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Civilian Conservation Corps and Illinois State Parks

Although the Emergency Conservation Work Program popularly known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) started in 1933, the events that led to its formation started in the 1920s and culminated in the Great Depression of 1929- circa 1942. The "Roaring '20s" were years of tremendous prosperity for a small segment of society. Technological advances made possible production increases of about 32%, resulting in a flood of goods on the market and increased profit for factory owners. Unfortunately, the same period saw wage increases of only 8% for the average worker. The technological advances meant that as many as 200,000 workers lost their jobs to automatic or semiautomatic machinery. While the well-to-do were increasingly speculating on the stock market, the other three-quarters of the population were spending practically their entire salary on goods and services. Food, radios, clothes, and cars were increasingly being bought on credit, the workers "banking" on the continuity of their jobs. Indeed about 80% of Americans had no savings at all, while the elite 0.1% held over one-third of all savings and paid less and less taxes.

Even before the stock market crash of October 1929, the agricultural, mining, and energy enterprises were in trouble, and the smaller banks and financial institutions were failing at a rate of 600 per year--all forewarners of the Great Depression. Throughout the 1920s, the value of farmland dropped 30-40%. Severe droughts on the Great Plains in the early 1930s, coupled with migrating hordes of ravenous grasshoppers that stripped the fields and trees bare, caused tremendous dust storms and virtually halted all agricultural endeavors. By 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House, around 9,000 banks had failed, nearly 25% of the total labor force was unemployed, and nearly a million farmers had lost their land when banks foreclosed.

On his first day in office, President Roosevelt roughed out a plan to provide work to the nation's unemployed young men while simultaneously accomplishing much-needed conservation projects on public lands. In his address to Congress on March 21, 1933, the President projected that by early summer temporary employment would be provided to 250,000 young men, an additional 25,000 war veterans and citizens from the territories or Indian reservations, and, as needed, up to 25,000 local experienced men (any age or marital status). With the cooperation of the Department of Labor, the War Department, and the Veterans Administration, recruitment and mobilization of this new work force was achieved in just three months.

Initially, all unmarried, unemployed male citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 were eligible to apply for work as junior enrollees, with the stipulation that a substantial portion (between $22 to $25) of each man's basic $30 monthly allowance would be sent home to his dependent family. At its peak in 1935, when the age bracket for junior enrollees had been increased to between 17 and 28, pay for unskilled workers was $40, with $55 for skilled labor. In 1935, enrollment was just under 506,000 men, an increase of 115% over the previous six-month enrollment period. Additional men and women (of any age) employed in administration or advisory capacities swelled the ranks to a total of 565,000 persons in the CCC work force in 1935.

In addition to their cash stipend for the five-day workweek, the young men received three full meals a day, lodging, clothes, footwear, inoculations and other medical and dental care, and, at their option, vocational, academic, or recreational instruction.

At newly forming permanent camps the lodgings were mere tents, used until the locally hired help could construct more weatherproof buildings. In 1937, all new camp buildings were designed to be portable, a feature that greatly facilitated their removal and reuse during World War II. A large CCC camp would have at least 11 buildings, including: four barracks, a mess hall, recreation hall, infirmary, officers' quarters, garages, latrine, and shower building.

Many enrollees entered the six-month-long program malnourished and illiterate. The majority were inexperienced at or wholly ignorant of the fundamentals of the tasks ahead of them--tasks related to the reclamation of their natural and cultural heritage.