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Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps

The Gunflint Trail CCC camp/photo courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society

The Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC began in the spring of 1933. It was started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Cook County became home to many CCC camps. The projects undertaken by the corps are still visible today. In this series WTIP explores the legacy and story of the CCC in Cook County. This program was produced by Ada Igoe with Barbara Jean Johnson. It was voiced by Bill Burkhart. Photos courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society.


Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.


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The Grand Portage Stockade

Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps Part 4

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In 1933, Cook County was just another area of the United States struggling with the Great Depression. But a program begun by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Civilian Conservation Corps offered hope for the future of both Cook County and area young men. This episode remembers CCC work done in the Grand Portage community. This piece is part of WTIP’s ongoing series on the legacy of CCC in Cook County.


 
CCC camps were segregated by race. Within a year, the black company stationed in Cook County was driven out of town.

The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps Part 3

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From 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps provided millions of young men with forestry work as the United States struggled to pull itself out of the Great Depression. In Cook County, CCC enrollees labored on a wide variety of conservation projects including building trails, fighting forest fires, and constructing ranger cabins. The work was hard and CCC encountered many difficulties during its nine-year existence. This episode recalls some the controversies and challenges of the CCC in Cook County. This piece is part of WTIP’s ongoing series on the legacy of CCC in Cook County.

In 1933, 200 young men surged into each Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Minnesota. By August, more than 60 camps had been established around Minnesota, employing some 12,000 young men from various parts of the Midwest. As camps were set up near some of the most secluded communities in Minnesota – Grand Marais, Tofte, Hovland – it’s no surprise the general public was a little suspicious of the new fangled program which President Roosevelt had quickly pushed through Congress.

“People weren’t so sure about CCC to begin with. Everyone’s fighting for every dollar they can get, and suddenly these kids are coming in: ‘Are they going to take work from us? Who are they? They’re not from our area,’” said CCC historian Barbara Sommer.

“It really must have been kind of overwhelming. With that many CCC, it was almost the same as the number of people in the county. 200 per camp? Thirteen camps, plus three others? That’s a lot of young men,” said Pat Zankman of the Cook County Historical Society.

Although the Civilian Conservation Corps is now remembered as one of the most beloved of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the CCC didn’t escape controversy. During its nine-year history in northern Minnesota, the CCC butted into management problems, racial tensions and many perception issues with the local community.

Grand Marais townfathers, apprehensive about the community effect of having hundreds of young men milling around town at a time, placed a ban on CCC boys coming into town. However, the young men of the CCC soon proved to be hard workers and before long, the ban was lifted. But the CCC transient camp located in what is today the campground at Judge C.R. Magney State park was an especially sore point with Cook County residents.

“The transient camp at Magney was basically unemployed, homeless men from the Twin Cities area. And that caused a lot of controversy because they had better facilities then the rest of the county expect for Grand Marais. They had running water and electricity,” said Zankman.

But CCC controversies went much deeper than perceptions of fairness. One of the most heartbreaking stories of the CCC in Cook County comes from the other end of the county, at the Temperance River camp near Tofte. In 1933, a black company from Missouri was stationed at the Temperance camp, sparking racial tensions.

“I have letters here that Tofte and Schroeder did not want them there. They did not want them there. And they pressured to get them out. I don’t think there was ever any complaint about the work, that they were good workers. In fact, the other people who worked with them, didn’t understand what the difficulty was. But then, some of the citizens in the West End, it became kind of a political issue. And they, worked, wrote letters, etc. to get them out of here and eventually they were transferred out of here,” said Zankman.

The black companies of the CCC faced many challenges. They represented one of the neediest populations, yet the national director of the CCC capped black enrollment and eventually only allowed black men to enroll after another black man left the Corps. Black companies were segregated from other companies, although they had white officers. When black companies from the southern Midwest were sent to Minnesota where there were greater forestry work needs, they often found a frosty reception on multiple levels. In less than a year the Cook County community forced the black company at Temperance out of the state and home to Missouri.

“By 1934, all across the northern states, including Minnesota, the Black companies were moved back south. They said it did not work and that was that. Except for in Minnesota, then Minnesota’s black communities continued to send 10 to 15 kids per enrollment period into the camps,” said Sommer.

CCC policies were shaped around the reality of life in the United States in the 1930s. At the time, racial segregation was law.

“There was racism and that was built into the United States, it was built into the country, it was built into the CCC, it was built into the army, which oversaw and ran the work camps. That was the way it was,” said Sommer.

