With each passing year their ranks grow smaller, and by the end of this decade few, if any, will survive. They were young men (18 to 25) in 1933, and it is fair to say their employment options were near zero. They came from every corner of the U.S. and from varying walks of life, and within less than a decade they would help transform the American landscape we know and enjoy today. Many were poor and barely literate, but they were willing to work, and their labors are an incredible legacy. They were the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Despite their accomplishments, mention the C.C.C. today and not many are acquainted with this New Deal agency. Somehow the boys and the agency have become almost invisible.
While exploring state and county parks in the Chicago area, we Getaway Guys frequently found distinctive structures not of the mundane type built today. They bore a striking resemblance to the Adirondack style of New York State. The lodges, cabins and superb crafted shelters were labor-intensive, of all-natural materials, harmonious with their surroundings and meant to last. Somewhat familiar with the C.C.C., neither of us realized immediately how prevalent surviving C.C.C. structures are within the Chicago region. Once we tuned in to their distinctiveness, they seemed to be everywhere.
The stock market crashed in October-November 1929, and for the next 39 months the greatest economic disaster to afflict the United States grew in intensity. Nothing President Herbert Hoover and a Republican-controlled Congress considered appropriate to do could halt the economic bleeding-to-death of the nation.
On March 3, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States. Within a fortnight he and a Democratic Congress established a number of work programs to relieve an unprecedented unemployment situation (an estimated 25 percent of the work force). The Emergency Conservation Service (later the Civilian Conservation Corps and derisively nicknamed Roosevelt’s Tree Army) was among the first. Similar agencies followed. New Deal legislation cost a bundle and scared the pants off Democrats and Republicans alike, but with rising discontent and social upheaval a possibility, the necessary legislation was approved and put in place almost immediately. The New Deal marked a turning point in government, because it spelled an end to more than a century of a “hands off” approach to the economic well-being of the individual. Many feared socialism and others, totalitarianism, and, not unlike today, carping about both saturated the airwaves of the 1930s.
From September 2009 to May 2010, the Getaway Guys visited 14 Illinois C.C.C. sites within 150 miles of Chicago (an exception being Giant City State Park near Carbondale). With two omissions (Harms Woods and Lockport), each was identified as a C.C.C. site, with literature available at no cost. Despite evident public use, why too few know of the C.C.C. or care is a mystery. The dying-off of generations and of recollections is a plausible reason. A more politically nuanced explanation may stem from a contemporary belief that government is “the bad guy,” thereby rendering Depression-era accomplishments null and void.
Of the more than 5,000 camps established between 1933 and 1941, some early camps were more focused than others. The C.C.C. was a vast operation involving multiple federal and state agencies with multiple agendas, which took time to sort out. Almost immediately, some enrollees were deployed to fight forest fires while others planted trees (approximately 90,000,000) to fight soil erosion. Others cleared brush and built roads in State and National Forests. The planning and coordination of large-scale projects needed more time and eventually required outside expertise. While America’s economic landscape lay in ruins, its agricultural life blood was blowing away. Dust storms of Biblical proportions blew away millions of tons of top- soil. The drought of 1935 (the subject of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”) also led to massive forest fires. The C.C.C. was not linear. Camps assigned to projects were abruptly dispatched elsewhere as needed. At Giant City, members of Camps 1657 and 692 assisted with Ohio River flood relief in 1937 and later fought forest fires in northern Wisconsin and Isle Royale in Michigan.
Responses to Depression-era drought, dust storms, flooding and forest fires were not the primary focus of the Guys’ visits, however. Instead, the Getaway Guys wanted to investigate the architectural legacy. Not architectural historians, but familiar with architecture, the Getaway Guys decided (after some disagreement) that much of what was built by the C.C.C.s in the Chicago region belonged to an intentional, established style. This topic will be explored in greater detail in the next two issues of the RoundTable.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.