The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:
A New Deal Case Study

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Chapter 8
A Day in the CCC

For the typical CCC enrollee, actual arrival at camp was the culmination of a fairly lengthy selection process. Some months earlier he had taken the initial step toward entrance by applying to his local selection agency for consideration as an enrollee. [1] He then waited patiently for a period of up to two months until his application had been processed. If accepted, he was sent to a conditioning camp, usually at an Army post, where he was physically examined, vaccinated, clothed, and studied in his reactions to Army discipline and hard labor. If the youth measured up to the somewhat rigorous standards demanded there, he was formally enrolled, took an oath of obedience, and was sent to an ordinary work camp. [2]

CCC publications used to claim that the average enrollee was twenty years old when he entered camp, and came from a family of six children. His father was unemployed, and he himself had not worked for at least nine months. He had completed the eighth grade. He weighed 147 pounds and was 5 feet 8-1/4 inches tall; thus, he was underweight and below average in height. [3] This is a rather rigid picture and obviously could not have fitted exactly the description of the vast majority of enrollees, yet it is probable that many of them shared at least some of these characteristics.

The spectacle which greeted the new enrollee, the type of camp which was to be his home for at least six months, varied both from region to region and according to when the enrollee entered the CCC. The first camps were often simply tents which, though lined in neat rows, had all the disadvantages attendant to life under canvas. [4] In the early days of the CCC, existence could indeed be most uncomfortable, particularly in the mountains when the spring thaw started. Such conditions, however, were neither widespread nor permanent. From the very start many enrollees lived in wooden barracks, and these quickly became general. Each camp consisted of four or five barrack buildings, one hundred feet long by twenty feet wide, together with a mess hall, a recreation hall, administration buildings, officers' quarters, a hospital, a garage, and often a schoolhouse. The buildings usually lay in a rough "U" shape around an open space which was either planted to grass or cleared for sports purposes. Sometimes the structures were painted brown or green, but more often than not they were simply creosoted or covered with tar paper. Though usually wired for electric light, they were frequently inadequately illuminated. [5]

The buildings were solidly constructed, usually of cedar, and could not easily be dismantled once the camp had finished its work project. Sometimes they were turned over to a nearby community for its own particular purposes, but more often than not they were left boarded up and desolate, a waste of time, effort, and money. In 1936, therefore, Fechner took a radical step in camp planning, deciding that all future CCC camps were to be of a pre-cut portable variety, of standard design, easily dismantled at the end of a work project, ready to be transported wherever a new camp was authorized, and there set up, waiting for new occupants. [6] This was a far-reaching change, and one which was generally welcomed by Corps officials. Camps were now standardized, each having four barracks buildings, one mess hall, one schoolhouse, bath houses, one latrine block, and twelve officers' and service buildings. [7]

Though the camp buildings henceforth conformed to a standard plan, the way they were situated depended on the type of country in which the camp was located. There were about fifty ways that the basic functional plan could be altered, depending on the particular contours of the terrain. Thus, the camps did not all seem to be dreary replicas of the same model. Some, it is true, were constructed and appointed with a startling lack of originality, but others were designed and finished with pride and imagination. The enrollees labored long hours to lay gravel paths between the barracks. They built rustic gates and railings, planted trees, and added swimming pools, outdoor amphitheaters, fishponds, or flower gardens. Within the buildings, they built fireplaces of brick and stone, painted or polished the walls to bring out the natural wood grain, adding charm in many different ways to the basic camp plan. [8] At its best, the CCC camp was a construction of real beauty. Frank Hill has described a number of startlingly attractive camps he had visited throughout the land; a camp on the Yosemite Valley floor in winter, surrounded by snow-laden pines, another perched high on a crag above Los Angeles, one in New York situated beside twin lakes, a soil erosion camp in Texas standing uncompromisingly strong—"the gaunt wastes of plain around it." [9] Such camps as these, he said, either contrasted starkly with the barrenness of their surroundings or enhanced the natural beauty of the sites. Not all camps maintained the same high standards, but there were few which did not try to capture something of the unique, almost pioneer, flavor of the whole CCC enterprise.