While many challenged President Roosevelt on the CCC’s race policies, including the President’s wife, Eleanor, Roosevelt felt it wasn’t the time to fight racial battles.

“Roosevelt was a real pragmatist and he said, “You know, I really want the CCC to work. I don’t want to get into a lot of fights – we fight the fights when we can fight them,” said Sommer.

Not all of the controversies involving the CCC were based on race. Some didn’t even extend beyond camp boundaries. In 1938, food issues became so bad at the Seagull Camp at the end of the Gunflint Trail that a special investigator was dispatched to look into camp conditions.

Every aspect of the investigation was thoroughly documented and all the papers remain intact to this day. After receiving a letter from Congressman Bernard, acting director of the CCC, J.J. McEntee sent Special Investigator F.B. McConnell to look into the matter of Seagull Camp’s food with the following directions:

“As the company mess is the principal object of criticism, it is desirable that you obtain the menus for one month, properly recorded on new menu forms. Make a general inspection of camp and work projects, in addition to your investigation, and submit a regular report.”

McConnell proved to be a zealous inspector. He sent back detailed reports of his travel and investigation.

“I left Grand Marais, at five o’ clock on the morning of September 19, arriving in camp at 6:40 a.m. – just in time for breakfast, which consisted of yellow cornmeal served as cereal, one small meatball and two doughnuts to each man, stale bread and coffee. Most of the enrollees stated that they were hungry when they left the table.”

In addition to poor food quality, McConnell also reported poor morale, an unheated bathhouse, a sewage problem, and a gas tank tainting the camp’s drinking water.

A follow up inspection at Seagull two months later proved things might not have been quite as dire as McConnell made them sound in his initial inspection, but several improvements, including better food, were a direct result of the investigation.

The controversies the CCC was involved in were often a reflection of the era. It was a time of great need and fear. In spite of controversy, the CCC would manage to establish a legacy of hard work and enduring community contribution.

The Legacy of the CCC is produced by Ada Igoe and narrated by Bill Burkhart. Barbara Jean Johnson is the executive producer. Many interview clips used in this episode came from Arrowhead Civilian Conservation Corps Documentation Project. Special thanks to the Cook County Historical Society for their assistance. Support for this program comes from the Minnesota Legacy Fund.


 
Baking bread/photo from the Cook County Historical Society

The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps Part 2

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In 1933, Cook County was just another area of the United States struggling with the Great Depression. But a program begun by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Civilian Conservation Corps offered hope for the future of both Cook County and area young men. In this episode, former CCC enrollees and construction foremen recall their experience working in Cook County’s CCC camps. This piece is part of WTIP’s ongoing series on the legacy of CCC in Cook County.

Picture a young man between seventeen and nineteen years old; five foot eight, ten pounds underweight, and very little work experience, if any. That’s how historian Barbara Sommer describes the average Minnesotan CCC enrollee during the Great Depression. Ted Peterson of Silver Bay, Minnesota is now 93 years old. He was just 136 pounds when he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps back in July of 1936.

Peterson served in both the Hovland and Gunflint camps in Cook County, MN. He enrolled shortly after graduating from Duluth Denfield High School in the spring of 1936.

“Mother and I’d get up after I’d graduated and there’d be a little brown baggy on the kitchen table. Mother was telling me to get out and look for a job. . . So several of us went downtown there one day and we signed up for the Coast Guard, the Army, the Navy, Marine Corps . . . We’d go to the first one that called us. CCC,” recalled Peterson.

For many young men, enlisting in the CCC or some other government service was the only possible employment option as the 1930s dragged on.  

At the start of the CCC young recruits underwent army style training before being posted. Walter Matthews, called Matt, of Grand Portage was one of the first three Cook County men to enroll in the CCC. He was shipped down to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota for a month long boot-camp.  Matt remembers it as miserable.

After training, enrollees were shipped off to various camp locations. They weren’t told in advance where they would end up.

“We still didn’t know where we were going.  Then we heard this rumor. ‘Do you know where we’re going?’ . . . . ‘Yeah, Grand Marais.’ Gee, I let out a war-whoop. I was glad,” said Matthews.

Matthews was happy to wind up so close to home. And he was lucky. Enrollees from Minnesota were part of the Seventh Army District which included most of the Midwest. He could’ve been shipped as far away as Arkansas. But even though ending up in Northern Minnesota was good for him, many of the other recruits dreaded the location. At that time the area was better known for its cold climate and harsh conditions than its spectacular scenery. There was a joke amongst CCC enrollees about Minnesota where one enrollee says to another:

“When’s summer here?”

“I don’t know,” the other answers. “I’ve only been here 11 months!”

