You probably know someone in the last two or three years who's had to go on unemployment. It may even be you. Well, there's a place that showcases a popular make-work program, and, yes, it happened in the '30s during the first Great Depression.
The Civilian Conservation Corps put to work young men whose families were down on their luck, leading to huge forestry enhancements, building of roads and dams, and even stringing telephone wire. The 21 camps in Connecticut are noted at a CCC museum in the Shenipsit State Forest in Stafford.
The CCC was one of the first New Deal programs Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed when he took office in 1933. A week after the bill was signed into law, the first enrollee was inducted. At the program's height in 1935, more than half a million men participated.
How did they qualify? Well, a candidate had to be unmarried, age 17-25, although the minimum age rule was bent some, weigh at least 100 pounds, be a member of a family under financial duress and, get this, have at least three working teeth, says Elliotte Draegor, a resource assistant with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection who works at the museum. (She adds that the one exception was for older men, married or single, who were World War I vets. They worked in separate camps.)
Draegor speaks knowledgeably and humorously about the trove of memorabilia at the museum, donated by Connecticut CCC alumni. One traveling case a CCC youth toted from home to camp was decorated inside with a picture of actress Priscilla Lane. “There are some things about young men in the woods that are timeless and eternal,” Draegor comments.
Those young men in the woods based at Shenipsit transplanted area Mountain Laurel to create the Mountain Laurel Sanctuary on Route 190 in Union, worked to beautify what is now Bigelow Hollow State Park, and built the dam that created the swimming area at Chatfield Hollow in Killington.
The museum, housed in a former officers barracks at what was called Camp Conner, Company No. 1192, depicts life and work in the camps. Detailed paper-cut silhouettes of scenes from the camp made by a CCC boy are there. A bunk with authentic gear and a mess hall table are set up. Food was prepared by Army-certified cooks from menu books that were donated courtesy of Kellogg's, full of recipes requiring its products. You can see it all.
An array of tools, including rudimentary backpack water tanks for the firefighting duties CCCers faced, are on hand. Boys in your group will be drawn to an early two-man power chainsaw or the hand-pump blasting box used for clearing sites with TNT.
“How many teenage boys do you know that you'd allow in the woods with dynamite,” Draegor poses pointedly.
Food was plentiful and, mixed with the hard work and Army discipline, transformed hungry boys to able men. Gen. Patton loved the CCC for that reason, Draegor says. In fact, many in the public feared FDR was forming a private army in the woods. Some called it Roosevelt's Tree Army.
Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to copy the positives of the program to benefit young women, but detractors ridiculed the idea as “She She She Camp,” and the idea didn't go anywhere, Draegor says.
You can do the math. Most teenagers from the '30s are no longer with us. But occasionally local CCC alumni hang out at the museum and are willing to tell stories. I was lucky. My father-in-law, Harold Oehler, a young 93, is an alum and went with us on a recent visit, immediately finding himself in the photograph of the 112th Company in the Beartown State Forest at a camp in South Lee, Mass.
He remembers making $1 a day and sending $25 of his $30-a-month salary home to his parents, a requirement of the CCC. When he showed prowess in forestry at his next CCC camp job in Vermont, a group leader there urged him to go to college. He got his degree in forestry from UMass, a life-shaping choice, impossible as it sounded to him as a young man without resources. Then he went off to be an officer in the war.
That's what happened in the CCC. Lives were changed. Boys grew to men. And, yes, many went off to win a second world war.
The Civilian Conservation Corps Museum is at 166 Chestnut Hill Road (Route 190) in Stafford Springs. Recent weekend hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call for information at 860-684-3430 or visit the state parks Web site.