“As long as you kept moving you were all right, but you were going nowhere,” recalls Jim Mitchell, who ran away from his Kenosha, Wisconsin home in winter 1933, when he was 17. “I remember the morning my Dad came home. 'I lost my job. I'm out of work,' he told mother. It was the first time I saw my father cry. Things went downhill. You lived off your relatives. You went to eat at grandma's and here and there until you hit rock bottom and went on relief. Everything closed in on me. I sat down and told myself, I'd lighten my parents' burden if I took off.
“The quickest and easiest way was to jump a train and go somewhere. We thought it was the magic carpet – the click of the rails – romance,” said Mitchell. Jim and a buddy Peter Lijinski – “Poke” – hopped freight trains across the Midwest. “You went on the road and exchanged one misery for another. You were always filthy and constantly hungry. You'd take whatever odd jobs you could. We did everything from mowing lawns to cleaning grease traps in restaurants. It was humiliating but sometimes you panhandled.
“Nothing was happening and there was no direction in your life. Sometimes you'd meet kids your age in town and start talking with them, I remember once I was cutting a lawn. I started talking to this perfectly nice girl and her mother called her away. Boy, that really hurt. I was as good as her or anyone else.
“I didn't want to live on the road. You had to do something with your life. You couldn't roam around like a damn dog eating out of garbage cans. That's about what you were, a damn dog roaming the road.”
Jim Mitchell and Poke typified the crisis of America's vagabond youth seen as so urgent and volatile by Franklin D. Roosevelt that on March 21, 1933, barely two weeks into his presidency, Roosevelt sent a message to Congress. It stated in part: “I propose to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I estimate that 250,000 men can be given temporary employment by early summer.”
Before the close of his first month in office, FDR signed an act creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in which unemployed and unmarried men between the ages of l8 and 25 were eligible to enroll. They were to be paid $30 a month, of which $25 was to be sent directly to their needy and dependent families.
The first camp was set up on April 17, 1933 -- just 12 days after the CCC was officially inaugurated. Two hundred CCC enrollees were trucked to “Camp Roosevelt” in the George Washington National Forest near Luray, Virginia to begin work under the supervision of the United States Forestry Service.
By early July, 250,000 young men were settled in 1,468 forest and park camps. They were supervised by 25,000 war veterans and 25,000 experienced woodsmen. In ten years, the CCC took two and a half million men from the ranks of the unemployed and put them to work planting 200,000,000 trees, building dams, fighting forest fires, clearing beaches and campgrounds.
At Lake City, Iowa, Mitchell and Poke ran into an army officer. They told him they were on the road and had just got work with a carnival. “That's no life for kids,” he said. “Why don't you join the CCC?”
Mitchell was inducted into Company 2616 stationed at Camp Norwood on the banks of the Wisconsin River, nine miles north of Merrill, Wisconsin.
“We were trucked from a railroad depot to our new home which consisted of a group of long, low buildings covered with tarpaper in a clearing in the pines. Little did we realize that this stark encampment was the haven thousands of boys like ourselves needed.
“There was a wonderful social mixture in the CCC. We lived 40 men to a barrack. Two bunks down there would be a farm kid who couldn’t read or write. If he got a letter from home, somebody read it to him. You could go up a couple more bunks and find a medical student who dropped out of the University of Wisconsin. Another boy’s father had an automobile dealership that went bust. Some kids were literally hoods from the cities.
“I found out what discipline was about. Captain Entringer who ran the camp held inspection
every morning. Your bunk had to be neat. You had to be able to bounce a quarter off your blanket. Your foot-locker had to be in a precise place. There had to be no dust on your shoes. If you failed inspection, when you got off work that day you would have extra duty. You’d work in the kitchen or chop wood until 10 o’clock.
“On a cold fall day in 1934, they sent our crew to work in a tamarack swamp. Our job was to drag 20-foot long tamarack logs out of the muck and mire of 500-year-old loon dung. The day started with our getting wet to our belt buckles and it never got any better. It was a messy, dirty business. We slogged back to camp that night bone-weary and whipped.
“As we passed the dispensary, Lt. Kuehl, the camp doctor, barked, 'You!' I looked at him and he nodded. 'Yes, you. Come here.'
“The last thing I wanted was a reaming from a shave-tail. I strutted over to him. ‘Yes, Sir,’ I said sullenly.
“He looked me over for a moment and then said in a concerned tone. 'Where are you working, son?' I told him.
“Our crew chief got a tongue-lashing for letting us work on the tamarack detail without hip boots. It was a solid lesson in comradeship and responsibility to your men. I remember thinking to myself, 'Thank God somebody cares about me.'”
Riding the rails in his early 20s, Texas-born Harry Keller occasionally found low-paying harvest jobs. Most of the time he had no work as he bummed his way around nine Western states. In 1933, Keller signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps and was sent to a CCC camp in the Tonto Basin near Globe, Arizona.
Nearsighted but without glasses, Keller’s first assignment was as powder man on a dynamiting crew, though he had never worked with explosives before. His job was to fill drilled holes with dynamite and ready it for blasting. He got the hang of it quickly enough or he might have ended his CCC days then and there. Headaches caused by exposure to dynamite later resulted in his being transferred to a less hazardous area.
Re-enlisting in the CCC year after year, Keller strung telephone poles across the Tonto Basin, repaired roads, built fish dams, planted trees and fought forest fires. He eventually became head chef at the camp feeding 175 to 200 young men and youths.