Whether the camp was in Alaska or Oklahoma, Florida or Puerto Rico, the daily routine was carried out according to the same broad program. Reveille was at 6 A.M., and enrollees could not afford to dally in bed because they had to be washed and dressed in their work clothes by 6:30 A.M., ready for physical training. [10] Upon arrival at camp, enrollees were usually given two sets of clothing, a blue denim work or fatigue suit and a renovated Army olive drab uniform for dress purposes. In 1938, however, Roosevelt ordered that a special, spruce-green dress uniform be issued to all enrollees. The President, while visiting a camp at Warm Springs, had been disagreeably surprised by the poor quality of the dress uniforms. Shoddy clothing, he believed, weakened morale, and he immediately asked the Department of the Navy to design him a special CCC uniform. [11] These were in widespread use by 1939.

After physical training, the enrollees trooped off to breakfast, a noisy but satisfying meal eaten at long tables, at each of which six to twelve men could be seated. CCC food was plain, nourishing, and served in large quantities. A typical breakfast could consist of stewed prunes, cereal, ham and eggs, coffee, and milk. [12] Fechner once described camp food as "wholesome, palatable and of the variety that sticks to the ribs," and the monthly camp food order would seem to bear this out. Typical commodities purchased included bacon, beans, beef, butter, cheese, chicken, eggs, flour, lard, milk, onions, pork, potatoes, rice, sugar, syrup, apples, baking powder, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, flavoring extract, corn, macaroni, peaches, peas, pepper, pickles, pineapple, prunes, rolled oats, salt, tea, tomatoes, and vinegar. [13] CCC food was not perhaps prepared according to the best French cuisine, but it was usually well-balanced and nourishing.

After breakfast, the enrollees usually policed the grounds, tidied their huts, and then, in one of the few concessions made to military practice, formed up in rough platoons for roll call and inspection before departing for work about 7:45 A.M. [14] Enrollees walked or rode to work, depending on how far the work project was from the camp. The jobs on which the enrollees were engaged were as various as the types of camps authorized. Enrollees in a forestry camp might find themselves working in small groups under an enrollee leader, clearing dead wood, planting trees, digging out rocks, or building trails. [15] Some might be clearing strips for firebreaks, others building lookout towers, telephone lines, small dams, or bridges. [16] Those working on erosion control projects might be planting kudzu grass as cover, building small check dams on the edge of a hillside, or marking a terrace prior to turning it into contour patterns. [17] Bureau of Reclamation camps were usually engaged in the construction of small storage dams, frequently made of earth, while those under National Parks Service control were engaged in a whole host of functions, ranging from the planting and thinning of trees to the building of simple picnic spots complete with rustic furniture. [18]

Work continued till about noon and then ceased for lunch, which was usually brought to the work project. Again it was substantial fare, sometimes a full-scale hot meal, but more often sandwiches, pie, and coffee. [19] Lunch break lasted for an hour and then work was resumed, continuing until 4:00 P.M. when enrollees returned to camp.

