The nations treasure
"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." -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Greetings to the Civilian Conservation Corps," July 8, 1933
During its heyday, the Civilian Conservation Corps was dubbed Roosevelt's Tree Army, but the nickname didn't give justice to all the hard work it accomplished during its nine-and-a-half year existence.
The CCC legacy can be found all over Illinois, from the wilderness roads and trails blazed by enlistees to the shelters and cabins they built and to the lakes they created and forests they planted.
Launched in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, the CCC proved one of the best public-works programs ever funded by the U.S. government. Employing nearly 3.5 million Americans during its short history, the CCC completed hundreds of conservation projects, not only on state and federal land but also on private property, where it fought soil erosion.
Harry Dallas is among a dwindling number of CCC veterans who can recall what a godsend the program was during the bleak days of massive unemployment.
Originally from Cobden, Ill., Dallas couldn't find a job after graduating from high school. He enlisted in the CCC in 1939, just after turning 18. During his two years in the CCC, when he was based at camps in Galesburg and, later, in Quincy, Dallas worked on various soil-conservation projects.
"I built dams, strung fences, did contour farming and other soil-erosion projects" Dallas says. Two major jobs that stick out in his memory are the construction of dams and lakes in Cameron and Galva, both near Galesburg.
Though the federal government subsidized CCC labor, farmers who had work done on their property had to pay for materials, Dallas says.
Today, the 83-year-old Dallas serves as an archivist for the 4,500-member National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni, which has a headquarters and museum near St. Louis.
Dallas recalls that the CCC was modeled on the military, minus the guns. Enlistees wore uniforms left over from the Great War, were stationed in military-style barracks, and were even supervised by military brass. The CCC men didn't have to march or drill, but they stood at attention while the flag was lowered in the evening, Dallas says.
Enlistees had to be single and between the ages of 18 and 24 when they enlisted. They served six-month stints for a maximum of two years. Most who joined were assigned to a CCC camp away from home.
Those who served each earned $30 a month -- the worker kept $5, and the remaining $25 was sent to his family. Thirty dollars was a lot of money back in the '30s. "A candy bar went for 3 cents, cigarettes for a nickel, and toothpaste for around 15 cents at the CCC canteen, and a trip to a local town to see a movie on the weekend cost 20 to 25 cents," Dallas says. In 1934, 200 men could be fed for $48.
Illinois was home to more than 140 CCC camps, from Rockford in the north to Camp Hutchins in the south. Cook County's Skokie Valley held 10 camps of 200 workers each -- one of the country's largest concentrations of camps, Dallas says. There, the CCC created the Skokie Lagoons, seven interconnected lagoons that remain popular with fisherman, boaters, bicyclists, and picnickers.
In southern Illinois, the CCC planted thousands of trees, installed telephone lines, and built recreational areas, picnic facilities, impoundments, roads, and trails. The CCC was critical in the development of Shawnee National Forest, which was created in 1933.
Today, Shawnee visitors can still see many of the projects built by the CCC, including the Trigg Observation Tower, which was built by CCC workers based at Camp Eddyville and is the last Forest Service tower still standing in the region. Workers also were responsible for the trail system at the Belle Smith Springs Recreation Area.
In 1938, the CCC began construction on Shawnee's Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, completed a dam two years later, and finished the recreation area in '41, the year the U.S. entered World War II. The area's scenic 25-acre lake and beautifully crafted stone walls at its beach complex are the handiwork of the CCC. At Camp Cadiz, which serves horseback riders and campers and provides access to the River to River backpack trail, visitors can find stone fireplaces that once were part of CCC barracks that housed workers at Pounds Hollow and other nearby projects.
Many of the state's parks were beneficiaries of the CCC, which built lodges and cabins at Giant City State Park, White Pines State Forest, Starved Rock State Park, and Pere Marquette State Park.
For seven years, a CCC camp was based near Petersburg to help with the reconstruction of New Salem Village. In Springfield, the CCC enlistees were stationed at Camp Lincoln beginning in 1934 and for five months at Cotton Hill Park at the new Lake Springfield. Four wooden buildings at Camp Lincoln are among the very last CCC barracks left in the country, and they are still being used for Illinois National Guard activities and housing.
On your next trip through the state, stop by one of the state-park lodges, visit one of the recreation areas in the national forest, or stroll through New Salem State Historic Site. You'll appreciate the legacy the CCC left for future generations.
The end of the CCC came in 1942, when Congress failed to appropriate additional money.
By then, a costlier government program had replaced it, one that took the nation's men and women to camps on foreign shores.
For more information, contact or visit the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni, 16 Hancock Ave., P.O. Box 16429, St. Louis, MO 63125; 314-487-8666; www.cccalumni.org.
A reunion of Company 1713 is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 3, at the CCC shelter at Roaring River State Park in Cassville, Mo.
By the numbers
During its brief existence, the Civilian Conservation Corps:
Restored 3,980 historic structures and developed more than 800 parks
Stocked more than 1 billion fish
Spent 4,827,426 man-days surveying and mapping millions of acres and hundreds of lakes
Built 46,854 bridges and 4,622 fish-rearing ponds
Installed 5,000 miles of water supply
Improved 3,462 beaches, transplanted 45 million trees and shrubs for landscaping, and planted more than 3 billion trees where forests had been logged and burned off
Spent 2,094,713 man-days razing undesirable structures and built 63,256 buildings, plus 8,045 wells and pump houses
Spent 6,000,258 man-days in the operation of tree nurseries
Built 7,622 impounding and large diversion dams
Erected 405,037 signs, markers, and monuments
Collected 13,632,415 pounds of hardwood-tree seeds and 875,970 bushels of evergreen cones
Developed 6,966 miles of wildlife streams
Built 28,087 miles of foot and horse trails, 8,304 foot and horse bridges, 32,419 wildlife shelters, 1,865 drinking fountains, 204 lodges and museums, 3,116 lookout towers, 27,191 miles of fence and 38,550 vehicle bridges
Source: National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni