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  • May 22nd, 2020

Bring back the CCC


by Joel. M. Vance 

It was the last worst time, or so we thought. The United States of America had united, more or less, after a Civil War that killed more young men than all the wars before or since combined. We had survived a worldwide flu pandemic that killed an estimated third of the world’s population and an estimated 675,000 Americans, young and old alike.


We had muddled through the frenzy of the Roaring T helped along by copious belts of bootleg booze so we could throw our money into an economy the bloated rich guys told us would never cease to grow. Invest, invest, and never quit the mindless pursuit of wealth instead of stashing a few bucks for a rainy day. But the rainy days quit coming, especially in agricultural parts of the country that relied on wet weather to water their economy


Now we were mired in an extended drought that lifted the middle part of the country in great clouds of dust which hot winds blew all the way to Washington DC, murking the sun and dramatically gaining the attention of Congress. In October 1929, that bloated economy collapsed like a punctured balloon and the country was mired, not only in a seemingly perennial dust storm, but also the muddy ruins of a once overstuffed economy. They called it, variously, the Dustbowl, the Dirty Thirties, and the Great Depression.


The Dustbowl was an added burden to the Great Depression. The middle of the country dried up in a decade long drought and repeated windstorms lifted soil it had taken millenniums to create. In the most memorable of those storms April 14,  1935 now called Black Sunday, an amount of dirt estimated to be as much as was dug to build the Panama Canal blew off the plains as far East as Congress. The result of all these dust storms was an epidemic of “dust pneumonia” that killed an estimated 7000 people, men, women and children. It wasn’t a pandemic, confined as it was to the United States, but it was yet another burden added to the enormous challenge of reviving a beleaguered country that faced a new president.


A quarter of the country’s work force was unemployed, some 15,000,000 workers. Almost half the banks in the country had failed. The last worst time had arrived. The time was ripe for dramatic action to keep the ship of state from sinking. It would take bipartisan action, Democrats and Republicans alike, to come up with solutions, not just to unemployment, but to put that dirt back where it belonged atop America’s breadbasket.


If ever a nation needed its Savior who could walk on water that time was it—and a Savior appeared, but he couldn’t walk on anything. He was confined to a wheelchair. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an unlikely Savior. Elected in 1932 to replace Herbert Hoover, a Republican whose best attribute was that he loved to fish so much he even wrote a charming book about it. But as the leader of the Republic he was a total disaster. So this crippled (by polio, at the time an unpreventable disease for which there would be no vaccine for more than two decades) savior became president faced with what a thinking person would call an insurmountable challenge.


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” FDR told the battered nation. It was a hard sell—the nationwas largely without hope and scared to death. What followed was a decade of the most progressive, unconventional, and imaginative legislation in the nation’s history. The programs that he devised, aided by what he called a brain trust, still exist today as the foundation of our society and the reason we have, until now, been considered the world’s leader in all things progressive and beneficial to the general welfare of the nation’s population.


A philosopher named George Santana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If you doubt the wisdom of those words, read the front page of any newspaper today. And then go back and read the dire history of the Great Depression and the associated Dustbowl.


Now, instead of Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration workers, armed with shovels and other weapons of construction, we have wannabe insurgents prancing through the Michigan State Capitol, armed with AK-47s, weapons of destruction. Instead of welcoming a modest salary in the interests of reconstructing a broken nation, these thugs threatened to shoot the state’s governor if she doesn’t open their beer joints so they can further soften their brains with booze.


If Donald J Trump had any vision beyond that of admiring his own image in a mirror, like the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (who could, nowadays, be Trump’s cabinet) who constantly asked her mirror, “mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” At which the mirror was supposed to answer that the Queen was, he would lobby to institute modern versions of many of the progressive programs instituted by FDR in the nineteen thirties. Instead, he lobbies insistently and aggressively to dismantle what ones of those programs still exist—think Social Security.


Most don’t know (I didn’t) that universal healthcare was supposed to be part of the original Social Security program in 1935. In 1938, but it got derailed by negotiation, Republican objection, and other political obstacles. FDR tried again in 1938 to include it in his program. “A comprehensive health program is required as an essential link in our national defenses against individual and social insecurity” he said. Once again Republican opposition shot down the proposal. As we all know, we still are waiting for universal healthcare. It took 20 years after Roosevelt’s death before President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law. And it was another 25 years before another Democrat, Barack Obama, signed into law the Affordable Care act which the Republicans have shot at ever since. It’s instructive to recognize that all three of these proposed or enacted healthcare programs have been championed by Democrats, and all three have been vigorously attacked by Republicans.


So we have Donald Trump, dedicated to dismantling virtually every one of those programs that grabbed the country by its bootstraps in the 1930s and hauled it out of the despair of depression and almost universal hopelessness. Trump has plunged America back into pre-depression days and now we are faced with a plunging economy, millions of American workers looking for jobs, and a pandemic unlike anything we’ve ever faced, including the 1918 flu epidemic.


The CCC and the WPA put America back to work at a time when the nation’s workforce was jobless. At its peak in the late nineteen thirties, the WPA offered jobs to 8,500,000 people—and, if my information is correct, that’s about half of the workforce currently jobless. And there were far fewer people in the country then. FDR created the WPA in 1935 and it lasted until 1943 when, like the CCC, it was bled dry by the necessity to send those employed in the two programs to war.


