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

2008 marks the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of bold initiatives that helped lead the nation out of the Great Depression. In many ways the centerpiece of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program for unemployed young men who literally shoveled, planted, and otherwise built the country’s way back to prosperity through thousands of conservation related projects all across the country. The program was rooted in Roosevelt’s own childhood experiences at his family’s property in the Hudson Valley, and modeled after his innovative conservation programs while governor of New York.

The history of the CCC, and its enduring impact on the Catskill region in particular, is the subject of Diane Galusha’s fascinating new book, Another Day, Another Dollar: The Civilian Conservation Corps in the Catskills (Black Dome Press, $16.95). I dove into the book just as the presidential election was kicking into high gear. The enormity of Roosevelt’s accomplishments and scale of the work pulled off by the CCC seems like a story from another planet when compared to recent government failures and overall declining confidence in our elected officials. The bulk of the story delves into the activities and structures of the CCC in New York, taking us on a vivid tour of the rural landscape and how it was reshaped by the “boys of the CCC.”

Between June 1933 and July 1942, a total of 161 CCC camps were established across New York State. The majority of the camps fell into the categories of Forest, State Park, and Soil Conservation Service Camps; evidence of the work can be found throughout the Hudson Valley/Catskill region, including such notable landmarks as North/South Lake (Greene County), Lake Taghkanic State Park (Columbia County), Harriman State Park (Rockland County), Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park (Dutchess), and Goldens Bridge at the Croton Reservoir (Westchester).

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Members from the camp in Tannersville pose for a group photo

The CCC workers were mostly males between the ages of 18 and 25, and came from families in economic despair. The men were paid $30 a month, with $25 going back to their families. Galusha describes how many men initially showed up for work impoverished and undernourished, but eventually underwent a transformation through physical labor and proper diet. According to the author, the typical one-week diet for 200 workers included one ton of vegetables, 700 pounds of bread, 1,800 eggs, 97 gallons of canned fruit, 661 pounds of meat, 130 pounds of coffee, and 300 pounds of flour. The vast majority of the food was purchased locally, which helped boost the economy.

The men enrolled in the companies were moved around the country to take on new assignments. The book closely follows “Company 291” (among others), a group trained in New Jersey. They were first sent to Cascade, Idaho for six months, then to Virginia, and finally to the Catskills where they took on construction of well-known locations including North/South Lake and Devil’s Tombstone state campsites. The “Tannersville Boys,” as Company 291 was called, reconstructed a 1.3-mile truck trail to provide access to Kaaterskill Mountain; today, the pathway serves as the beginning of the trail to Huckleberry Point. In 1934, they planted more than 800,000 trees.



As many as 200 men received hearty meals at
the Boiceville camp’s mess hall

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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.

On the job: Members of the CCC worked on Slide Mountain (left) as well as surveyors in the fields (right)

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.

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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.


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