Is it Time in America for a New, New Deal? By Marjory Johnson Wood

IS IT TIME IN AMERICA FOR A NEW, NEW DEAL?
By Marjory Johnson Wood
9/11/2020 (Submitted to this website on July 7, 2023)

In 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected President. The following year, in late October,1929, the stock market crashed (the Great Crash), contributing to what came to be known as the Great Depression. During the 1932 election, running against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover’s scolding statements such as, “Any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish” failed to persuade voters to return him to office in the face of the difficulties and desperation of the Depression.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as the President of the United States from March 4,1933 until his death, early in his fourth term in office, on April 12, 1945. The Great Depression lasted throughout the 1930’s. FDR (as President Roosevelt was known) believed in the government’s social contract with its citizens. He believed in democracy, the economy, the land and the arts. All of these were addressed by the government programs of the New Deal, the first and most popular national recovery organization of which was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The President assigned Robert Fechner, a Boston labor leader, as the Director of the CCC. Rather than create a new department FDR directed four government departments to cooperate with Fechner to execute the major functions of creating the conservation program. These actions provided jobs to thousands of discouraged young men, idle through no fault of their own. An advisory council consisting of a representative from the departments of War, Interior, Agriculture and Labor worked with Fechner to develop the CCC program and put it into effect. It was a miracle of cooperation that I believe could and must be accomplished again today.

At home during this pandemic I began sorting storage boxes, some of which had been unopened since 1993 when my mother passed away. I discovered my father’s Memories of the Civilian Conservation Corps (1937) yearbook in one of the boxes. It has provided a small but meaningful window into some of the history and positive effects of FDR’s CCC program during the Great Depression. I’m pondering the applicability of just such a New Deal experiment to our current national and global crisis, the Pandemic of 2020, which echoes the human, governmental, social, and economic impacts of the Great Depression.

Minnesota became a state in 1858. My paternal Swedish grandparents, Minde and Nels Johnson, and their three daughters emigrated to Tower, Minnesota in 1903. Reports from early Swedish emigrants painted the American Midwest as an earthly paradise and praised American religious and political freedom and undreamed-of opportunities to better one’s condition. Nels worked for the railroad in Tower until 1904 when the family moved to their 100 acre homestead in Orr, Minnesota. My father, William Johnson, was born at the homestead on October 12, 1912. He was the youngest of the eight Johnson children. The homestead remains in the family today.

During his youth my father served as a proud member of the CCC. He was enrolled from 1933 to 1937. As I read his 1937 Yearbook I am transported back to the early 20th century during the Great Depression. It was a time of great human hardship, despair and chaos experienced by the citizens of the U.S. and many other countries around the world. This book provides me with a window to another time relaying many experiences my father and other young men had as CCC enrollees.

My father was a member of:
Company #723,
Side Camp Vermilion (S94)
Side Camp Angora (F29)
Cusson, Minnesota

Company 723 was organized at Fort Snelling on June 2, 1933, and opened its first camp, in Cusson, Minnesota that month. Company 723 also built two side camps, Angora (F29) and Vermilion (S94). Cusson was a company town platted by the Virginia Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1909 and operated as their headquarters until 1929, after which it was sold in its entirety to Nick Ofstad.

Company 723 operated the camp until it closed on October 30, 1941. Its assigned work area was Kabetogama State Forest. Enrollees also worked at the game food nursery at Gheen and, from 1935 to 1938, built the Orr roadside parking area on Pelican Lake, designed by landscape architect Arthur R. Nichols under the direction of a stonemason from International Falls. This roadside area is still active today. It is an example of a project that beautifies the roadside. Beautification of the nation’s roadsides and parks was a major conservation goal of the CCC.

Shortly before closing, officials described Cusson as an “outstanding CCC camp, rated by Army inspectors as the best camp in Minnesota during the past year.” Years after closure, on March 2, 1989, the four remaining shop buildings from the camp were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the beginning, ten “local experienced men” (LEM’s) were hired to train the new enrollees as woodsmen and workers. Initial work for the company was the construction of eight miles of new road. Work was frequently delayed that first summer by emergency calls for firefighters. The first few calls brought plenty of volunteers, but thereafter there had to be a draft each time a new fire call came in. The initial romance of “smoke eating” became an exhausting monotony as the duty, which included working on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, repeated through the summer. With the waning of the summer heat the fires gradually died out and the enrollees resumed a more normal weekly work schedule.

