The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC Part 1

The CCC camp at Cooks Run in western Clinton County. The camp was occupied by boys from the deep south which as we shall see later caused problems.

After the 1929 collapse of stock markets, the United States, and the rest of the world, was plunged in economic chaos. By 1932 the country had had enough. They were looking for change and they found it when they elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, began “The Hundred Days,” where his primary goal was to get people back to work and stabilize the economy. One of his proposals was to recruit unemployed, unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 from families that were on the relief rolls. The men would receive $30 a month, but they had to send $25 home to family dependents. The men would work on conservation projects in the forests and parks, doing work that was not necessarily done by businesses. In this way it would avoid conflict with normal employment. FDR went to his advisors less than a week after taking office and told them to come up with a plan to put 500,000 young men to work. By that evening they had a plan.

Senate Bill S 598 was introduced and passed both houses of Congress on March 27. On March 31, 1933, the President signed the Emergency Conservation Work Act. This was the enabling legislation for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). On April 5, Executive Order 6101 was issued by the President to begin the CCC. By April 6, 1933, newspapers across the country were carrying headlines of “Mobilization of Forest Recruits Starts Today;” “Prepare For Work In State Forests;” and “25,000 Jobless Men Recruited For Work Camps.” The first enrollee was inducted on April 7, 1933, only 37 days after FDR’s inauguration.

The CCC on paper was a bureaucratic monstrosity. The Labor Department recruited the men, the War Department ran the camps, and the Agriculture and Interior Departments, along with various agencies at the state level, supervised the projects. According to DeCoster, “Logistics were an enormous problem. Most of the labor force was in the East and much of the work needing to be done was in the West.”[i] The federal Secretaries of War, Labor, Agriculture, and Interior cooperated to bring the program together, and states were encouraged to participate.

FDR appointed Robert Fechner of Tennessee, as the national director of the program. Fechner was a former official of the Machinists Union. He was described as stolid and unimaginative, and he viewed his mission in the narrowest possible context. But Fechner was not a Washington insider and he was used to getting things done his way. He was not cowed by the power brokers of Washington and was willing to cut red tape to make things happen.  He had an advisory committee to work for and with him.

From the Labor Department, W. Frank Persons, who headed the United States Employment Service, was selected. From the Department of Agriculture, which contained the U.S. Forest Service, Fred Morrell was selected. From the Department of the Interior Conrad Wirth from the National Park Service was added to the advisory council. Colonel Duncan K. Major was the overall commander for the Army. Colonel Major? The name brings to mind Catch 22 and one can only imagine the difficulties and comedic episodes that must have emerged during his military career. The Army operated the camps under Corps Area Headquarters and Pennsylvania was under the jurisdiction of the Third Corps. Colonel James P. Barney was commander of the Third Corps when the program began.

The forestry component of the organization was headed by Robert Stuart, a Pennsylvanian who was then in charge of the U.S. Forest Service. Prior to FDR’s election Stuart had supervised the preparation of the Copeland Report, which outlined potential projects in the national forests. By all accounts Stuart was a good planner and competent administrator. Because of Stuart’s Pennsylvania ties, and his planning and foresight while administering the PDF&W, the Commonwealth was well positioned to take advantage of the Emergency Conservation Work program. Unfortunately, Stuart would not live to see the full fruits of his labor. When he died unexpectedly in 1933, Ferdinand Silcox became the fifth Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

When the CCC began, Gifford Pinchot was in his second term as Governor of Pennsylvania and he readily embraced the CCC program as did Secretary of Forest and Waters, Lewis Staley. The State Emergency Relief Board (SERB) was headed by Eric Biddle who was also a proponent of the program. J. Fred Kurtz, the Assistant Director of the SERB, acted as the state selection officer. Kurtz was one of the most enthusiastic and able selection officers in the nation.

