“People remember the hard times,” Bill Jamerson’s mother used to tell him.
His March 11 Batesville Memorial Public Library program called “Dollar-A-Day Boys: A Musical Tribute to the Civilian Conservation Corps” included stories, a short video, original songs and an excerpt from his novel “Big Shoulders,” about a 17-year-old Detroit youth who enlists in the CCC.
The resident of Escanaba, an Upper Peninsula Michigan town, told 16 attendees President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office “with the promise of a New Deal for American people. Roosevelt knew that something had to be done” to put the massive amounts of jobless back to work. “The desire to help your fellow man is never wrong.” During the Depression, “if you lived on a farm, you had no money. You might have some food. If you lived in a city, you had no job.”
The 80th anniversary of CCC’s start is March 31. Just like World War II veterans, the numbers of CCC enrollees has dwindled. The youngest are about 89 now.
Jamerson got interested in this slice of U.S. history when he attended a 1992 Civilian Conservation Corps reunion with 500 past enrollees. “You never saw a more enthusiastic group in my life. They were so genuine, so real.”
His first PBS documentary, “Camp Forgotten – The Civilian Conservation Corps in Michigan,” was followed by 10 more films for Michigan Public Television in the mid-1990s. “I made them heroes” by telling the CCC story. Now Jamerson travels to schools, libraries, CCC events and other gatherings to speak on one of three topics he has researched – the corps, lumberjacks and iron mining.
He asked attendees if they knew any CCC members. Beulah Wessel, who grew up in Fairfax, Ohio, remembered her neighbor, Joe Schultz. “He had food to eat. He had worked hard” to support his mother and a sibling.
Patty Campbell of the Sisters of St. Francis said CCC “really changed” her cousin, Bob Tackett, who lived in Blue Ridge, Va. “He became so skilled in certain things,” such as installing wood floors in bowling alleys. “He really made a life for himself.”
Maggie Fain, Brookville, recalled that her father-in-law, one of 13 poor kids living in a log house, helped build roads through the Smoky Mountains.
“Job No. 1 in Indiana was working with farmers,” the guitarist pointed out. “You had a lot of soil erosion and no fertilizer to speak of.” Five drainage projects were toured during a 1936 symposium in Elwood. Purdue University educators presented a demonstration on how to create a ditch using dynamite.
“Farmers don’t have time to repair gulleys,” so CCC workers did that task along with installing fencing and planting black locust trees. They also terraced hills, crushed limestone for fertilizer, planted grass to lessen river erosion and used wing dams to redirect river currents.
In Indiana, over 63,000 enrollees also fought forest fires and built roads and bridges, according to Jamerson.
They constructed state parks, including Versailles, Turkey Run, Ouabache, Pokagon, Fort Harrison and Mounds. The speaker explained CCC buildings are “much more beautiful” than Works Progress Administration structures because Italian and Swedish artisans were the stone masons, assisted by CCC personnel, who faced and lined the rocks.
Each work camp “was a big operation.” Barracks were filled with cots, bunks and foot lockers. The camp contained a recreation building, infirmary, water tower and generator building.
Each was run by 20 military officers, mostly unemployed World War I veterans. “Nobody looked down on each other. They were all from the unemployment rolls.” Revelry was at 6 a.m. and curfew at 10 p.m.
“A lot of these guys came with chips on their shoulders,” Jamerson noted. “They thought they were born at the wrong time .... They came from humble backgrounds.” Georgia enrollees arrived at their camps barefoot. “They had all never owned a pair of shoes in their lives. Some had never had sheets on beds before.”
The camps not only revitalized the state’s natural resources, but also taught the young men job skills and encouraged discipline.
One CCC worker remembered, “I never worked so hard in my life.” Now “they have equipment to fight fires. We had shovels.” Vintage films showed men planting potatoes by hand and cutting trees down in the snow.
With plentiful food, the average usually scrawny CCC man put on 18 pounds. Main courses ranged from lamb, pot roast and corned beef to Virginia baked ham, pork chops and lots of venison.
One Idaho enrollee raved about “the most delicious cinnamon rolls” an old lumberjack baker made. A Detroit man had never had blueberries before his CCC experience. He told Jamerson, “‘We had blueberry turnovers and muffins and pancakes and pie.’ He thought he had died and gone to heaven.”
One man told Jamerson, “‘I felt like shouting ‘Hallelujah’ every time I walked into the mess hall’” and Jamerson thought it sounded like a song title, so he wrote lyrics about the great food.
While the workers were eating well, some of their relatives were starving. In Michigan, an enrollee grabbed some stale cereal a cook had thrown out. He hitched a ride on a freight train in winter, then walked 19 miles to give his brothers and sisters the cereal.
The civilians had a saying: “Life begins at 4 o’clock.” In addition to baseball practice, there were boxing, horseshoes, chess, checkers and poker competitions and hillbilly music, ham radio and photography clubs.
Practical joking was rampant, with snakes and fish hidden in sheets and a stuffed mountain lion placed beside a bed to scare a just awakening worker.
At a Michigan camp, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant services were conducted by one chaplain.
Some of the young men voluntarily took classes after dinner to earn their eighth-grade diplomas. Unemployed teachers also taught vocational classes, such as welding, truck driving and engine repair. “They got hired (after being in the CCC) because they knew how to work and they had skills.”
On the weekends, the men went bowling and roller skating and to movies and dance halls.
Some citizens were jealous of CCC workers because they had jobs. The men were considered roughnecks and had derogatory nicknames like cedar savages and cross country cockroaches. “They won over the local communities” by becoming Good Samaritans. The civilians helped at accidents and formed a search party to find a child lost in the woods. During a blizzard, they shoveled out a woman in labor. The enrollees spent 17 hours digging a 30-foot-deep trench to save a man trapped in a cave-in.
“They might have signed up for adventure or a square meal, but the reason they stuck with” the Civilian Conservation Corps was to financially support their families.
“One woman said it best” after a Jamerson program. She told him “the greatest thing CCC did for America was give us a lot of great husbands!”
• The Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal works program, was part of the National Recovery Act during the Great Depression. Over its nine-year run from 1933-42, 3.5 million young men between 17-25 enlisted. They were known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” because they planted over 3 billion. The enrollees were each paid a dollar a day. Twenty-five dollars a month was sent home directly to their families.