Robert Fechner (1876-1939)

Robert Fechner was the director of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) from 1933 through 1939. In this role, he supervised over two million formerly-jobless men, including young enrollees from around the country, veterans of World War I, and American Indians. Under Fechner’s leadership, the “CCC Boys” fought forest fires, improved hundreds of parks, planted billions of trees, stopped soil erosion across the country, and much more [1].

Fechner was born on March 22, 1876 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Charles and Virginia Fechner, and was raised in the towns of Macon and Griffin, Georgia. At age 16, Fechner started training to be a machinist and from 1896 to 1905 he worked throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America “on coffee plantations, in mines, and at metal smelters…” In 1898, Fechner became a private in the Second Georgia Volunteer Infantry; but the Spanish American War ended before the division saw action and the unit was deactivated. In 1902, Fechner married Clare L. Dickey. The couple had no children [2].

From 1905 to 1914, Fechner worked for the Georgia Central Railroad. Throughout these years, he was active in the labor movement: “He was a leader in the nine-hour movement of 1901 and again in the eight-hour movement of 1915.” In 1914, he assumed an executive position in the International Association of Machinists (now called the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) and subsequently became an expert in unions and management, lecturing at several universities [3].

Fechner gained a reputation as an “adept negotiator” and settled many labor disputes. This skill, along with President Roosevelt’s desire to placate organized labor’s concern over work-relief programs, led the president to put Fechner in charge of the CCC in 1933 (also, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt had personally interacted with Fechner during World War I era labor negotiations) [4]. A Vermont state forester who had worked with the CCC noted: “It was fortunate that Robert Fechner was selected as director. He had been a successful labor leader and had two objects in his mind in regard to the youths under his charge. These aims were to give employment to the youths and assistance to their families. His practical experience and knowledge of how to deal with people, and his ability to beat down proposals which varied from sections of the law as established by Congress, led to a very successful administration” [5].

But Fechner faced criticism for showing only a mild interest in bringing educational programs to the enrollees, opposing military training in the camps, and being reluctant to open up the CCC for African Americans (nevertheless, many African Americans served in the CCC and there were even some integrated camps) [6].

Robert Fechner died on January 31, 1939, at Walter Reed Hospital (Washington, DC), several weeks after having a heart attack. He was 63. Flags were flown at half-staff at the CCC camps, six enrolless served as his pallbearers, and President Roosevelt wrote the following to Fechner’s wife: “As director of the Civilian Conservation Corps he brought to the public service great administrative ability, vision, and indefatigable industry. His death is a loss to the CCC, and to the nation” [7].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981. (2) Mark C. Carnes, ed., American National Biography: Supplement 2, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 166-167. (3) “Robert Fechner, Head of CCC, Dies,” New York Times, December 31, 1939. (4) See note 2. (5) See note 1, p. 6. (6) See note 2. (7) See note 3.