-old son go do hard labor five days a week and then send four-fifths of his pay back home? That's what 12,800 young Iowans did in the midst of the Great Depression. And their families and the whole state were better off because of it. Much of what we enjoy today in Iowa's state parks, we owe to a group of young men who, in the 1930s and '40s, were not much more than boys. It was their hard labor that built the lodges, dams, and trails that can still be found in many of Iowa's state parks. They were the boys of the CCC.

Don: Roosevelt started it, you know, when hard times were here. That's how it got started. He put them in all the parks. Most of the parks had them in. They had a lot of parks all over, you know. But it helped a lot of people that really were down and out. And it got them going a little bit, because there wasn't any money. Nobody had any money.

Morgan: In 1933 the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, with nearly one in four Americans out of a job. Many felt it was time for a new deal from a new president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt became that new president. And in his first month in office he created the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was just one of a number of New Deal programs that made the federal government the employer of last resort.

Owen: Times were rough. My dad had died. And my mother and I and my brothers were still at home. And you couldn't find a job or anything. We had lost the farm. My dad had spent his lifetime saving up a little to buy a farm. And he owed quite a bit on it. We needed eating money. My mother needed eating money.

Morgan: Only single men between the ages of 18 and 25 whose families were on relief were eligible to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. A CCC boy received room and board, clothing, training and a monthly paycheck of $30--$25 of which was sent home to his family. In Iowa 12,800 able-bodied young men enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps in its first year.

Otto: It was run very much like in the army where we slept in army cots. We made the bed like the army. We cleaned things like the army. We polished our shoes like they did in the army, very much so. It was good training. I'll tell you what, I grew up in a hurry. Why did I join the CCC? Why did I join the CCC? Why did I join the CCC? This old hard labor's killing me.

Morgan: Despite its name, the Civilian Conservation Corps was, in many ways, a military organization. U.S. army officers or reserve officers called to active duty commanded the camps. There were inspections, roll calls and curfews. And most of the equipment was military in origin, like the uniforms, which were World War I army surplus.

Owen: In a lot of ways, the CCC was stricter than the army was in ways: keeping the barracks clean and the uniforms and stuff like that.

Morgan: A typical day in the CCC camp started with reveille at 6 a.m., followed by roll call, calisthenics, breakfast and cleanup. 8 a.m. was when the work began. And while the camps were under military control, the work sites were commanded by a project superintendent who was assisted by area residents known as local experienced men.

Don: They would take us down to a big area there where we all lined up, and the government would turn us over to the state to go to work for the state. It was all state work from then on till 4:00 in the afternoon. Then they turned you back over to the government again.

Morgan: Life for a CCC boy was not all work and no play. There were a number of team sports at the camps, including baseball, boxing and basketball. Teams from different CCC camps often competed against each other or against teams in nearby towns. Each camp had a rec hall and library. There were camp newspapers, photography clubs, even classrooms where a CCCer could learn to read and write or learn a trade. And on a Saturday or Sunday. There were trips home to be with family or trips to the nearest town, where a movie cost only 10 cents.

Otto: We worked five days a week. If it rained during the one time during the week and we couldn't go out and work in the mud, you know, stuff like that, then we had to work Saturdays, which usually meant, then, that we only had Sunday off. But if we got...if we got two days in a row, most of us would find our way home over the weekend.

Morgan: The CCC was designed to help not only the nation's human resources but its natural resources as well. Nationwide, over 2.5 million young men served in the Corps. In Iowa over 46,000 CCC men worked on conservation and construction projects in 43 state parks. And for generations, Iowans have enjoyed the fruits of their labor. The department of natural resources is working to preserve not only the CCC trails, dams, and structures in Iowa's state parks, but also the oral histories of the men who built them. In 2002 the DNR started a project in which 140 veterans of the CCC were interviewed about their experiences.

Edwin: Like I say, the whole thing was just enjoyable. I enjoyed every minute of it there.

Morgan: Those recordings will become a part of the CCC museum located in Backbone State Park in northeast Iowa. And in the fall of 2002, at its annual volunteer program, the DNR paid tribute to the enduring legacy of Iowa's CCC boys.

Owen: I look at it now and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to us -- to us young people then that didn't have a job. And I think it was a good deal. I think Franklin Roosevelt knew what he was doing.

Living in Iowa