November 11, 2020

A Legacy That Lives On

By Mary Schricker Gemberling

“Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.”………….Henry Hopkins

“Some would say it’s a dismal time in American History; lives are upended, unemployment is high, and it’s pretty hard to have a positive outlook about much of anything.”

Even though this description might appear to be describing 2020, the words were actually written about a time period some ninety years ago. Those of us too young to have lived through the Great Depression may have a difficult time imagining the unprecedented depths of economic collapse and social disorder that permeated America during the 1930s. On October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday hit Wall Street and billions of dollars were lost wiping out thousands of investors. In the aftermath, America and the rest of the world spiraled into the Great Depression, the longest-lasting downturn in the history of the Western Industrialized World up to that time.

At the depth of the Great Depression in1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president of the United States. Faced with unprecedented numbers of impoverished and unemployed Americans, FDR introduced The New Deal, a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms and regulations. The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935 was the work relief bill that funded the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), ambitious employment and infrastructure programs to provide relief to the more than 13 million Americans who had lost their jobs. While FDR believed in the elementary principles of justice and fairness, he also expressed disdain for doling out welfare to otherwise able workers.

So, in return for monetary aid, skilled and unskilled workers joined the WPA and CCC where they designed, built and repaired highways, schools, hospitals, airports and playgrounds. They made valuable contributions to forest management, flood control, conservation projects and the development of state and national parks, forests and historic sties. In return the men received the benefits of education and training, a small paycheck and the dignity of honest work. Between 1933 and 1943, 2.5 million men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-eight enrolled in the CCC nationwide; another 450,000 veterans of World War I were put to work in the VCC. Every one of them had a personal story, but the average enrollee was said to be twenty years old with an eighth grade education. He received $30 per month (equivalent to $570 today), and $25 of his pay was sent home to his family. The pay was not great, even then, but it was steady. Photographers, filmmakers, writers, and other unemployed men and women of the arts, payed through the WPA fanned out across America to record poverty, resignation, and humor in the face of adversity and plain ordinary, daily life.

I think the first time I ever heard of the CCC was from my father. It was in his later years after I had quit teaching and was spending considerable time with my mom and dad in Florida. He loved to tell me stories of his youth and one day I remember him talking about the CCC’s. He told me he had joined because times were hard and the family needed money. His favorite thing about it was he got to travel around the US and learn a variety of jobs. I remember my dad was always really good at fixing things and was never afraid to try something new, a trait that perhaps came from his experience in the Civilian Conservation Corp.

Remnants of the CCC and WPA projects can still be seen in places too numerous to list. Many state parks in Illinois, including Starved Rock, Pere Marquette, & New Salem had lodges and roads built, and trees planted. Backbone, Lake McBride, and Wildcat Den were among recreation areas in Iowa that were improved by the CCC. Closer to home much of Blackhawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Vander Veer, Credit Island, Fejervary, and Lindsay parks were all areas that benefited from the hard working men and women so many years ago.

Although the CCC was probably the most popular New Deal program it never was authorized as a permanent agency. It was reduced in size as the Depression waned and employment opportunities improved. Some of the projects became the responsibility of other government agencies but many of the jobs, improvements, and controls just went by the wayside.

My interest in the Conservation Corp has risen out of the number of times that Gary and I have read signs or placards pointing out the buildings or sites that were erected or improved by the workers in the CCC. During the early days of the Pandemic on Sunday drives to nearby parks, on RV trips to Starved Rock Park, Shawnee National Forest, and Decorah Iowa and most recently on our visit to Zion Nation Park in Utah, we repeatedly read about buildings, trails, bridges, landscapes and forests built by the CCC. The more I read the more interested I became in the accomplishments of this diverse group of men and women who, in the depths of despair, unknowingly created a legacy for future generations to view and enjoy.

Yes, times are tough again now in 2020! ”Some would say it’s a dismal time in American History; lives are upended, unemployment is high, and it’s pretty hard to have a positive outlook about much of anything.”

While I have enormous respect for both those who developed and participated in the CCC program, I feel disdain for the masses of people in our society today who wile away their unemployed hours marching against yet another injustice. Or even worse those who choose a life of crime, dealing drugs or shooting and stealing from others all in the name of “life isn’t fair… why me?” Neither was life fair for the 2.5 million men and women in the CCC’s some ninety years ago.

Mary, a former educator and Seniors Real Estate Specialist, is the author of four books, The West End Kid, A Labor of Love, Hotel Blackhawk; A Century of Elegance, and Ebenezer United

Methodist Church; 150 Year of Resiliency.

Mary, a former writer and educator, is the author of three books: The West End Kid, A Labor of Love, and Hotel Blackhawk; A Century of Elegance.

Filed Under: Community, History