...in 1933, the first enrollees of the Massachusetts Civilian Conservation Corps arrived at Fort Devens in Ayer. They were soldiers in a peacetime army that, in the words of the men who served in it, "brought together two wasted resources, the young men and the land, in an effort to save both." The effort was a huge success, and the CCC was one of the most popular programs of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Over a period of nine years, nearly 100,000 Massachusetts men lived and worked in CCC camps spread across the state. The roads and trails, bridges and overlooks, picnic shelters and log cabins they built in the state's parks are the Triple C's living legacy in Massachusetts.
When the Democratic Party nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president in the summer of 1932, Roosevelt hinted that he had a plan to deal with the catastrophic unemployment and economic dislocation that the Great Depression had brought to the country. Long an advocate of conservation, Roosevelt envisioned a federally funded "conservation corps" that would rescue young men from bread lines and put them to work as a "tree army" and "soil soldiers."
Once in office, FDR acted quickly; one of his first proposals to Congress was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was initially designed for unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25; later any veteran could apply. It would eventually employ over 3,000,000 men, most of them city dwellers. CCC members received uniforms (World War I surplus khaki at first), training, food, lodging, and $30 a month. They were required to send $25 of their pay back home to help support their families; the other $5, spent locally, helped to revitalize the rural communities where the CCC work camps were located.
Young men who had languished without work or hope now replanted cut-over forests, fought pest infestations, stopped soil erosion, and battled forest fires. But the CCC's greatest legacy was the role it played in creating trails, roads, bridges, pavilions, and picnic grounds, many of which are still enjoyed by visitors to parks and recreations areas all across the country.
In Massachusetts the CCC fueled the vision and provided the manpower to develop the state's forest and park system. In the early 1900s, conservation efforts were still in their infancy. Mount Greylock and Wachusett Mountain State Reservations were established in 1898 and 1899 respectively, but the legislature did not create an agency to oversee state conservation and forest lands until 1919. Even then, the goal was simply to reclaim and reforest some of the millions of acres that had been cut over and abandoned as wasteland. By the beginning of the Depression, the Commonwealth had purchased about 100,000 acres of this land, but almost all of it was inaccessible to the public.
That changed dramatically with the arrival of the CCC. In the spring of 1932, Harold Cook, Chief Forester of Massachusetts, prepared plans and completed applications for seven camps. When he handed them in, he was told that the Bay State was slated for 31 camps."When I . . . informed the Department officials that we had to get ready for an invasion of 62,000 boys, they were astounded."
Just two weeks after Congress authorized the CCC, the first enrollees arrived at Fort Devens, an army base located 40 miles west of Boston.There the men were quickly processed, a procedure that began with a thorough medical exam and ended with assignment to a work camp. By July 6th 200 enrollees and 350 supervisors were at work in 31 camps scattered around the state.
Despite the fact that FDR had advocated for young black men to be included in the program, most of the men chosen to fill the recruitment quota, both in Massachusetts and nationally, were white. One historian of the CCC notes that "the efforts of blacks to gain equality of opportunity by securing leadership positions in the CCC were not very successful." In the peak years of CCC employment in Massachusetts, only one to four percent of the Corps' members were African American.
Each camp typically housed about 200 enrollees, who worked under the supervision of several "LEMs" or "locally experienced men" hired to teach city folk how to survive and work in the woods. Chief Forester Cook reported that "all concerned were dealing in most cases with not only under-nourished and under-developed boys, but boys who in the majority of cases had never known what it was to work." Indeed, many of the enrollees had little or no experience with the outdoors, and in the early months of the program, enrollees had literally to carve camps out of wilderness. They lived in tents with no indoor plumbing, running water, or electricity. In time, barracks and dining and recreation halls were built at the state's 51 camps.
Sometimes called "Roosevelt's tree army," the Massachusetts CCC planted over 12,000,000 trees on land that had been overcut for timber or cleared for now-abandoned pastures. It also improved existing forest stands by selective thinning and pruning, firefighting, and implementing pest and disease control measures.
"At the very outset," the men running the CCC "realized that there was no conflict between the use of trails for hiking and by fire trucks, nor was there any reason why ponds created for fire protection could not be used for fishing or other recreational purposes." The men built roads and bridges, and cut trails and scenic vistas on over 170,000 acres of state land. The CCC laid out picnic and camp grounds, beaches, and parking areas; constructed fireplaces, picnic shelters, log cabins, bathhouses, and created dams and ponds. The men used local materials to produce handcrafted structures of log and stone that add character and beauty to the parks to this day.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was so popular that when Roosevelt suggested cutting the program in 1938 to save money, there was a nationwide protest. He gave up the idea. However, as the United States began to emerge from the Depression and return to prosperity, the Corps played a less important role. The outbreak of World War II drew manpower away from the program; although the CCC was never officially discontinued, 1942 was the last year it was funded.
The CCC left a legacy of improved and restored natural resources across the nation. Individual corps members in Massachusetts sent over $20,000,000 home to help support their families. And together they built the foundation of today's state forests and parks.
Civilian Conservation Corps: Shaping the Forests and Parks of Massachusetts - A Statewide Survey of Civilian Conservation Corps Resources, by Shary Page Berg, (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, 2001).
Fifty Years a Forester, by Harold O. Cook (Massachusetts Forest and Park Association, 1961).
"Roosevelt's Tree Army: A Brief History of the Civilian Conservation Corps," by Fred E Leake and Ray S. Carter (National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni, 1983).
"The Start of the CCC in Massachusetts and the Role of Fort Devens," from The CCC in Massachusetts, 1933-1942: A Case Study by Gary J D'Entremont (Salem State College, 1998).