Civilian Conservation Corps, FDR's 'Tree Army,' celebrates 80th anniversary
THE GREATEST generation changed the face of America with shovels, sledgehammers and sweat long before it secured the nation's fate abroad with rifles, bombs and blood.
Cornelius McHugh, 91, was among them, fresh out of high school in the summer of 1939 when he signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most popular programs created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Roosevelt created the CCC in 1933 at the height of the Depression for any unemployed young man between 18 and 25 willing to break a sweat in the outdoors for $30 a month.
McHugh spent a year on a surveying crew in a New Mexico border town - the same place Pancho Villa invaded in 1916 - with the CCC, then he headed back home to Pennsylvania to help carve Promised Land State Park out of the Pocono Mountains in Pike County. He drove a 1935 REO Speedwagon dump truck nearly every day for a year, hauling "big, big goonie" boulders away from a quarry to build the park's infrastructure.
"We'd bring 'em back to the park, dump 'em off, and the Polish kids from Coaldale, Lansford, Summit Hill, Throop, they all broke 'em by hand," McHugh, of Lehighton, told a crowd at the park on a recent Saturday morning. "They didn't use crushers. That's how the roads around here were made - by hand."
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the CCC, with festivals and reunions planned all over the country to honor the men who planted a mind-boggling 3 billion trees and helped build more than 800 parks nationwide.
"It's been called the largest environmental action ever undertaken in this nation, addressing erosion, reforestation and parks development," said Ren Davis, who wrote "Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America's Parks" with his wife, Helen.
At Promised Land, home to a CCC museum and bronze statue to commemorate "Camp Pocono," officials replaced "reunion" with "festival," preparing for the day when all that remains of the CCC boys are the sepia-toned photographs hanging on the walls. McHugh was one of just three former CCC boys who came to Promised Land for the festival. Each was presented with a plaque and treated with a near reverence by attendees and park workers.
Both McHugh and John Stopka, 93, told their stories on a small stage, recalling how desperate the times were.
"I graduated from Throop High School, class of '37, and it was in the midst of the Depression so I volunteered for the CCC," Stopka said. "They sent me down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and they called us underground farmers because we came from the coal area, and we called them swampy and webfoots because of the swampy conditions there."
More than 3 million men took Roosevelt up on the offer, including approximately 200,000 African-Americans in segregated camps, many spending their last innocent years in the forests and deserts, before they stormed the beaches at Normandy and fought the battles on Guadalcanal that made them hardened men.
There were critics of the CCC, with organized labor initially afraid the government would deplete the workforce and later with some ecologists who worried the work on forestry and soil erosion was being done haphazardly, focused on recreation rather than conservation.
Historians today, however, believe the CCC laid the groundwork for the environmental movement, pivotal in forging a relationship between the American people and their land.
"Some people think we just paid all these young men to go out in the woods, but they made permanent fixtures," said Neil Maher, author of "Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement." "There was a major return on the investment, even still today."
A small number of critics worried that Roosevelt's "Tree Army" was emulating Germany's Hitler Youth, preparing young men for war under the guise of civic good. The U.S. Army did run the CCC camps and barracks, but employees were immersed in learning trades and classes, not military or weapons training.
Residents of secluded rural areas throughout the country were also fearful of thousands of unfamiliar young men marching through their wilderness, opening it up to the masses.
"They just didn't want strangers around," said Joan Sharpe, national president of Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, a nonprofit group out to preserve CCC history.
Money and results converted the skeptics, Sharpe said, bringing jobs and customers to those rural areas, and for a time, even Roosevelt's staunchest opponents were clamoring for more CCC camps in their district.
"The CCC was really a political animal," she said. "Politics played an important part in where those CCC camps were."
Pennsylvania, according the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, had 113 CCC camps, the second most in the nation next to California. Gifford Pinchot, who served as the first chief of the United States Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, was a Republican but supported FDR while Pinchot was governor of Pennsylvania.
Pinchot was an early advocate for conservation, and having already established forestry initiatives in Pennsylvania, he was ready to accept an influx of CCC camps and employees as soon as it was implemented.
Pinchot has a national forest named after him in Washington State, along with a state park named in his honor in Lewisberry, York County.
The CCC reached the peak of its popularity in 1936, but it's funding was slashed as the economy improved and eventually, World War II brought it to an end. McHugh followed his brother into the Marine Corps after serving in the CCC, he said, his voice choking up with emotion when he mentioned the 32 months he spent in the Pacific.
All the CCC boys were fed three meals a day, received medical care, and learned trades they later turned into careers, but McHugh said it was the pay, the $25 sent back home to his family in Summit Hill, Carbon County every month that made the most lasting impact.
"That bought enough food for a whole month," he said.
There's a small contingent today who'd believe the best way to memorialize the CCC is to bring it back, organize unemployed young men and women in America and put them to work across the country.
"They could be used for doing mundane work, pulling weeds, cutting grass, planting trees," said Jay Alexander, founder of the Civilian Conservations Corps Initiative. "If there's a major natural disaster, they could jump right in."
Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, introduced legislation in 2012 to mobilize a 21st century CCC to help with land management, flood, fire and soil issues, and improvements to the national park system. The price tag for the program, however, was $16 billion, and historians say New Deal programs have been labeled as a socialist agenda for so long that few elected officials dare mention them.
"We've been rolling back the New Deal 60 or 70 years now and demonizing it," said Maher. "I don't see why we couldn't be doing the same thing today with the CCC. It's really too bad."
McHugh, who used a shovel at Promised Land State Park to plant a ceremonial Eastern Redbud, said he's not sure young men today could handle the regimented lifestyle, the labor demanded of the CCC boys.
Stopka's father died in a coal mine explosion and he'd have likely gone into the mines himself if he hadn't traded the hills for swamps.
"I'm not sure what would have come of me if not for the CCC," the Susquehanna County resident said. "I think it's one of the best things this country ever instituted."