My father enrolled in the CCC in December, 1933 and arrived at Vermilion River Camp S94 on January 4, 1934. While in service he performed many assignments including: Company Shoemaker, Tool Ensign, Leader, Saw Machine Operator, Tractor Operations Leader, Tool Supply Sergeant, and State Toolman.

Camp life for my father and the other enrollees was far different from anything they had previously experienced. Many were away from home for the first time and were holding their first steady jobs. In the early years there were five applicants for every opening. Each candidate first was interviewed by the local selecting agency to determine his capacity to benefit from the CCC program. Next was passing the physical examination and two weeks of training at Fort Snelling. Then my father and other successful candidates took the oath of enrollment.

The enrollees worked under experienced foremen (LEM’s) and received on-the-job training. The basic cash allowance for all enrolled men was $30 a month. Almost every man sent $25 home each month to his family.

Life in a camp involved a close association with 200 other men of diverse backgrounds, skills and temperaments. It included good meals, hard work, a good sleep every night and a regular schedule. It had a profound effect on the millions of men who experienced it as their health and attitudes improved from the work, the activity and the comradery. The country benefited from their conservation work, their increased skills and from their strengthened outlook on life and living.

CCC camps looked and operated like military bases, not surprising since they were run by the U.S. Army. Each camp was composed of one company of approximately 200 men. Each camp was a self contained unit, a village. Enrollees quickly found nicknames for almost everything, including each other. They soon dubbed the army “Mother,” because it fed, clothed, disciplined and sheltered them. In many ways, this valuable training of so many young American men was a big factor in helping the United States fight and win World War II.

When enrollees came down with communicable illnesses such as strep throat, measles, or chicken pox, there were few ways to stop the disease from spreading. Often the best option was to quarantine the infected camp until the disease had run its course. Most CCC camps were quarantined at least once, and quarantine signs were posted telling outsiders not to enter.

In April 1934 company 723 received orders to move to the fairgrounds in New Caledonia, MN. They moved south and tented down some 400 miles from the woods of northern Minnesota.

Field work at the new camp was spent in rock quarries, building dams, terracing farms and planting trees. The men lived in tents and in October they put in smoking Sibley tent stoves (from the Civil War). The men withstood the smoke and cold of those primitive stoves somehow.

On November 1,1934 company 723 was on the move again. My father and his company embarked on another 400 mile ride from New Caledonia back to Orr, Minnesota in a convoy of 30 trucks. In my Dad’s yearbook it says, “There is not a man who took the 400 mile ride from New Caledonia to Orr in that convoy who will ever forget the extreme discomfort of riding open trucks that distance in the November weather we were blessed with.”

In January 1935, a new contingent of 135 rookies arrived in Orr by train. From Orr, in the midst of a 20 below winter night, they were then transported 21 miles to Camp 723 in trucks. It was a tough initiation to the northern camp for them. This new influx put the camp at 295 and men were sleeping all over camp. The school house and large recreation hall were crowded with cots. After the additional men arrived a side camp was opened at Crane Lake on King William’s Narrows and 50 men volunteered to isolate themselves 24 miles from the main camp for two months. According to my father’s CCC yearbook the camp was a beautiful spot and the enrollees seemed to enjoy their isolation.

On April 15, 1935, another thirty-six new enrollees joined the ranks and they stepped into what they thought was a sportsman’s paradise. The men began preparing fishing paraphernalia. Their hopes were short lived, though, since orders soon came to move again.

On May 1,1935 the camp’s equipment was all loaded on a special train at Orr. They embarked for their new destination in Lewiston, Minnesota 350 miles to the south. On May 2 the enrollees and their camp’s equipment arrived in Lewiston in the middle of a wet spring snowstorm and a muddy plowed field.