Life in the CCC took some getting used to. Initially crews had to build their own barracks and a lot of work went into just getting the camps set up. Most enrollees showed up without the necessary skill set for the various jobs at hand. But in time they learned. Claude Ingram worked for several years as a construction foremen first at the Good Harbor camp and then at the Cross River Camp.

“That’s one thing that it took me a little while to figure out. That they weren’t a work camp. It was training,” said Ingram.

Crews had to solve problems on the fly. Direct orders were often impossible to follow through. For example; Chet Erickson was a construction foreman at several camps in the west end of Cook County. One of his first orders from above was to have his crew plant pine seedlings along the Good Harbor hillside. But, all the seedlings molded during shipment, making the assignment impossible to fulfill. Even when they had good quality seedlings to plant, it was still tough.

“And up here in northern Minnesota, you know, it’s terrible to plant trees. Rocks and so forth. You’re lucky to plant a hundred a day,” remembered Peterson.

Chet Erickson remembers using competition as a way to motivate enrollees. At the end of the week, the construction foreman would buy a keg of beer for the group of young men that planted the most trees.  

But competition wasn’t always necessary. As the CCC picked up momentum, enrollees developed a wide variety of skills in construction and fire suppression. Soon the CCC became an indispensible corps, especially during the fires of 1936.

“When they got on a fire, why they, boy, they put everything they had right into it. The sooner they could get it over with, why the sooner they could be back in the camp again,” said Ingram.

Even as the CCC enrollees evolved into hard-working, trained individuals, working with such young men still resulted in some peculiarities. Chet Erickson remembered that building fire towers was one assignment where he never could figure out what was going through the enrollees’ minds.

“Most of them steel towers, the first set of legs were eighteen foot long. Angle iron you know. Then from there up they were thirteen foot. But the first set was a little heavier. And getting these kids to work up there to start in with, I had to do practically all that sky work. Kids were scared up there! But it’s funny with these kids. After you got ‘em up in the air, say 40 or 50 feet up, then they got like squirrels,” recalled Erickson.   

When thinking back on time spent in the CCC, camp supervisors tend to remember the work they completed with their crews. In contrast, the memories of young enrollees focus more on CCC activities outside of work. Things like; the dynamics of the army run camp life, wildlife encounters and baseball competitions, and of course the scorn they received from local girls.

Matthews remembers the girls saying, “How are you going to show us a good time with 5 bucks. You know. You make 5 dollars a month!”

But more than anything, interviews with CCC enrollees reveal a deep sense of gratitude for the skills and friendships these young men developed during their time with the CCC.

“It was a good experience. It was healthy. We had good meals and warm clothing.  I have no regrets,” said Peterson.

Many, like Ted Peterson, would enroll again. Most enrollees gained weight and more than that, they gained invaluable experience in labor and cooperation.     


The Legacy of the CCC is produced by Ada Igoe and narrated by Bill Burkhart. Barbara Jean Johnson is the executive producer. Many interview clips used in this episode came from Arrowhead Civilian Conservation Corps Documentation Project. Special thanks to the Cook County Historical Society for their assistance. Support for this program comes from the Minnesota Legacy Fund.


 
CCC crew members in Cook County take a break from tree planting for a photo/image courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society

The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps Part 1

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The Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC began in the spring of 1933. It was started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Cook County became home to many CCC camps. The projects undertaken by the corps are still visible today. In this ongoing series WTIP explores the legacy and story of the CCC in Cook County.
 
“I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people… This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
 
In the midst of the Great Depression during a time of nation-wide economic turmoil, Franklin Roosevelt made this vow. It was 1932 and he was running for President against incumbent Herbert Hoover. Times were tough. Work was hard to come by. Many people were at rock-bottom. Barbara Sommer, an oral historian and author, has had many conversations with people who lived through the Great Depression.
 
They talked about being hungry, if you can imagine that in the United States. They talked about worrying about taking care of younger siblings. They talked about losing their homes. They talked about this pervading sense of fear that had come across the country in the early 1930s,” says Barbara Sommer.
 
Roosevelt won the election in 1932. He took office in 1933 and set out to make good on his promise of a New Deal for the American people.
 
Roosevelt’s New Deal consisted of a series of federal policies designed to pull the nation out of recession. These programs impacted every corner of the country—leaving a legacy that’s with us to this day. It’s a legacy that’s highly visible in Northern Minnesota. What we know as the North Woods, would look very different were it not for New Deal initiatives like the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC.
 
Lee Johnson is an archaeologist with the Superior National Forest. He says the forest we see today is drastically different from how it looked in 1933.
 