The evening meal was usually not held before 5:30 P.M., and the time between the return to camp and dinner belonged to the enrollees. They used it in various ways. Most camps had sports fields adjacent to them, and many youths enjoyed taking part in football, baseball, or basketball, depending on the season. Sometimes the sports were quite highly competitive, with representative teams being chosen for contests against nearby camps or neighborhood community teams. [20] Indeed, some CCC athletes won football scholarships to major colleges, and a score of baseball players were signed by major league scouts traveling the CCC circuit. [21] More often than not, though, sports activities were loosely organized, with the emphasis on participation rather than excellence. For those less energetically inclined, there were pool and table tennis facilities, as well as the camp library. Libraries were arranged on a mobile basis. In a given area, the books available were divided into nine groups, and each group was rotated among nine camps. The type of book available in a typical library was roughly as follows: adventure and mystery, seventeen volumes; miscellaneous fiction, twenty-nine; westerns, twelve; travel, twenty; history and biography, twelve; science fiction, twenty-nine; athletics, five; and religion, three. Popular authors were Rex Beach, Sax Rohmer, Rafael Sabatini, and Edgar Wallace. [22] Each library also contained forty-five periodicals, usually including Life, Time, Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, Radio News, and the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. The New Republic and Nation were banned, because in the eyes of many CCC officers they bordered on the subversive. [23] No doubt the camp libraries provided enjoyable reading for many enrollees, and instruction for a few, but they were often subject to criticism. Sometimes the books were locked away, the enrollee could not "browse around," but had to ask for a specific book, scarcely encouraging for those wanting to read but whose knowledge of books and authors was severely limited. More substantial was criticism of the types of books available. It was asserted that CCC officials had catered too much to popular literary tastes, had been unimaginative in their selection of books, and had made little attempt to insure that enrollees came in contact either with literary masterpieces or radical points of view on major issues. [24] These judgments were just. Certainly the youths could not be forced to read, and most did so only cursorily and purely for recreation. Nevertheless, a library which seeks only to amuse and not to challenge or to inform is failing in its duty. CCC librarians, without stacking their shelves solely with cheap copies of classics or with political tracts, could surely have provided better fare for the enrollees than the pap which they were satisfied to dispense.

After the recreation period, dinner was served, enrollees wearing their dress uniforms to this meal. Again the food was substantial, with plenty of meat and fresh vegetables, invariably followed by fruit and dessert. [25] After the meal, most of the youths attended classes as part of the camp education program, but study was not the only evening activity planned. Table tennis and pool tables were very popular, and for those enrollees with time on their hands there was always the chance of a ride to the nearest town, there to see a movie, meet a girl, spend their allowance, or just stroll around. Often, if no transportation was available and if it was not too far away, enrollees seeking entertainment would walk to the nearest community. [26] There was usually no restriction on their leaving camp after work, provided that they came back by lights out. If they were tardy in this respect, they were likely to lose their privileges. [27]

At 9:45 P.M. camp lights were flashed off and on, the signal to prepare for bed. Lights went out at 10 P.M. and taps was blown fifteen minutes later. If the boys had done a full day's work, many would have retired long before the official time, and quieting them at night was usually no problem at all. At 11 P.M. the camp commander made a brief bed check to see that no one was absent. Then the camp slept. [28]

It must not be thought that enrollees, after entering camp, did not see their families or home again until discharge day. Leave provisions were relatively generous, and enrollees were usually able to visit their families once a month if they so desired, though this, of course, was conditioned somewhat by the distance between the camp and the enrollee's home. It was the Corps' original intention to locate all youths about two hundred miles from their home districts, too far for weekly visits, yet close enough for monthly trips, but this provision was frequently neglected. [29] Obviously a New York boy in camp in Oregon was unable to get home regularly, but even he could get some leave should he decide to re-enrol at the end of his initial six-month stint. All re-enlisting enrollees were given a six-day leave of absence on full pay between tours of duty—time enough for most to get home, if only for a day or so. [30]

Besides normal leave provisions, there were other days when no work was done. The standard holidays, January 1, February 12, May 30, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas were all observed, as were denominational religious holidays, be they Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Protestant. [31] Moreover, all enrollees of voting age were given three days with pay to register and vote in primaries and local, state, and national elections. [32] Perhaps not surprisingly, the CCC vote tended to be solidly Democratic. Local Republicans, therefore, often challenged fruitlessly the right of enrollees to vote in other districts. [33] Indeed, some tried more direct methods. Testifying before a New York state commission investigating election irregularities, CCC enrollees in camp at Tuckahoe, New York, disclosed how they had been bribed by local Republicans to vote the GOP ticket in 1936. Having accepted the money, the enrollees proceeded to vote for F. D. R.! [34]

