The Lost Artworks of the Civilian Conservation Corps

L to R - B.T. Jones, Park Interpreter, Wally Scherrey, Park Superintendent; Richard Davies, Executive Director Arkansas Parks and Tourism (Davies’ grandfather directed the park’s CCC camp); Kathleen Duxbury; Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter; and Gardner Yeaw.

“Section of the Lodge” and “View From the Lodge” by CCC artist George Gordon Snyder were recently returned to Petit Jean State Park in Morrilton, Ark.
L to R – B.T. Jones, Park Interpreter, Wally Scherrey, Park Superintendent; Richard Davies, Executive Director Arkansas Parks and Tourism (Davies’ grandfather directed the park’s CCC camp); Kathleen Duxbury; Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter; and Gardner Yeaw.Courtesy Kathleen Duxbury

In 2005, thirty years after the death of my father, George Duxbury, his treasured photo albums resurfaced; fragile books containing a photographic record made during his 1938-1941 service in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in New York, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

The location of my father’s first CCC camp, as luck would have it, was three hours away, at Gilbert Lake State Park in the Catskill Mountains—a park created by CCC labor that also had a campground and CCC museum. Believing all my CCC questions would be answered, my husband, Gardner Yeaw, and I loaded our recently purchased 1978 Bluebird Wanderlodge motor home, hooked up our tow vehicle, packed the albums, and set out for Laurens, New York on our maiden voyage.

"Sixteen Tons" passing through Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower National Monument

"Sixteen Tons" passing through Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower National Monument
Kathleen and Gardner have journeyed 80,000-mile (and counting) to discover CCC Artworks.
Photo Credit: Kathleen Duxbury

We were impressed by our first visit to a CCC-planted forest and park, but surprised to learn that the Hartwick CCC camp where my father had lived was long forgotten. It was suggested we visit the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

What began as a quest to learn more about my father and the CCC may have remained at an uncomplicated level had it not been for the discovery of a candid black-and-white photograph of a young artist taken at a New York Adirondack CCC camp.

His name was Hans Held and the chance discovery of his portrait, along with his 28-foot CCC mural we later found displayed at the Adirondack Museum, would dramatically change the focus and direction of our research travels and introduce us to a quiet part of American art history—the CCC art project.

Brandon served with the CCC at Sibley State Park in New London, Minn. Kathleen found this ink drawing, published 1937 in the CCC newspaper, Happy Days. The original has not been located.

“Progress Through the CCC,” by Arthur Brandon
Brandon served with the CCC at Sibley State Park in New London, Minn. Kathleen found this ink drawing, published 1937 in the CCC newspaper, Happy Days. The original has not been located.
Photo Credit: Kathleen Duxbury

Begun under the Public Works of Art program (PWAP) and lasting from 1934–1937, the CCC art program was administered by a special section within the Treasury Department. Some 300 young artists were sent to CCC camps around the country to make a pictorial record of life and work in the Corps, considered the greatest conservation movement in American history. Artists were instructed to send their watercolors, oils, drawings and sculptures to Washington D.C. The Treasury Department allocated the art to various government agencies, federal buildings, including Congressional offices, schools, and CCC camps for display.

Over the years many works were removed to storage and forgotten; others went missing. Some remained in place but lost their provenance as part of the legacy of the CCC.

Fitzgerald served with CCC Co. #935 at Point Defiance State Park, Tacoma, Wash. This watercolor is now part of the FDR Library and Museum collection.

“Sunlight In the Timber,” by Edmund James Fitzgerald, 1935
Fitzgerald served with CCC Co. #935 at Point Defiance State Park, Tacoma, Wash. This watercolor is now part of the FDR Library and Museum collection.Courtesy of FDR Library

Hoping that these artworks might be identified and appreciated by the public has led Gardner and me on an 80,000-mile road trip through the lower 48 states. Our research is focused on creating a readable and accurate record of the program and artists, and tracking down CCC artworks. Happily, circumstances at times have aligned to allow for the proper identification, procurement, recognition, and public display of several pieces.

We are fortunate and extremely grateful to the many archives, museums, universities, libraries, societies, clubs, organizations, other researchers, CCC artists’ families, and many wonderful people who share our appreciation and quest for knowledge of this little known New Deal art program. Our hope is that any and all CCC art will be protected, treasured, and valued for the history it depicts and ultimately be publicly displayed. This would honor what was clearly the original intent when this quiet part of American art history, the CCC art program, was personally approved by President Roosevelt.

Book Review: Nature’s New Deal

Nature’s New Deal Nature’s New Deal makes the connection between conservation and politics in the U.S., using the Civilian Conservation Corps as the sturdy bridge between them.

Maher traces the competing visions that shaped American conservation—one advanced by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service who advocated the “wise use” of natural resources, and the other by John Muir, who argued for nature’s preservation for the enjoyment and spiritual refreshment of the American public. Pinchot, whose influence spanned both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s presidencies, ultimately prevailed, commercializing the nation’s public lands.

