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.