Reflections From History And Faith

By Jeff Olson

     During my career in natural resources inventory and conservation, I covered untold miles and acres over a variety of lands and waters and in all seasons of the year. In this memorable journey, I saw first-hand not only some of man’s neglect of our natural resources but also much of his stewardship in providing restoration, preservation, and productivity to those resources. This journey also included many historical sites representing some of America’s rich conservation heritage. Among these are the remnants of Civilian Conservation Corps camps which are subtle but stirring reminders of a very consequential era of our history. 

     During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration implemented programs to improve the nation’s fledgling economy. One of these was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Also called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” “Tree Troopers,” “Soil Soldiers,” and the “Three-Cs Boys,” the CCC was the result of Senate Bill S.598 which was signed into law on March 31, 1933, by the President under the authority of the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) Act as part of his New Deal program. This was just weeks after Roosevelt took office as President. 

     Ninety years ago this week, April 5, 1933, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6101 which officially established the CCC as an agency and provided for its administration. As Roosevelt expressed it in his letter to the CCC through its newsletter “Happy Days,” dated July 8, 1933: “It is my belief that what is being accomplished will conserve our natural resources, create future national wealth and prove of moral and spiritual value not only to those of you who are taking part but to the rest of the country as well.”

     The CCC provided employment for young unmarried men from families on public relief roles while at the same time addressing the nation’s natural resource conservation needs. Enrollees also included veterans of World War I, Native Americans, and African Americans. Local experienced men, called “LEMs,” were chosen to provide the needed expertise in specific fields, particularly those areas related to conservation and construction. 

     CCC jobs were directly related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state, and local governments. To participate, young men had to be in good health and between the ages of 18 and 26, though it was later expanded from 17 to 28. Enlistment was for a duration of six months, although many re-enlisted after their allotted time was up. Camps were set up in all states, as well as in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. 

     CCC companies were typically housed in forty-man barracks and each camp housed about 200 men. Camps resembled small villages and included bathhouses, electric lighting plants, kitchens, storage, infirmaries, recreation halls (later, educational buildings), a softball or baseball diamond, and sometimes a football field. Cash allowances were $30 a month, and mandatory allotment checks of $25 were sent back to families of the men. Of the $5 each man kept, $1 went into the company fund and they could buy $1 worth of coupons (twenty at five cents each) for the canteen. Promising young men showing more potential were promoted to assistant leaders and leaders at $36 and $45, respectively. The workload was eight hours a day, five days a week.


CCC Camp at Thornburg – 1934  (Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

      The camps were supervised by reserve officers from the U.S. Army. CCC workers performed over 100 types of work, including planting trees, fighting forest fires, disease, and insect control, wildlife habitat improvement, forest improvement, erosion control, constructing roads and trails, development of recreational facilities in national, state, county, and metropolitan parks, constructing dams to control flooding and observation towers for forest fire detection, running telephone lines and carrying out emergency work which saved countless lives and much property threatened by flooding. The CCC also offered members courses that ranged from basic literacy to first aid to vocational skills and college-level courses, usually taken on their own time. 

     Maximum enrollment in the CCC peaked at over 500,000 in over 2,600 camps in 1935, and during the life of the program, over 2.5 million men participated. More than 200,000 Arkansas natives served in CCC camps from coast to coast. CCC work was administered by several federal agencies, including the National Park Service, Soil Conservation Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service administered more than 50 percent of all public work projects for the CCC. In President Roosevelt’s words, the CCC was “the greatest peacetime movement this country has ever seen.”  

     In our own backyard, there were 16 CCC camps in the Ouachita National Forest alone and 64 camps statewide. The first CCC camp in the state of Arkansas was established in Polk County at Eagleton, and the first campsite occupied in the state was at Crystal Springs. By the mid-1930s, the CCC employed 13,000 men. Seventy-seven companies undertook 106 projects in Arkansas. Today, we still enjoy the fruits of their labor in beautiful areas such as Shady Lake, Bard Springs, Charlton, Collier Springs, Iron Springs, and Cedar Lake; and picnic areas, hiking trails, and scenic overlooks such as Sugar Creek Vista (pictured).

Sugar Creek Vista – 1936    (Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

     Arkansas’s state parks system benefited immensely from the CCC, which created roads, trails, lodges, cabins, campgrounds, amphitheaters, bathhouses, picnic pavilions, and beaches at Petit Jean, Mount Nebo, Crowley’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, Lake Catherine, and Buffalo Point. All except Buffalo Point are Arkansas state parks, though it started out to be such during the 1940s. It is now a part of the Buffalo National River. Vestiges of many other CCC achievements are still with us today, and much of their toil and workmanship is still in operation to the benefit of our enjoyment and the continuation of a proud heritage. Remnants of some of the CCC camps can still be seen, such as that of the Hollis camp north of Hot Springs on Highway 7. On a personal note: Devil’s Den will always hold a special place in our hearts because that is where we spent most of our honeymoon. We returned 30 years later and stayed in the same cabin. Beautiful then….beautiful now! Also, I would like to note here that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Petit Jean State Park. 

Devils Den State Park Construction – 1934  (Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

       CCC’s accomplishments included planting nearly 3 billion trees, constructing more than 3,470 fire towers, building 28,000 miles of hiking trails, building 97,000 miles of fire roads and 47,000 bridges, completing 40 million acres of erosion control work, and establishing more than 800 new state parks. 

     What we must not let these amazing numbers obscure is an understanding and appreciation of the enduring and enormous economic impact this CCC work still has on our nation and state, even now – over 80 years after its disbanding in 1942. And, when you add to that the qualities it instilled and refined into millions of young men who served in its ranks, many of whom went on to serve their country in World War II, the CCC legacy is truly beyond measurement. 

     As CCC member Jim Mitchell of Kenosha, Wisconsin expressed it, “The CCC shaped my life, which had no direction. Back home, I’d had no role models to measure my life against. In the corps, there were well-educated fellows whose goals had been interrupted. I wanted to be like them and knew I had to get an education to do so. I stayed in the CCC for two years, getting thirty dollars a month. At last, I could bring some help to my family…For the first time, I felt good about myself.”

     So, on our next trip to the national forest, state park or other place where the CCC left its larger-than-life footprint, what do you say we pause for a moment and remember with gratitude and respect those young Americans who gave much of their prime to make the beauty of God’s creation a more special and accommodating place for you and I and our families to enjoy, care for, and pass on to future generations. 

Mather Lodge Construction, Petit Jean State Park – 1934 (Source: AR Dept. of Tourism)

Author Jeff Olson Hot Springs Village

Jeff Olson, Author

Cover Image: Jessieville CCC Camp – 1933 (Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas)