Have you ever been hungry? Hungry enough to steal several potatoes and carrots from a produce vendor? Your mom smiled as she cut and placed them in a pot with 2 gallons of boiling water, salt, pepper, some barley, garlic and spices to simmer for hours on the back of the wood-burning kitchen stove. The soup’s aroma filled the kitchen with anticipation. A pan of corn bread would be placed in the oven about 20 minutes before dinner was served. It was another “meatless Monday meal.” But it was something hot that “stuck to your ribs.”
Who knows the difference between a recession and a depression? A recession is when your neighbor loses his or her job. A depression is when you lose your job.
America was in a crippling economic downturn, the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1941. On April 5, 1933, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6101 creating the Civilian Conservation Corps. Robert Fechner was appointed CCC director.
During the years 1933 to 1942, 3 million single American males between the ages of 18 to 25 served in the CCC for one or more six-month terms.
Would you work eight hours of demanding physical labor to eat three nutritious hot meals a day, wear U.S. Army-issued clothing, sleep on an Army cot, receive free medical and dental checkups plus 15 hours of education each week for $1 a day? Most of the men had only one year of high school or less. Many had quit school to pick up odd jobs to help support their family. Some never attended school. Forty thousand illiterate young men learned to read and write while assigned to a CCC camp.
Remember your $30 a month? You received $5. The remainder was sent to your parent(s). Twenty-five dollars bought bags and bags of groceries for your family. In the 1930s, bread was 10 cents a loaf. Milk was 14 cents a quart. A can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup was a dime.
The CCC motto was, “From boys to men in six months.” Young men’s lives were transformed. They learned jobs and vocational skills while they were taught responsibility in the CCC.
The CCC’s national director stated that 87 percent of the enrollees utilized the educational and training opportunities while in the CCC. In Hawthorne, a foreman at Camp Hawthorne selected five enrollees who had not completed their senior year of high school. The foreman enrolled them in Mineral County High School. They became MCHS graduates. Go, Serpents!
Later in the military, most basic training commanding officers would ask each recruit, “Were you in the CCC and how long? What was your discipline like?” A recruit with CCC experience was given a better job and received better promotions in the military.
In 1940, our government began preparing for the expected conflict with Germany, Italy and Japan. Full-time automotive maintenance and radio schools were established in Nevada CCC camps. In the military, automotive maintenance and radio operators enjoyed daily showers, hot meals with a cot at night, which was much better than being smelly in a wet or freezing foxhole.
Between the years 1933 to 1942, 30,791 young men worked in Nevada’s CCC camps. Those men came from Nevada with men from eastern, Midwestern and southern states to complete massive range rehabilitation projects, build cattle guards, fences, fight range fires, dug irrigation projects and built state park trails.
Of course, there were problems. Young men from southern states complained about the freezing winters, with temps as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Another problem happened in 1936. A group of young men from New York City didn’t like the physical work they were assigned. They decided to go “on strike.” Their commanding officer handled the situation. Within hours, the “strikers” were on the first train to New York City!
Edmund Rosowski shared two stories. Most of the CCC projects required recruits to perform physical labor, swinging a pick and shoveling dirt. The recruits from rural locations had a big laugh when they had to show “city slickers” how to shovel dirt. The soft hands of the “city slickers” had blisters until they developed calluses.
The Paradise Valley Camp sponsored dances on Saturday nights. The camp was off Route 95 about 40 miles north of Winnemucca. A bus would transport girls with one chaperone for each girl attending the dance. The girls and their chaperones boarded their bus at 11 p.m. to return home around midnight.
The men from Paradise Valley learned to slow dance! Dancing was the only acceptable way to hold your dance partner close (maybe a quick body press) to smell her perfume. The chaperones couldn’t control the CCC men’s dreams after the dance in the bunk house that night or the mumbling of female names.
Similar to the South Canyon Fire west of Denver on July 6, 1998, which killed 19 firefighters or the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, in Arizona which killed 14 firefighters, on July 28, 1939, the Santa Rosa fire had a total of 500 Northern Nevada CCC and local men fighting an 8,000-acre brush fire near Orvada in the Santa Rosa Range. Crew chief Wilbur Timmons led “twenty-three CCC firefighters up a slope. Suddenly, the wind shifted and a back draft engulfed five of the men in a ring of flames.” Four victims were from New York state and one was from Kansas, ages 18 to 22.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Camp Paradise staff erected a monument at a roadside rest stop on U.S. Route 95 to honor the five deceased members. The monument is three miles from where the five lost their lives.
The following quote says it all: “You can do it. Hard work and perseverance paid off for our generation. The CCC kept us off the streets. We are proud of what we did for our country, our families and for future generations of Americans.”
Thank you for your service, CCC.
(All the Nevada CCC stories in this commentary were from “The Civilian Conservation Corps In Nevada, From Boys to Men” by Renee Corona Kovet and Victoria Ford, University of Nevada Press, 2006.)