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.