In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC) put millions of young men to work in Pennsylvania and across the country. Administered by the army, the program paid recruits thirty dollars a month to build trails, construct facilities and fight fires in national and state parks. The program was highlighted in the recent national parks series by Ken Burns, and was instrumental in a host of early conservation efforts.
I grew up hiking trails that the CCC built in Central Pennsylvania. I saw their handiwork in the dry-laid stone walls and bridges and cabins built deep in the woods of Sproul State Forest. To my buddies and I these seemed like remnants of a lost civilization, which in a sense they were. But the lost civilization has a connection to our current lives, including ones in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1933 after graduating from high school, Leonard Parucha boarded a train from McKeesport to serve at a camp in North Bend, PA, twenty-five miles away from my parents’ house in Lock Haven. Camp S-76, a contingent of African Americans from as far away as Georgia and the Carolinas, probably built some of the trails I walked.
In addition to putting thirty dollars in the pockets of young men who previously had nothing (twenty-five of which went home to their families) the CCC in the region offered literacy education, training in he trades, and the opportunity to take college correspondence courses at Penn State University.
The Great Depression looms in the rear-view mirror of history these days. People lost their life-savings when banks failed. Families lost their possessions. Workers lost livelihood. Entire families, like the Joads profiled by John Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath, left their failing farms and foreclosed homes and traveled around the country searching for hope. The population nearly lost faith in the institutions they had been told they could depend on.
Out of concern for the implications of this, the Roosevelt administration began the CCC and other social initiatives such as the Works Progress Administration. Revere FDR as a saint or demonize him as a Machiavelli of the welfare state, the CCC benefitted the self esteem and provided for the material wants of millions when nothing else did. It was not a handout. The money it paid in return for labor put food on the table and helped sustain capitalism. It enabled otherwise idle men to develop skills they could use the rest of their lives and contribute to society in ways we are still enjoying. Not bad for government work.