In October 1935, Company 723 moved again. This time the new location was about two blocks away to a new permanent camp that was under construction. The enrollees waded in deep mud at the new camp during the construction. The wiring was not completed for a month. The enrollees worked on their camp newspaper, read books and played pool illuminated by tallow candles. Said one of the men, “When the lights finally came we spent some weary hours scraping tallow off everything that a candle could possibly stand on.” With the coming of colder weather the coal burning stoves were a welcome change from the Sibley stoves and old wood burners previously used for heat in the barracks.

For holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, enrollees got special meals. Camp newspapers sometimes described them nostalgically as being like “mother used to prepare.” The Thanksgiving dinner in 1936 consisted of fruit punch, celery, olives, dill pickles, roast turkey and dressing, giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, asparagus tips, lettuce salad with French dressing, Parker House rolls with butter, banana, grapes, apples, nuts, candy, mince pie, pumpkin pie, Neapolitan ice cream, mints, wafers, and coffee. Liquor was not allowed in camps, though enrollees often got a bottle of beer with a holiday meal.

My father was discharged from Company 723 and the CCC on September 13, 1937 in Lewiston, Minnesota. His yearbook provided me with a deeper knowledge regarding the period of the Great Depression and how the President and his administration dared greatly and created a New Deal for the citizens of our country. It was a unique time in our nation’s history when the President, Congress and the agencies of the federal government cooperatively created the programs of the New Deal. These programs benefited all to rebuild the economy, natural environment, spirit and hope of the citizens of the U.S.

4,500 CCC camps were built in every state and some territories. Business recovery stimulation of more than $707,000,000 was spent across the country for manufactured goods, food stuff, automotive equipment, construction material and other articles needed in operation of the camps.

More than a hundred types of projects were executed by the CCC enrollees, including operations for forest regeneration and protection, flood control, irrigation and drainage, landscape, recreation, roadside beautification, wild-life and range conservation, soil erosion control and others.

Some specific work items completed by the enrollees were the following:
650,000 trees planted
45,000 miles of telephone lines built into national forest and park fire detection systems
40,000 miles of fire breaks opened in forest areas
2,202,000 check dams built in gullies to prevent erosion
32,500 acres of public campgrounds for recreational purposes
and many others …

In addition to new construction work they also maintained 91,000 miles of telephone lines, 30,000 miles of fire breaks and 163,000 miles of trails and roads.

An average of 51 camps a year were operated in Minnesota. Accomplishments in Minnesota included tree planting, fire fighting, lookout tower construction, recreational development, fish stocking in thousands of lakes and more. Over 86,000 men were enrolled in Minnesota during the era of the New Deal.

Each camp had their own newspaper. The national paper for the national CCC program was Happy Days, published weekly in Washington D.C.

As there are echoes of the Great Depression in this year’s Pandemic, there could be valuable approaches found for current times in the programs of the New Deal and the CCC. Here is an excerpt from David Brooks, a well-known opinion columnist for the New York Times:

We Need National Service. Now.
by David Brooks, May 7, 2020, NYTimes
“There is now a vast army of young people ready and yearning to serve their country. There are college graduates emerging into a workplace that has few jobs for them. There are more high school graduates who suddenly can’t afford college. There are college students who don’t want to return to a college experience. This is a passionate, idealistic generation that sees the emergency, wants to serve those around them and groans to live up to this moment.”
“Suddenly there is a wealth of work for them to do: contact tracing, sanitizing public places, bringing food to the hungry, supporting the elderly, taking temperature at public gathering spots, supporting local government agencies, tutoring elementary school students so they can make up for lost time.”

Perhaps it is time for the government of our country to use the tools of democracy to once again keep its social contract with its citizens!

PS: One discovery I made and took great delight in while doing research on the CCC was The Living New Deal. This is a modern organization focused on the history and lessons of the New Deal whose mission, in their words, “is three-fold: research, presentation and education. It begins with the historical work of uncovering the immense riches of New Deal public works. That research is then made available to all through digital mapping and a website that serves as a clearinghouse for information on the New Deal. And, finally, the information gained from our work is disseminated as widely as possible through newsletters, social media, written media, interviews, lectures and other public events.”

IS IT TIME IN AMERICA FOR A NEW, NEW DEAL?
By Marjory Johnson Wood
9/11/2020

In 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected President. The following year, in late October,1929, the stock market crashed (the Great Crash), contributing to what came to be known as the Great Depression. During the 1932 election, running against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover’s scolding statements such as, “Any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish” failed to persuade voters to return him to office in the face of the difficulties and desperation of the Depression.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as the President of the United States from March 4,1933 until his death, early in his fourth term in office, on April 12, 1945. The Great Depression lasted throughout the 1930’s. FDR (as President Roosevelt was known) believed in the government’s social contract with its citizens. He believed in democracy, the economy, the land and the arts. All of these were addressed by the government programs of the New Deal, the first and most popular national recovery organization of which was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The President assigned Robert Fechner, a Boston labor leader, as the Director of the CCC. Rather than create a new department FDR directed four government departments to cooperate with Fechner to execute the major functions of creating the conservation program. These actions provided jobs to thousands of discouraged young men, idle through no fault of their own. An advisory council consisting of a representative from the departments of War, Interior, Agriculture and Labor worked with Fechner to develop the CCC program and put it into effect. It was a miracle of cooperation that I believe could and must be accomplished again today.

At home during this pandemic I began sorting storage boxes, some of which had been unopened since 1993 when my mother passed away. I discovered my father’s Memories of the Civilian Conservation Corps (1937) yearbook in one of the boxes. It has provided a small but meaningful window into some of the history and positive effects of FDR’s CCC program during the Great Depression. I’m pondering the applicability of just such a New Deal experiment to our current national and global crisis, the Pandemic of 2020, which echoes the human, governmental, social, and economic impacts of the Great Depression.

Minnesota became a state in 1858. My paternal Swedish grandparents, Minde and Nels Johnson, and their three daughters emigrated to Tower, Minnesota in 1903. Reports from early Swedish emigrants painted the American Midwest as an earthly paradise and praised American religious and political freedom and undreamed-of opportunities to better one’s condition. Nels worked for the railroad in Tower until 1904 when the family moved to their 100 acre homestead in Orr, Minnesota. My father, William Johnson, was born at the homestead on October 12, 1912. He was the youngest of the eight Johnson children. The homestead remains in the family today.

During his youth my father served as a proud member of the CCC. He was enrolled from 1933 to 1937. As I read his 1937 Yearbook I am transported back to the early 20th century during the Great Depression. It was a time of great human hardship, despair and chaos experienced by the citizens of the U.S. and many other countries around the world. This book provides me with a window to another time relaying many experiences my father and other young men had as CCC enrollees.

My father was a member of:
Company #723,
Side Camp Vermilion (S94)
Side Camp Angora (F29)
Cusson, Minnesota

Company 723 was organized at Fort Snelling on June 2, 1933, and opened its first camp, in Cusson, Minnesota that month. Company 723 also built two side camps, Angora (F29) and Vermilion (S94). Cusson was a company town platted by the Virginia Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1909 and operated as their headquarters until 1929, after which it was sold in its entirety to Nick Ofstad.

Company 723 operated the camp until it closed on October 30, 1941. Its assigned work area was Kabetogama State Forest. Enrollees also worked at the game food nursery at Gheen and, from 1935 to 1938, built the Orr roadside parking area on Pelican Lake, designed by landscape architect Arthur R. Nichols under the direction of a stonemason from International Falls. This roadside area is still active today. It is an example of a project that beautifies the roadside. Beautification of the nation’s roadsides and parks was a major conservation goal of the CCC.

Shortly before closing, officials described Cusson as an “outstanding CCC camp, rated by Army inspectors as the best camp in Minnesota during the past year.” Years after closure, on March 2, 1989, the four remaining shop buildings from the camp were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the beginning, ten “local experienced men” (LEM’s) were hired to train the new enrollees as woodsmen and workers. Initial work for the company was the construction of eight miles of new road. Work was frequently delayed that first summer by emergency calls for firefighters. The first few calls brought plenty of volunteers, but thereafter there had to be a draft each time a new fire call came in. The initial romance of “smoke eating” became an exhausting monotony as the duty, which included working on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, repeated through the summer. With the waning of the summer heat the fires gradually died out and the enrollees resumed a more normal weekly work schedule.