However, there was opposition to the plan. The American Federation of Labor stated the plan, “provided for the regimentation of labor in peace times and would demoralize the nation’s wage levels.” They compared the plan to the regimentation of labor in Fascist Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and the Soviet Union. Herbert Benjamin, head of the National Committee of Unemployed Councils, an arm of the American Communist Party, argued that it would “legalize forced labor.”[ii] But despite objections the measure was signed into law and the program began.

From mid-May to July 1, 1933, close to 9,000 men per day were recruited by state relief agencies in charge of selecting the enrollees. Many of the applicants were ineligible, but they were difficult to identify. The men made claims they were unmarried, or from families on relief, or they were the proper age when they were not. However, the quotas were met and the process of sending men to the camps proceeded. Pennsylvania was quick to jump on the wagon. When the final tally was completed, Pennsylvania had the second most camps; second only to California. Pennsylvania’s first quota of 5,000 men came largely from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The Scranton Republican, like most newspapers in Pennsylvania, was enthusiastic about the promise of the program. Its headline of April 6, 1933, showed it:

Mobilization of Forest Recruits Starts Today

Four Government Departments Speed Roosevelt Attack on Unemployment by Issuing Call for First Contingent of 25,000 Men; Young Unmarried Workers With Dependents Get Initial Jobs; Conditioning of Two Weeks at Military Camp Provided [iii] 

Concern that the men would be subjected to military-like regimentation was addressed by L. L. Bishop, Supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest. “Although the camps will be patterned after army cantonments, there will be no rigid discipline after working hours. We will not closely supervise the workers’ personal affairs. Rather we will depend on their own good judgement to govern their behavior. It must not be construed that the men will be confined as they are in prison camps.”[iv]

Secretary Staley noted with the beginning of the program that Pennsylvania had 14,000,000 man-days of work under the plan and the CCC would be a great benefit to the state. Staley estimated that two-thirds of the road building, trail building, tree planting, and other activities would be on State Forest lands. His plans did not include the Allegheny National Forest where the CCC would be administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Staley’s initial plan called for fifty camps of 200 men each, and four camps on state game lands. This would account for the initial 10,800 men, but they were anticipating building capacity to hold 25,000 men.

The first CCC camp in the nation to begin operation was appropriately named Camp Roosevelt and was set up at Luray in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. It began operation on April 17, 1933.

On April 24, 1933, 850 young men from Pittsburgh, broke camp at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and boarded a train for the Allegheny National Forest. They were the first contingent of CCC enrollees to pass through the induction and physical conditioning camp and head for Pennsylvania.

The CCC monument at Laurel Hill State Park

The location of the camps on state land was decided by the Department of Forests and Waters and the Army. Local politicians, aware that the camps in their areas meant business for local merchants, tried their best to persuade officials to place camps in their districts.  Almost every congressman and state legislator made some attempt to have a camp located in their district.

The first five camps in Pennsylvania in the Allegheny National Forest were officially opened on April 25, 1933. The camps were located at Frost, Marienville, Warren, and two at Kinzua. On May 6 the first camp was officially opened on state forest lands. By the end of the year there were 101 camps in Pennsylvania; this included 10 camps administered by the U.S. Forest Service, one camp by the National Parks (Gettysburg), one camp on private land (Beaver Springs), and three by state parks. The rest of the camps were on state forest lands.

The first enrollments were for six months. The administration took great pains to make sure both the enrollees and the public knew that the men would not be undergoing military training. As a press release put out by the administration pointed out. “The men will be civilians and will be treated as civilians. There will be neither military drill nor military discipline. The clothing will be work clothes, not military uniforms. The men will, of course be required to comply with such rules as are laid down for work and camp life.”[v]

[i] DeCoster, Lester, A. The Legacy of Penn’s Woods: A History of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Department of Environmental Resources, Harrisburg, 1993

[ii] The Wilkes-Barre Record, Wilkes-Barre, PA, March 25, 1933

[iii] The Scranton Republican, Scranton, PA, April 6, 1933

[iv] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, April 6, 1933

[v] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, May 4, 1933

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *