The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps Part 1

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

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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.


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