There would have been some areas that were coming back pretty thick with brush and aspen. There were probably scattered stands of what we call, you know, primary stands of red pine and white pine still in the interior reaches of the road-less area. And probably, you know, some spots of erosion, pretty serious wildfire that was still regenerating,” Lee Johnson says.
 
At the time, forest management was relatively new. The Superior National Forest, which covers large portions of Cook County, was established in 1909 and the government was trying to get a handle on how to deal with the aftermath of wildfires and logging.
 
The forest needed help and people needed jobs. The CCC helped tackle both problems.
 
On March 21, 1933, shortly after Roosevelt took office, he formally proposed the Civilian Conversation Corps. The CCC became one of the most popular New Deal programs. At its peak it provided jobs for 3 million young men from families on relief.
 
The United States Army organized CCC enrollees into companies of 200 men and managed camp life once the companies arrived at their work locations. Forestry agencies assigned and oversaw work projects.
 
On May 15 the first CCC camp in Cook County opened outside of Schroeder Township. 
 
Most camps worked with the U.S. Forest Service on National Forest Land, but some worked with other agencies such as the State of Minnesota in state forests and parks. Regardless of the supervising agency, the young men of the CCC tackled a wide variety of conservation work in the area. 
 
“One of the big things was large scale red and white pine planting and also white spruce plantings. Fire protection was a big deal. The CCC really gave the Forest Service a lot of personnel, a lot of manpower to construct remote fire towers, fire tower access trails in the road-less area, and a lot of construction of administrative buildings. One of the lasting physical legacies of the CCC in Cook County are some of the rustic log buildings that are still standing at Tofte, Isabella, East Bearskin, Sawbill Guard Station,” says Lee Johnson.
 
As statewide unemployment numbers climbed towards 30 percent in 1933, a position with the CCC was highly desirable.  
 
“They fought, there were like four or five applicants at the beginning for each enrollee position, at least in Minnesota. I think there was, too, across the country. There was so much need that when they heard that they could get into a program that would pay, you know, 30 dollars a month, and their families would get 25 of it, they fought for those positions,” Barbara Sommer says.
 
Initially, the county hosted six CCC camps. From 1933 to 1942, a total of 13 camps were established, although they weren’t all in operation at the same time. During the period, three other conservation camps also existed in the county. These camps were run in the same manner as the other CCC camps, but they employed people from different demographics such as Native Americans, veterans, and homeless men.  
 
The CCC also employed “Local Experienced Men”, or LEMS, from the local community.
 
“They were older men, a lot of them were experienced backwoods men, construction workers, trappers probably, and there were Forest Service employees and also kind of foremen at the camps,” says Lee Johnson.
 
The CCC accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. Many researchers estimate that the CCC did approximately 30 years worth of conservation work in just nine years.
 
“There were a lot of these guys and they worked for basically nothing. I mean, who else is going to do this? How else? It would not have happened. If you had depended upon the trees to reseed themselves, I mean, we would still be living in a pretty bad looking forest. So I mean, this had, it was really an army of young people who planted millions and millions of trees, many of which survived,” says Pat Zankman of the Cook County Historical Society.
 
Besides planting trees, the CCC crews constructed stone work along Hwy 61 at the Temperance and Cascade State Parks waysides. To help with fire protection, the crews built and maintained portages in what is today the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They built other trails too, and constructed bridges. They strung telephone line to improve communications in the event of a wildfire. They conducted lake surveys, reared fish, stocked area lakes, and performed stream improvement.
 
They really looked at the forest and determined how they were growing and what was needed to make a strong forest stand in Minnesota,” says Barbara Sommer.
 
“I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people...This is more than a political campaign it is a call to arms.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
 
At the start of the 1930s, Cook County had been isolated from the rest of Minnesota. The people of the area had a depleted forest, little modern technology, and a rocky soil that was almost impossible to farm in. Although the local fishing industry kept food on the table, it had been hard to eke a living from the land. In just a few years, a new forest and new amenities sprung up at the hands of the CCC crews, offering hope of new industries and better times. It was truly a new deal for the area.
 
The CCC disbanded in 1942 with the outbreak of US participation in World War II. Camp buildings quickly disappeared. But what remained are things that mark our landscape to this very day: roads, portages, telephone lines, and perhaps most importantly a forest—a living legacy that continues to support our community.

 

Producer: Ada Igoe
Executive Producer: Barbara Jean Johnson
Voiced by Bill Burkhart
Music selected by Cathy Quinn
Photos courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society

The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.