Enrollees were also free on weekends, unless, of course, the weather during the week had been so bad that there was work to be made up. [35] If not, Saturday was often devoted to sports and to group activities such as drama and choral work. CCC boys were avid play producers, sometimes reaching quite high standards. A few CCC authors and actors, in fact, were able to get work with the Federal Theatre Project after leaving camp. [36] There were also camp dances. Most camps held about four dances annually, inviting girls from the local communities. [37] These were popular affairs with both the enrollees and their partners, the music more often than not being furnished by the camp swing band. On Sundays religious services were held in all camps. In June, 1941, for example, there were 154 full-time CCC chaplains on duty, as well as 189 part-time contract clergymen paid by Fechner's office, and five hundred volunteer, unpaid clergymen from neighboring towns. The chaplains preached to the enrollees, counselled them, visited the sick, buried the dead, and performed the few marriages contracted between enrollees and local girls. [38] These clergymen, unfortunately, were often of limited ability and made little attempt to adjust the level of their services to the enrollees. They put more stress on preaching than on personal contact, and for this reason their work in the camps was not as effective as it could have been. [39]

A constant weekend activity among some youths was journalism, and most camps contributed regular activity reports to the national CCC newspaper, Happy Days. [40] In addition, many camps published their own newspapers. In August, 1935, there were 1,122 such journals, some bearing such esoteric titles as the Flickertail Crier, the Gully Growler, and the Grapevine Send-off. Most of the work was done by the enrollees themselves during journalism courses on weeknights and on the weekends. [41] For many enrollees, the weekend was emphatically not a time of relaxation.

Enrollees transferred the traditional camp practice of "hazing" to the CCC context. New enrollees were fair game, and many an unfortunate youth, sleeping deeply after his first day on the job, awoke to find himself in the center of the parade ground, having been carried there, bed and all, by his seasoned barracks companions. Dressing hurriedly in the morning, he might also have found his shoes nailed securely to the floor. This type of hazing was innocuous enough. More harmful was the bullying which took place in a few camps and which often worried new enrollees. [42] Hazing received official sanction in some camps, and "kangaroo courts" were established. In these, enrollees who had committed minor offences, or who had offensive personal habits, were tried and summarily, usually corporally, punished. The vehemence with which those delegated to do so carried out the sentences led to complaints, however, and the courts were soon abandoned in all but a very few camps. Discipline, even for minor offences, was again the prerogative of the camp commander. [43]

An interesting aspect of CCC life was that the enrollees evolved their own language, a peculiar mode of speaking which was incomprehensible to the outside ear. Only a CCC enrollee, for example, could tell that "Hey, greaseball, got a stiffy? Well, sawdust and blankets will do," was simply a request for a cigarette, followed by an assertion that tobacco and paper would suffice. Enrollees referred to soft drink as "slough-water," a clergyman was a "sin-buster," and "submarine turkey" was a fish. CCC slang bore little resemblance to Army slang or to the language of the assembly line and the city street. It was something indigenous to the camps themselves and to the collective existence in the woods. [44]

There were critics of the tone of CCC camp life. Some directed their shafts at specific aspects of the camp existence. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, for example, while supporting the Corps in general, campaigned vociferously to have beer banned from camp canteens. [45] Townsfolk living near camps occasionally complained that the enrollees were making too free with their daughters. [46] Others were more generally critical, claiming, with some justification, that despite the education program, the camps did not do enough for the boys intellectually—that they did not give them any real interest in government, in public problems, or in American democracy itself. Nor were the boys sufficiently prepared for life outside the CCC existence. [47] There is truth in this complaint, yet in the long view the conclusion seems inescapable that the CCC was a vitalizing, not a stultifying force for most of the young men who passed through its forest portals. Work in the wilderness, as we have seen, gave to so many new health, new courage, and new faith in their country and its future.


The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study
salmond/chap8.htm — 03-Jan-2008

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