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The CCC experience revisited

Local author discusses work

November 30, 2009
By JOHANNA BOYLE, Journal Ishpeming Bureau

ISHPEMING - The country is suffering through economic crises and high unemployment rates that some have dubbed the "Great Recession." While many are facing hardships, today's numbers don't compare with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"By 1933, it's hard to believe but 45 percent of the people in the Upper Peninsula were on welfare," said local author Larry Chabot, who gave a presentation on his newest book "Saving Our Sons: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Rescued a Generation of Upper Michigan Men" recently at the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library. "In this poverty atmosphere, the character of the people began to change."

As the nation began to see its young men living as hobos, riding the rail lines to wherever they could find food, and watched small-town banks closing, it became clear something had to be done.

Article Photos

Local author Larry Chabot gave a presentation recently at the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library on his new book on the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Upper Peninsula. The CCC Camp in Gwinn is pictured. CCC camps allowed young men to learn skills and discipline during the Great Depression. (Photo courtesy Jack Deo, Superior View Gallery)

"The picture became bleaker and bleaker and bleaker," Chabot said. "There were no social nets at that time."

One of the solutions came in the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most popular programs in FDR's New Deal, Chabot said.

"Saving Our Sons" concentrates on the CCC experience in the U.P.

From the first camp opening in 1933, the U.P. saw over 120 camps during the 9-year program.

The CCC was open to young men, typically ages 17-23, whose families were on welfare. Once enrolled in the program, "boys" were sent wherever they were needed for a period of six months. They were usually sent to work on state or federal land, which in the U.P. meant a lot of work in the state forests.

In the early years, many of the CCC boys were brought up from larger cities like Detroit.

"They were street smart, but when they were out in the wilderness they weren't able to do much," Chabot said.

Six of the first U.P. camps were set up in a period of about eight days at the beginning of the program, with about four and a half applicants per open position. By the end of 1933, the U.P. had 45 camps.

The CCC camps were set up in barracks and run by the U.S. Army with the U.S. Forest Service running the work crews. Each barrack held around 40 young men.

"They learned to live in a community," Chabot said. "They got their teeth fixed, they got their health taken care of."

Earning about $1 per day, the boys were required to send the majority of their pay home to their families, which nearly doubled the amount of money a family on welfare received.

"This money saved these families as the work was saving the boys," Chabot said.

In the early days of the program, there were problems in the camps with fighting and theft, Chabot said, but by the end of the Depression, the neighboring towns came to appreciate the presence of the young men.

"The amount of good they did overwhelmed the mischief they got into," he said.

The camps typically had their own orchestras and bands, their own newspapers and even zoos. The CCC workers helped fight fires, find lost hunters and other work to benefit the communities. Sports were also a big part of CCC camp life.

Some camps remained open for the entire length of the CCC program while others only stayed open a few months.

"The end result was when the boys came out of camp, they were about 20 pounds heavier. They were used to working in a group. They were used to following the rules," Chabot said. "When they came out of camp and went home, the parents said 'What happened to you?'"

For the boys, who learned discipline and skills that could help them find work, the CCC program was a positive experience.

"'This is the best thing that ever happened to me. Now I can do something and I can make a living for myself,'" Chabot said of the typical reaction he got from men he interviewed about the program.

At the end of the Depression came the onset of World War II, which gave the young men from the CCC another place to find work - the military.

"The same people who helped beat the Depression helped win World War II," Chabot said.

Research on Upper Peninsula obituaries first got Chabot interested in the CCC experience.

"I started hearing about the CCC camps and I never saw a book on the U.P. experience," he said.

"Saving Our Sons" is the product of about five years of research.

"These were the poorest of the poor. They were people with no future at all. It saved this whole generation from lives of misery," Chabot said.



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