Remembering the CCC
Written by Dr. M. Chester Nolte, Professor of Education Emeritus, University of Denver, and former CCC Instructor, Co. 769 [Emphasis below is ours.]
Note: The following story is excerpted with permission from the introduction to a remarkable book of reminiscences of enrollees in the Civilian Conservation Corps, compiled in 1990. As historical documentation, from one who lived in the camps with the enrollees, this background piece tells the incredible story of our nation’s greatest peacetime mobilization of manpower. Dr. Nolte died March 22, 2007.
The purpose of this book is to rescue from oblivion those who deserve to be remembered. In its pages, the reader will find the first-person experiences of dozens of impressionable young men who at the time were going through critical times in their lives. As members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), they were engaged in the good fight against poverty and despair at a time in our nation’s history when to hope seemed fruitless. Three million strong, to them fell the awesome task of re-defining economic theory here at home, and ultimately, contesting tyranny aboard. When they laid down their shovels and took up arms against totalitarianism, these young men responded as they had at the outset: with signal courage and superb discipline. Now after more than a half-century, it seems proper and fitting to present their innermost thoughts, hopes and dreams as they took up the struggle against want and fear in the world. Of them, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” For that reason, this book came into being.
Following World War I, the world lay in disarray. Widespread depression and fear stalked the earth; there was universal social discontent. The situation was ripe for revolution. In the various major countries of the world, leaders arose with the boast that they had the answers: Hitler in Germany, Stalin in the U.S.S.R., and Mussolini in Italy. At home, our 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt also proposed a “new deal” for the underprivileged and unemployed. But unlike the plans of leaders elsewhere, Roosevelt’s plan had a saving grace: it subscribed to the vision that history takes place not in the skies, but in the hearts and minds of its people. Being in direct opposition to these other plans, it was inevitable that these various philosophies should come into confrontation with one another. To the stronger would go the spoils.
Whereas Hitler’s hordes and Mussolini’s minions were dedicated to destruction, these young members of Roosevelt’s peacetime army were bent on another course. They sought to build, not to tear down. Their goal was to conserve the soil and natural resources, to shore up family life, and to perform an honest day’s work for a day’s pay. In such a cosmic setting, it was little wonder that these men were later referred to as “the forgotten generation.”
No other generation in our nation’s history had been called on to do so much with so little recognition. Their destiny, as Roosevelt put it, was to fight two major wars in one lifetime. At home, they struggled against want and deprivation, an economic battle of considerable importance to both the country and to their families. Willingly they bent to the wheel, crusading against a failed system that denied good men a chance to earn a living wage and support their families. For one dollar a day, and “keep,” they toiled at menial tasks to make the nation strong. Beginning in the depths of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps directly affected the lives of three million young men and indirectly five or six times that many other citizens. The Corps was born in one emergency; it died in another. After Pearl Harbor, there was no thought of permanence for the CCC. It had served the nation well, and now it was time to move on. In so doing, these men were shouldered aside, their place in history blurred by the whirl of exploding events.
As a result, most general histories of the United States deal with the CCC only superficially, with perhaps a paragraph or at most a page to recall what they did in those troubled times. Today, to note their passing remain their works—national parks, amphitheaters, Civil War battlefields restored, graceful dams to hold back the flood. Every state boasts at least one major project performed by the CCC, and some states have many. These living works will remain as long as rock endures, as long as mortar holds, and as long as the parks and fields are there. Look around you, America! The results of their works are everywhere. They may be “forgotten” as faces in the crowd, but what they did will never go away.
Editor’s Note: In the quarter-century since Chet wrote this introduction in 1990, historians have begun to pay greater attention to the accomplishments of this forgotten generation. In 2015-16, new books are in progress by researcher/author Bob Audretsch that will document the history of the CCC boys and their work here in Colorado.