The Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC, was a public works relief effort that operated in the U.S. from 1933 to 1942. As part of the New Deal, unemployed and unmarried men between the ages of 18 to 25 (and later 17 to 28), were provided unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state, and local governments throughout America. The program, a key facet of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reform, served to relieve American families struggling to find work and make ends meet during the Great Depression.

A popular nickname for the CCC was “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”, as its activities were often regarded as being primarily concerned with the planting of trees. Although reforestation was always an important aspect of the work accomplished by the CCC over the course of the program’s nine years in operation, it was but one of a host of tasks performed by FDR’s Tree Army.

CCC PROJECTS

In fact, the CCC performed 300 different types of work projects within ten approved classifications, including: structural improvements, transportation, erosion control, flood control, forest culture, forest protection, landscape and recreation, range, wildlife, and miscellaneous (i.e., emergency work, surveying, mosquito control, etc.).

Such worthy projects lead to the establishment of a number of CCC camps in Wyoming.

Despite the Forest Service’s incomplete inventory of CCC camps in the state, which prevent us from knowing the exact location of up to seven Cowboy State camps, the number of camps in Wyoming likely peaked at 32 in 1935, according to documents from the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.

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An exhibit, currently on display at the Campbell County Rockpile Museum through the end of the calendar year, tells the story of the men who worked the CCC camps in Campbell County and examines the dynamic of their unique role in the CCC. “It’s a story that’s largely untold,” says the exhibit’s curator, Museum Registrar Angela Beenken.

“We encourage everyone with an interest
in the history of our community to
come experience it.” ~ Beenken

Gillette camps accomplished duties and projects no other camp in Wyoming – or the nation – were asked or able to do. Perhaps it was their unique role as the Campbell County sanction of Roosevelt’s Tree Army to fight a different battle: extinguishing coal fires. In part, their distinguishment was due to the geography of the region which prevented the success of their initial reforestation efforts. But, the focus on fighting coal fires ultimately lent to the camps’ influence in helping to shape the foundation of the community in which we live today.

In order to truly appreciate the exhibit’s historical significance and the hours of research, development, and coordination behind it, let us consider the state of the nation prior to FDR’s implementation of New Deal programs like the CCC.

Photo courtesy of Campbell County Rockpile Museum 1983.019.0002 – 1935 – The men of Company 874, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp GL-1-W, Gillette, Wyoming. 1st Lt. Milligan Bethel,
Commanding. Photo taken by Stimson of Cheyenne, WY. Photo shows four rows of men standing in front of camp buildings including offices marked Adjutant, Camp Commander, Camp Surgeon, and Edu Advisor.

THE CRASH

In 1932, during one of the most dismal years of the Great Depression, the country was plummeting headfirst into a downward spiral. That spiral came right on the coattails of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, or “Black Tuesday”.

Within months, stockholders had lost over $40 billion and the U.S. economy had contracted considerably. In years immediately following the crash, companies across the U.S. went bankrupt, and in rapid succession; firing workers in droves. Unemployment rates rose from 3 to 25 percent leaving 13 million people — one-quarter of the American workforce– unemployed. Wages for those who still had jobs fell by up to 42 percent and gross domestic product was cut in half, from $103 billion to $55 billion.

The collapse of New York’s stock exchange prompted massive bank failures. Simultaneously, the Mississippi Valley began experiencing such crippling drought conditions as would bring years of over-cultivation to a head in the American Midwest. When combined, these two very separate hurdles would result in wide-ranging reductions in both foreign trade and U.S. purchasing power. In a panic, government leaders would hastily pass the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in what would become known as a failed attempt to protect domestic industries and jobs. Adversely, that same legislation would ultimately reduce world trade by approximately 65 percent, as measured in U.S. dollars. The American people were suffering and the impoverished began to die of starvation.

PRESIDENT SNOOZER

At the time, Republican President Herbert Hoover was perceived as providing little-to-no relief to the American public. Initially, he had simply (but wildly) miscalculated the scope and scale of the crisis, calling it, “a passing incident in our national lives”. But in 1930, he had inadvertently misspoken again in saying, “the worst is behind us”, when in fact, it was not. A steadfast believer in the ethos of what he called “rugged American individualism”, then President Hoover answered mounting calls for increased federal intervention and spending by asking that Americans buckle down, buck up, and work harder.

As Hoover was preaching patience and self-reliance, frustrations and anger mounted.

He was cautious in giving too much government support and his laissez-faire economic policies were perceived as uncaring — even amidst his urging employers and unions to work together in getting the country back to work. For this and other reasons, President Hoovers efforts to stabilize the nation’s economy — which focused primarily on indirect relief from individual states and the private sector — were largely dismissed. Much of his administration’s greatest successes were also overlooked, including: The Federal Home Loan Bank Act – which lowered mortgage rates and allowed farmers to refinance their farms to avoid foreclosure; the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) – that gave $2 billion to banks, railroads, and economy-stimulating business; and the construction of the Hoover Dam – benefiting much of the Southwest.

Amidst public scrutiny over his hands-0ff response to the devastating effects of the Great Depression, the president made yet another poor judgment call (the metaphorical nail in the coffin of his presidency) that would ultimately set the stage for dramatic political change.

