currents

Creating jobs, saving forests

The Civilian Conservation Corps did its part to save the country, too, during a frightening time

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 10/14/20

NARROWSBURG, NY — Once upon a time, the U.S. government paid young men and WWI veterans to plant trees.

It paid them to build firebreaks, fire towers and access roads. They built national …

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currents

Creating jobs, saving forests

The Civilian Conservation Corps did its part to save the country, too, during a frightening time

Posted

NARROWSBURG, NY — Once upon a time, the U.S. government paid young men and WWI veterans to plant trees.

It paid them to build firebreaks, fire towers and access roads. They built national parks. They worked on flood control. They repaired the soil stripped away by the hot winds of the Dust Bowl.

This was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created in 1933, and it rescued families throughout the country from financial devastation, said Diane Galusha, author of “Another Day, Another Dollar,” which is about the CCC in the Catskills.

The program created camps, filled them with unemployed young men aged 18 to 25 to start with, then it was expanded up to age 28.

Then it put them to work.

Special camps existed for WWI vets, Galusha said; see details below.

One of many camps was at Promised Land State Park in Greentown, PA. Open from 1933 to 1941, according to Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, its young men built campgrounds, planted trees and fought fires.

Another was at Ten Mile River in Narrowsburg. Sandy Nuttycombe’s father, Thomas Batchelor, was there in the mid-30s. He had good memories of his experience there, the Narrowsburg resident said. “His time at the CCC camp was positive. I don’t think there was anything negative about it.”

Not surprising. The program was badly needed. Remember, says Galusha, it was the Depression. One-fourth of the country was out of work. Large swathes were hit by the Dust Bowl. “It was a really trying time for people. There was no social safety net.” If your savings were wiped out by a bank closure, or your farm died in the Dust Bowl, there was little help except for relatives or the poorhouse if you were really desperate.

“Men would go off to be vagabonds, to look for work,” she said. “Banks were closing, businesses were closing... people clamored for the government to do something.”

The tools available were limited. It took the election of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal to shift the terrified mood of the country. (Although scholars argue about whether he actually ended the Depression. Possibly World War II, or the build-up of the 1950s, did that.)

The CCC was one of the first New Deal programs, Galusha said, and one of the most popular. Roosevelt based it off a program he ran in New York while he was governor. “The War Department was in charge, and the military is very effective, they know how to move things around and acquire supplies.” Three million unemployed men joined up

Sandy Nuttycombe’s father wasn’t a vagabond. He was orphaned young and raised by his grandparents, then when they passed away, he lived in an orphanage.

By the time he grew up, President Roosevelt had created the CCC camps, and he joined up, Nuttycombe said. “He was up in Masonville, planting trees. Then he came to the camp at Ten Mile River.” There, Batchelor planted more trees, her husband, Tom Nuttycombe said.

The camps offered three square meals a day, Galusha said. This was no small thing when you consider that, in the Depression, the breadlines were long, full of silent people waiting for food. They gave the men clothing. And it paid $30 per month, the men keeping $5. They were required to send the rest home, or it was kept in an escrow if they had no family, she explained.

Thomas Batchelor sent his paycheck to his cousins, Nuttycombe said.

The program was so popular that “people actively lobbied for camps to be located in communities,” Galusha said. You had to prove there was work available.

As the economy improved, the men left and got jobs. When war was declared, many joined the service. The CCC ended in 1942, as the war pulled more men into service and created jobs for everyone else stateside.

Sandy Nuttycombe’s dad boarded with the Moores at the top of a hill, she said. “My mother lived at the bottom. And that’s how they met.” After they married, they went to Utica and eventually came back to Narrowsburg. Batchelor was a custodian at the Narrowsburg School and a member of the fire department. He put down roots.

Maybe that was one of the goals. Certainly, hope was critical. “The CCCs were all about hope with a capital H,” said Galusha. “This is what sustained these boys psychologically. It gave purpose, it gave them support, it gave them a reason to look forward—that better times were coming.”

Segregated camps

Diane Galusha adds that the CCC was open to Black and Native American men. Camps were usually segregated.

The Digital Public Library reports that while at the height of the Depression, one-quarter of all white men were unemployed; for Black men, it was more like one-half. Two hundred thousand joined the CCCs, although the DPL says that it was harder for them to get into a camp in Southern states; priority was given to White men.

Eighty thousand Native Americans also joined camps, working on infrastructure and improvements on the reservations, the DPL says.

Conserving forests for future needs

Conservation meant something different back in the 1930s, Diane Galusha said. “The government wanted to preserve places for everyone to enjoy... but it also had to do with money.”

Conservation was very practical, and was “intended to save the land so that people would thrive.”

It recognized that humans had ruined the soil—the dirt blowing away in the Dust Bowl was a clue—and cut down forests to feed sawmills and acid factories. Farms were abandoned as farmers couldn’t pay their debts or everyone found better jobs in the city.

“FDR felt keenly a recognition that the country had gone too far and fouled its own nest,” Galusha said.

The land offered a solution. The beautiful, peaceful countryside could draw tourists. “Recreation was a linchpin to help people recover,” she said. Tourism, which had begun in a serious way in the 1920s along with the Model T, would bring money into struggling communities. Scientific management could improve the soil and care for forests, so food could be grown and trees could be harvested.

“But it wasn’t until all this free labor became available that the state was able to step in” and do something about it, Galusha said.

Veterans needed help, too

In World War One, Galusha said, soldiers were promised an annuity due in 1945 that they needed right then.

Veterans had lost their jobs. Their families were starving.

So a Bonus Army formed and marched on Washington, 17,000 veterans strong, plus their families, says Wikipedia. Attorney General William Mitchell ordered them removed. Police met with resistance, shots were fired and two veterans died. So, the Army was called in. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and infantry and cavalry—plus six tanks—tore into the Bonus Army camp and dispersed the men, women and children, burning their tents down (www.bit.ly/bonusarmy42).

When a second Bonus Army formed after Roosevelt took office, the CCC camps provided an answer. The president offered the veterans jobs and pay. Many men took him up on the offer.

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