“I’d never cooked in my life. I wrote home to my mother asking her to tell me how to prepare this and that,” recalled Keller. He rose to be Mess Sergeant, a position he held for more than three of his eight years in the CCC.
“I was scared and worried before I joined the corps. The CCC taught me responsibility and gave me confidence. Never again did I worry about how I would survive.”
Arthur Hunevan’s parents were in danger of losing their home when he went into the CCC in Northern California. His wages helped them make the payments on their house. Besides alleviating the financial burden on Wallace Horton’s widowed mother, his year in the CCC taught him to understand and work with other people. “I learned that the world did not owe me a living. If I wanted to get ahead, I would have to earn it, said Horton. The former CCC-er went on to become a U.S.A.F. electronics engineer, whose career earned him the Air Force’s highest civilian award.
Runaway Jan van Heé’s self-esteem was “down to ground zero,” when he enlisted in the CCC. “I felt I was no good, unwanted, rotten, dumb, stupid. No one cared for me and no one ever would,” said Van Heé. After six months in the corps, he was made foreman of a fire-fighting unit with six youths. When the fire season ended, he was promoted to a position in the ranger’s office. “I was getting pats on the back. ‘He’s doing a good job,’ my officers said. I began to feel that I was worth something.”
Franklin Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” marched to many different drumbeats. In a personal memoir, Ernest Amundsen recalled being sent to a “spike” camp at West Yellowstone. “We worked on forest service roads. A dump truck hauled loads of gravel. Left-handed boys had to shovel on the right hand side and right handers on the left side. The boss did this with whatever tools we were using. I learned to use a shovel, ax, saw, pick and other tools left-handed. I also learned not to drink whiskey like you drink beer, and how to play poker and how not to play poker.”
Darwood Drake and other North Dakotan farm boys found themselves posted to a CCC camp at Locke, a small community in the heart of the Ozarks 30 miles from Ft. Smith, Arkansas. “We had to get used to the Southern drawl, the slower way of living, the grits and corn pone. We saw poverty-stricken families in ramshackle places with livestock running in and out of the shacks.” In this unlikely locale, inspired by one of the North Dakotans who could tap dance. Drake joined nine comrades in working up a “routine” for the camp show. “None of us was less than 160 pounds and several weighed over 200 pounds. It was a sight to see 10 uncoordinated men jumping up and down trying to tap to ‘The Sidewalks of New York.”
Not every recruit found a haven in the CCC. Weldon Keele signed up in Utah after graduating from high school in May 1935. He was assigned to a camp in Wood Cross, Utah, where he reported in time for supper. “I didn’t know that you had to put your dishes in one place and your knife, fork and spoon in another place for washing. A big, burly guy from Kentucky who was doing the dishes called me a dumb son-of-a-bitch and wanted to beat me up. I didn’t like the guys from the East. They were too rough-talking for me. I went back to my bunk, gathered up my belongings and headed for home.”
Nineteen-year-old George de Mars had become totally discouraged working on a farm for $25 a month in the summer and $3 a month in winter. In February 1933 he left Minnesota in below zero weather and rode the rails for four months. He was looking for work, but could find only menial jobs and was worse off. “Franklin Roosevelt was my all-time hero when he introduced the CCCs. The corps took a multitude of young men off the road and kept them on the straight and narrow. The pay was not great, but we had good food and clothing and comrades,” said de Mars who served 30 months in the Minnesota CCC. “We were under military discipline. When World War II came, we made good soldiers.”
With 300,000 enrollees a year, the CCC provided a way of leaving the road for thousands of young men in their teens and early twenties. In 1936, Howard Oxley, Director of CCC Camp Education reported that the previous year the corps had found jobs in private industry for 135,000 boys, about one-fourth of the total number in the camps.
To Jim Mitchell, the CCC was to “the poor man’s West Point.”
“We learned everything a West Pointer learned about duty, honor and obligations and got thirty bucks a month in the bargain. The CCC shaped my life which had had no direction. Back home I’d had no role models to measure my life again. In the corps there were well-educated fellows whose goals had been interrupted. I wanted to be like them and knew I had to get an education to do so.
“When I went back to finish high school, I had classmates of 13 who were pulling in A’s while I was struggling to get a C. I didn’t let it bother me because I wanted to get a hold on my life. I wanted to go to college though at the time I didn’t have a prayer. I didn’t let that bother me either. I knew I would get there somehow and I did.”– Jim Mitchell went on to study at Ripon
College, Wisconsin. After service in World War II, the GI Bill enabled him to earn a Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin. His professional life was spent in producing promotional films for the auto industry.
“The youth of those fateful years were taken from the steamy streets of cities in economic turmoil and from our ravaged farmlands. In the CCC camps we learned values that gave meaning to our lives. On the road you lived for yourself and to hell with everyone else. In the CCC you not only learned to live with other guys, you learned to work as a team. You learned to do a job and do it well. It gave you confidence when you started to become accepted by your peers and to fit in with them.
“You had three square meals a day with good food and a good place to sleep. On the road you spent all your time wondering about whether you were going to eat. If you worked it wasn’t useful work but just for food. To this day I can go and see parks that we built in the CCC. I can see trees that we planted. It’s a living legacy. You didn’t have a living legacy on the road.”
The story of Jim Mitchell and the desperate young men who joined the ranks of Franklin Roosevelt's “Tree Army” is recounted in Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys (published by Routledge, New York.)
[Photo credits: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; National Archives]