My father enrolled in the CCC in December, 1933 and arrived at Vermilion River Camp S94 on January 4, 1934. While in service he performed many assignments including: Company Shoemaker, Tool Ensign, Leader, Saw Machine Operator, Tractor Operations Leader, Tool Supply Sergeant, and State Toolman.

Camp life for my father and the other enrollees was far different from anything they had previously experienced. Many were away from home for the first time and were holding their first steady jobs. In the early years there were five applicants for every opening. Each candidate first was interviewed by the local selecting agency to determine his capacity to benefit from the CCC program. Next was passing the physical examination and two weeks of training at Fort Snelling. Then my father and other successful candidates took the oath of enrollment.

The enrollees worked under experienced foremen (LEM’s) and received on-the-job training. The basic cash allowance for all enrolled men was $30 a month. Almost every man sent $25 home each month to his family.

Life in a camp involved a close association with 200 other men of diverse backgrounds, skills and temperaments. It included good meals, hard work, a good sleep every night and a regular schedule. It had a profound effect on the millions of men who experienced it as their health and attitudes improved from the work, the activity and the comradery. The country benefited from their conservation work, their increased skills and from their strengthened outlook on life and living.

CCC camps looked and operated like military bases, not surprising since they were run by the U.S. Army. Each camp was composed of one company of approximately 200 men. Each camp was a self contained unit, a village. Enrollees quickly found nicknames for almost everything, including each other. They soon dubbed the army “Mother,” because it fed, clothed, disciplined and sheltered them. In many ways, this valuable training of so many young American men was a big factor in helping the United States fight and win World War II.

When enrollees came down with communicable illnesses such as strep throat, measles, or chicken pox, there were few ways to stop the disease from spreading. Often the best option was to quarantine the infected camp until the disease had run its course. Most CCC camps were quarantined at least once, and quarantine signs were posted telling outsiders not to enter.

In April 1934 company 723 received orders to move to the fairgrounds in New Caledonia, MN. They moved south and tented down some 400 miles from the woods of northern Minnesota.

Field work at the new camp was spent in rock quarries, building dams, terracing farms and planting trees. The men lived in tents and in October they put in smoking Sibley tent stoves (from the Civil War). The men withstood the smoke and cold of those primitive stoves somehow.

On November 1,1934 company 723 was on the move again. My father and his company embarked on another 400 mile ride from New Caledonia back to Orr, Minnesota in a convoy of 30 trucks. In my Dad’s yearbook it says, “There is not a man who took the 400 mile ride from New Caledonia to Orr in that convoy who will ever forget the extreme discomfort of riding open trucks that distance in the November weather we were blessed with.”

In January 1935, a new contingent of 135 rookies arrived in Orr by train. From Orr, in the midst of a 20 below winter night, they were then transported 21 miles to Camp 723 in trucks. It was a tough initiation to the northern camp for them. This new influx put the camp at 295 and men were sleeping all over camp. The school house and large recreation hall were crowded with cots. After the additional men arrived a side camp was opened at Crane Lake on King William’s Narrows and 50 men volunteered to isolate themselves 24 miles from the main camp for two months. According to my father’s CCC yearbook the camp was a beautiful spot and the enrollees seemed to enjoy their isolation.

On April 15, 1935, another thirty-six new enrollees joined the ranks and they stepped into what they thought was a sportsman’s paradise. The men began preparing fishing paraphernalia. Their hopes were short lived, though, since orders soon came to move again.

On May 1,1935 the camp’s equipment was all loaded on a special train at Orr. They embarked for their new destination in Lewiston, Minnesota 350 miles to the south. On May 2 the enrollees and their camp’s equipment arrived in Lewiston in the middle of a wet spring snowstorm and a muddy plowed field.

In October 1935, Company 723 moved again. This time the new location was about two blocks away to a new permanent camp that was under construction. The enrollees waded in deep mud at the new camp during the construction. The wiring was not completed for a month. The enrollees worked on their camp newspaper, read books and played pool illuminated by tallow candles. Said one of the men, “When the lights finally came we spent some weary hours scraping tallow off everything that a candle could possibly stand on.” With the coming of colder weather the coal burning stoves were a welcome change from the Sibley stoves and old wood burners previously used for heat in the barracks.

For holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, enrollees got special meals. Camp newspapers sometimes described them nostalgically as being like “mother used to prepare.” The Thanksgiving dinner in 1936 consisted of fruit punch, celery, olives, dill pickles, roast turkey and dressing, giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, asparagus tips, lettuce salad with French dressing, Parker House rolls with butter, banana, grapes, apples, nuts, candy, mince pie, pumpkin pie, Neapolitan ice cream, mints, wafers, and coffee. Liquor was not allowed in camps, though enrollees often got a bottle of beer with a holiday meal.

My father was discharged from Company 723 and the CCC on September 13, 1937 in Lewiston, Minnesota. His yearbook provided me with a deeper knowledge regarding the period of the Great Depression and how the President and his administration dared greatly and created a New Deal for the citizens of our country. It was a unique time in our nation’s history when the President, Congress and the agencies of the federal government cooperatively created the programs of the New Deal. These programs benefited all to rebuild the economy, natural environment, spirit and hope of the citizens of the U.S.

4,500 CCC camps were built in every state and some territories. Business recovery stimulation of more than $707,000,000 was spent across the country for manufactured goods, food stuff, automotive equipment, construction material and other articles needed in operation of the camps.

More than a hundred types of projects were executed by the CCC enrollees, including operations for forest regeneration and protection, flood control, irrigation and drainage, landscape, recreation, roadside beautification, wild-life and range conservation, soil erosion control and others.

Some specific work items completed by the enrollees were the following:
650,000 trees planted
45,000 miles of telephone lines built into national forest and park fire detection systems
40,000 miles of fire breaks opened in forest areas
2,202,000 check dams built in gullies to prevent erosion
32,500 acres of public campgrounds for recreational purposes
and many others …

In addition to new construction work they also maintained 91,000 miles of telephone lines, 30,000 miles of fire breaks and 163,000 miles of trails and roads.

An average of 51 camps a year were operated in Minnesota. Accomplishments in Minnesota included tree planting, fire fighting, lookout tower construction, recreational development, fish stocking in thousands of lakes and more. Over 86,000 men were enrolled in Minnesota during the era of the New Deal.

Each camp had their own newspaper. The national paper for the national CCC program was Happy Days, published weekly in Washington D.C.

As there are echoes of the Great Depression in this year’s Pandemic, there could be valuable approaches found for current times in the programs of the New Deal and the CCC. Here is an excerpt from David Brooks, a well-known opinion columnist for the New York Times:

We Need National Service. Now.
by David Brooks, May 7, 2020, NYTimes
“There is now a vast army of young people ready and yearning to serve their country. There are college graduates emerging into a workplace that has few jobs for them. There are more high school graduates who suddenly can’t afford college. There are college students who don’t want to return to a college experience. This is a passionate, idealistic generation that sees the emergency, wants to serve those around them and groans to live up to this moment.”
“Suddenly there is a wealth of work for them to do: contact tracing, sanitizing public places, bringing food to the hungry, supporting the elderly, taking temperature at public gathering spots, supporting local government agencies, tutoring elementary school students so they can make up for lost time.”

Perhaps it is time for the government of our country to use the tools of democracy to once again keep its social contract with its citizens!

PS: One discovery I made and took great delight in while doing research on the CCC was The Living New Deal. This is a modern organization focused on the history and lessons of the New Deal whose mission, in their words, “is three-fold: research, presentation and education. It begins with the historical work of uncovering the immense riches of New Deal public works. That research is then made available to all through digital mapping and a website that serves as a clearinghouse for information on the New Deal. And, finally, the information gained from our work is disseminated as widely as possible through newsletters, social media, written media, interviews, lectures and other public events.”

One comment on “Is it Time in America for a New, New Deal? By Marjory Johnson Wood

  1. Dave Bergum

    Great Article, Marjory! I had several uncles in the CCC around Duluth, but I have only dim memories of their stories. I think we need more opportunities for citizens to engage in public service.

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