Working for a Living
A new book describes how the Civilian Conservation Corps helped families survive the Great Depression — and transformed the local landscape in the process
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It wasn’t all planting and building. At the “Bug Camp” in Boiceville, the men’s initial task was to scour 165,000 acres of state and private forest to search for — and destroy — the dangerous gypsy moth. Herb Glass, now 90, was a West Hurley teenager when he joined the CCC. Galusha writes that “Glass spent just four months at Boiceville ‘before they found out my family wasn’t on relief, and they gave me an honorable separation.’ ” Meanwhile, he said, ‘We chased gypsy moths. We’d go through the mountains in a line, 50 men, six to eight feet between us. They’d plant fake bugs on trees with thumbtacks to train us to see them, but I don’t remember ever finding a legitimate one.” (In fact, moths were never found, and the camp’s mission was broadened to include tree planting, trail building, and clearing trees for the first mechanized ski area in the state.)
The book reveals not only the incredible work ethic and accomplishments of the program, but also provides a glimpse into the social life of the camps as well. The camps had well-organized baseball and basketball leagues which practiced and played in local school facilities. Many of the companies also staged plays and comedy routines for the amusement of the workers and the local townspeople. Henry Collins at the Boiceville Camp remembered that “The CCC was like a League of Nations. We had Irish, Polish, Italians, Mexicans, and Jewish... and two full-blooded Indians. Some read Shakespeare and played chess... and some had problems writing their own names... I always found a way to make some extra money, either playing the accordion, playing baseball, or trapping muskrat and mink.”
And while the camps were diverse, African-Americans and women were not particularly welcome. Although officially the CCC barred discrimination on account of race, color or creed, black enrollees were almost always housed in separate camps. (There were at least eight “colored” camps which worked at a giant flood control project on the Wallkill River in Orange County.) In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt helped set up Camp Tera on Lake Tiorati in Bear Mountain State Park. Dubbed the She-She-She Camp, this facility — the first of its kind in the nation — provided a safe haven for jobless females. Unlike their male counterparts, the women were not paid, but performed domestic tasks like sewing. Eventually, 90 such camps were established nationwide; they were eliminated in 1937 as part of a major cutback in New Deal programs.
In the early 1940s — as the economy began to pick up steam, and more young men went off to fight in World War II — the need for the CCC diminished, and it was disbanded in 1942.
After reading Galusha’s book, I found myself focusing on the opportunity to apply Roosevelt-style progressive politics and creativity to the present-day challenges of climate change and the restructuring of our food and energy systems. Clearly, the “to-do” list for our next president is no less formidable than what FDR faced in 1933. The successful transition from fossil fuel dependency to a climate friendly economy will require the same two key ingredients so expertly revealed in this book: the willingness to commit massive effort and funds at the federal level to strengthen the efforts of the states in making needed changes, and the ability to capitalize on the ingenuity and hard work of regular Americans, who have always responded when called to action. From my perspective, the story of the CCC has national historical significance and incredible relevance to today’s debate on the role of government in responding to great societal challenges.
Andrew Turner is the executive director of the Agroforestry Resource Center of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Greene County.