Photo courtesy of Campbell County Rockpile Museum 1983.014.0004 – July 1938 – Aerial view Gillette, WY – The old fairgrounds are center left, the rockpile is on the right, Burlington ditch, and Camp Miller on the upper right are all visible.

MR. PRESIDENT, MAYBE DON’T TEAR GAS THE WAR VETERANS

In July of 1932, a group of some 43,000 U.S. World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups, marched on Washington D.C. in support of a bill that would have paid an immediate bonus to WWI vets. The bill did not pass. And, following its downvote, the vets were asked to leave. Most did. However, approximately 2,000 did not.

On July 28, U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered the remaining vets removed. Washington police were met with resistance resulting in shots fired that would wound and kill two vets near the steps of Congress at nation’s capital. President Hoover ordered the remaining vets forcibly removed by the Army. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas McArthur commanded the infantry and cavalry of over 1,000 men supported by six tanks. The President’s military force was armed with tear gas and bayonets as they drove out the remaining marchers, the marchers’ children, and their wives. Enter the Depression’s overwhelming hero: New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR

By 1932, the market was regaining its momentum and about to reach a secondary closing peak, or “dead cat bounce”, in the Dow Jones index. The President had just run thousands of American veterans off the steps of Congress at gunpoint and frustrations with Hoover’s policies and lack of national aid were coming to a head. At the same time, Governor Roosevelt was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party and, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Governor would give a speech to end all speeches as he publically accepted his nomination.

Governor Roosevelt’s speech would infamously include the phrase, the “New Deal”. It would become the platform from which Roosevelt would launch both his winning presidential campaign and the future of federal reform. The “New Deal” line, used by the Governor in his nomination acceptance speech, was penned by a speechwriter. And, neither he nor Roosevelt had found it particularly memorable. Lackluster and inconsequential as it may have seemed to both men at the time, the saying — previously used by Mark Twain and Henry James long before Roosevelt etched it into America’s history — became exceptional in its shaping of legislation that would assist the country in getting itself up out of the Great Depression.

Newly-appointed President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) quickly set to work implementing a series of federal programs, public work projects, and financial reforms and regulations which would be enacted in the U.S. during the 1930s in response to the Great Depression. He coined the efforts of all related legislation after the “New Deal” phrase that had propelled his candidacy.

CCC: ROOSEVELT’S TREE ARMY

In March of 1933, as part of his New Deal offering, FDR would establish the CCC to provide jobs to young American men who were unemployed but able-bodied. Throughout the program’s existence, until 1942, it would employ up to 300,000 men at any given time, providing them with unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state, and local governments; putting America back to work.

Men would work six-month terms for a maximum of two years’ time salaried at $30 a month. In exchange for their hard work, the CCC would shelter, clothe, feed, educate, and pay three million young men over the course of nine years. One of the only stipulations being a compulsory allotment of up to $25 a month sent to a family dependent, with the aim to improve the nation’s rural lands whilst alleviating economic hardship throughout a nation in distress.

The men of the CCC lived and worked highly regimented schedules, similar to that of an army recruits’, and set out to work reforesting the nation’s federal and state lands, and advancing the U.S. Forest Service’s nation-wide conservation efforts, including planting nearly three billion trees in an effort to help reforest America. Again, this effort gained the CCC its nickname, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”.

Public response to the program was enthusiastic and its favorable public opinion lead to the program’s expansion between 1935 and ’36. American had made the CCC the most popular of all the New Deal programs, with sources written at the time claiming an individual’s enrollment led to improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased employability. Bringing an army of unemployed into healthful surroundings, according to Roosevelt, would help to eliminate impending threats to the social stability of the nation created by the enforced idleness of the Great Depression.

At a time when jobs and money were scarce; FDR offered much-needed relief to the American people. But, while the CCC worked to reforest lands throughout the nation, it played a more unique role here in Campbell County, Wyoming — extinguishing coal fires.

ROOSEVELT’S COAL ARMY

The only CCC program of its kind, and one of the most challenging projects in the state of Wyoming, the Gillette crew was tasked with fighting fires burning in exposed coal seams and the area’s abandoned mines. President Roosevelt firmly believed that these coal fires were costing the nation millions in coal alone — some of which would run for up to 1,000 feet in length and all of which were thought to have been burning more or less consistently for decades.

CCC enrollees at the Gillette camps would often dig out burning material and then cover the remaining exposed coal with sand. Others would extinguish fires by sealing them in or depriving them of oxygen. By all accounts, though, their efforts were impressive. These men, most of which hailed from Texas, would live and work alongside Gillette’s first ranchers and miners. They would build structures still in existence today. They’d strengthen local business, stabilize the local economy, and build Campbell County’s first fairgrounds.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

The board and staff of the Campbell County Rockpile Museum will continue to display the exhibit Roosevelt’s Coal Army: Civilian Conservation Corps in Campbell County 1933 – 1942, curated by Beenken, through December 31, 2017. Explore the story behind more than a dozen Gillette camps established to fight coal fires as part of FDR’s New Deal CCC. For more information, call 307.682.5723 or email the museum at rockpile@vcn.com.

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