By the time the United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Depression was largely over and the booming wartime economy erased what lingering traces there were of the last worst time. Both programs were dedicated to exactly what is needed today to revive an economy tanking for some of the same reasons that plunged the country into depression in 1929. The WPA hired workers for public works, including building roads, bridges, schools and other public projects. Workers didn’t make much money, but it was better than no money at all. Among his many failed promises when he was elected three years ago, Donald Trump pledged to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. We’re still waiting for the beginning of any part of that promise.


Both the WPA and CCC were bipartisan projects, supported by Democrat and Republican alike. Unless you are very very old you do not remember the beginning and all too short but incredibly productive life of the CCC. Even I, who is older than television and either one of the callow youths vying for the presidency this November, do not remember when Franklin Delano Roosevelt fathered the CCC in 1933, an extension of an idea he began as governor of New York before he became president in 1932. But, the chances are pretty good that you have experienced the legacy of the CCC at some time in your life, especially if you are an outdoor oriented person.


Those enduring lodges, cabins, and other state park facilities you have enjoyed, those trails you have hiked, often were built by the CCC workers over the nine year history of the program.


Overlooked and often forgotten amid the deluge of progressive legislation that hauled America out of the despond of depression is the role of FDR in wildlife conservation. Before his death in 1945, FDR had overseen the creation of 150 National Wildlife Refuges—the largest such system in the world. In 1934, the year that I was born, FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting in Conservation stamp act. We know it today as the duck stamp, funds from which have bought and maintained the nation’s national wildlife refuges for more than 80 years.


Much of the work in the early years of the refuge system fell to the CCC which built water control structures, access roads, buildings and trails, picnic and viewing areas and other facilities to serve the public, as well as migratory wildlife. I’ve spent many hours on Missouri’s several national wildlife refuges— hunting geese at Swan Lake, bicycling at Squaw Creek, and searching for state record trees in the swamps at Mingo Refuge in Southeast Missouri.


As if that were not conservation legacy enough, FDR in 1935 established the Soil Conservation act, aimed at stopping dustbowl erosion and beginning the long process of reclaiming the Great Plains from the Dirty Thirties. From that act came the Soil Conservation Service (SCS which today is the ASCS). One comment summed the problem up, “sailors 300 miles off the Atlantic coast often needed to sweep Kansas soil from the decks of the ship.” The CCC quickly became involved planting shelter belts totaling more than 200,000,000 trees as windbreaks. Many were Osage Orange, providing wonderful shelter for quail coveys (I speak from personal experience, having hunted the remaining windbreaks for years). Sadly, modern farming has resulted in many if not most of those shelter belts being ripped up to make way for a few more yards of row crop farming.


We will never know the misery of the Dirty Thirties unless, God forbid , we endure a second Dustbowl. FDR said, “I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves.  For what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on 50 acres.”


In 1937, FDR’s administration established the National Grasslands, located in 13 states, covering more than 3,000,000 acres. Slowly, those acres regained some of the historic grandeur they had enjoyed before drought and the plow turned them to useless dust. The contrast between those restored grassland acres and, even today, overgrazed adjacent acreage often is stark and a continual reminder that natural landscape devastation is just around the corner if we don’t take heed.  Just one day of hiking a national grassland, chasing sharp tailed grouse or prairie chickens should be enough to convince any doubter of the value of undisturbed native grass prairie.


We seriously need a new New Deal and we’re not going to find it under Donald Trump whose whole administration is dedicated to destroying the legacy of the original New Deal. Take the AK-47s out of the grimy hands of the so-called “protesters” who are not in any way protesting anything but their supposed right to do as they damn well please, never mind the law and common morality, and put them to work. Let them rebuild the bridges, the deteriorating roadways, and other public works projects necessary for the common good. Maybe a year or two of mandated public service will cure them of their selfish, stupid, narrow minded, bigot laden attitudes.


Woody Guthrie, balladeer of the Dustbowl wrote this “you could see that dust storm and the cloud looked deathlike black/ and through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.” Guthrie would go on to write the enduring anthem of hope and celebration for the United States of America:


 “this land is your land/

this land is my land/

This land was made for you and me.”







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  1. Paul F. Vang

    May 22nd, 2020 at 9:14 am


    It was the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the Dirty Thirties all at once. My mother, a young housewife and mother in the ’30s in southern Minnesota, told of the dust storms blowing in from the plains to the relatively lush and green farmlands. Still, there were a number of CCD projects in southern Minnesota. In more recent years, I was in a morning coffee group and in the group was Howie, who told of being in the CCCs during the ’30s. they were paid a pittance salary and most of that was sent home to his parents, and it was a big part of their survival of the Depression. Many of the CCC camps were run by Army personnel, so the camps were a good introduction to military life. It was a pretty quick transition from CCC boy to active duty Army. He had a lot of great memories of the CCC days.

  2. Julia Bentley Gaw

    May 22nd, 2020 at 12:58 pm


    A great read, sad as it is to admit we’ve come this low. Your research and words are right on target as always. Thanks, Joel, for always giving us that straight as an arrow shot!

  3. Carrie J DeValk

    May 22nd, 2020 at 2:23 pm


    Send this to Joe Biden! It could be one of his platform initiatives.

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