Mahler finds the roots of the CCC at Springwood, the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, New York.  A self-proclaimed tree lover, FDR reforested his family lands, though his motivation was economic not ecological. FDR admired the Boy Scouts and considered outdoor labor the path to strength and character. As governor of New York, FDR added cutover private land to the state forest system and launched the Temporary Employment Relief Administration (TERA) to hire unemployed youth to plant trees. Improving the productivity of both land and people would be his call for establishing the CCC when he became president in 1933.  Congress heartily agreed, appropriating funds for the CCC, though not establishing it as a permanent agency.

The program was soon wildly popular with the public. Besides reforesting public lands, the CCC was called upon when floods, wildfires, and the Dust Bowl added to the misery of the Great Depression. By 1935, the CCC employed more than a half million men in 2,900 camps. Many went on to careers in public land management.

Maher describes how FDR strategically deployed the Corps to advance his New Deal agenda—setting up camps in Republican strongholds, creating local jobs, and repairing farmers’ ruined land. In 1936 FDR was reelected in a landslide, even winning the home state of his challenger, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.

By the late 1930s, the Corps had turned to developing the nation’s parks—constructing roads and recreation facilities, draining marshes, and extirpating tens of thousands of predators in the name of more game for sport hunters. It was this zealous domestication of America’s wildlands, Mahler claims, which raised concerns about wilderness preservation and ecological wholeness that led to the modern environmental movement.

This is a lively read for those interested in American conservation and the powerful role of the CCC—and by extension, the New Deal—on Americans’ lives and landscape.

Reviewed by: Susan Ives is a communications consultant and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

“Just the way society was.” Segregation in the CCC

CCC Boxing Team at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.

CCC Boxing Team
CCC Boxing Team at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was born of pure and progressive intentions: employment for young men, conservation work on public lands, and nondiscrimination. Illinois Representative Oscar DePriest, the only black member of Congress at the time, made sure that the 1933 legislation that established the CCC banned discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.”

During the decade it was active, the CCC succeeded in many ways. It put three million men to work, planted over three billion trees, and restored America’s parks and public lands. But it strayed far from its commitment to inclusion. In terms of racial integration and equality, the CCC represents one of the biggest missed opportunities of the New Deal.

Photo taken at Marsh Field barracks shows that some CCC camps were racially integrated.

CCC boys at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.
Photo taken at Marsh Field barracks shows that some CCC camps were racially integrated.

The U.S. Army controlled CCC camp administration and operations, and its policy of racial segregation transferred easily to the new civilian workforce. Most of the CCC’s quarter million African-American enrollees served in segregated companies and were unable to attain positions of authority. Some Southern states categorically excluded blacks, arguing that they were needed for growing and harvesting cotton. There were a few mixed camps in states with smaller African- American populations like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but these were the exception.

Black and white CCC enrollees lived and worked together in Berkeley, California

Clearing land at Tilden Park, Berkeley, Calif.
Black and white CCC enrollees lived and worked together in Berkeley, California

“Historian Olen Cole, Jr. and others note that integrated camps existed outside the South in the early years of the CCC. In some areas, however, negative reactions from neighboring communities triggered separation of blacks and whites.”

Black enrollment in the CCC was capped at ten percent of total recruits–roughly equivalent to the proportion of blacks in the U.S. in 1930, but nowhere near proportional to the number of blacks eligible for relief during the Depression. Thousands were turned away.

CCC workers load pinecones into drying shed near Olustee, Florida, where Willie O'Neal (quoted in this article) was stationed. 1938. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

CCC workers, Olustee, Fla.
CCC workers load pinecones into drying shed near Olustee, Florida, where Willie O’Neal (quoted in this article) was stationed. 1938. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Robert Fechner, director of the CCC, defended the quotas, extending Jim Crow to the new agency. “I am satisfied that the negro enrollees themselves prefer to be in companies composed exclusively of their own race…This segregation is not discrimination and cannot be so construed. The negro companies are assigned to the same types of work, have identical equipment, are served the same food, and have the same quarters as white enrollees.” It would be twenty years before the “separate by equal” doctrine would be overturned by the Supreme Court, in Brown v Board of Education.

In 2000, as part of an oral history project Willie O’Neal, an African American CCC enrollee in Florida, described segregation in the Corps as “just the norm of being black or white…that was just the way society was.”

The work completed by the black camps was at times particularly poignant. At Gettysburg Military Park, two black companies were assigned to refurbish Confederate and Union monuments to the fallen. Historian Joseph Speakman notes, “No one recorded the sentiments of the young black men, some of them possibly the grandchildren of…slaves, who had done this refurbishing work on behalf of Confederate veterans.”

CCC Company 893 in Pineland, Texas, shows African American members of this "mixed" camp to the far right of the photograph. 1933. Credit: Connie Ford McCann, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

CCC camp in Pineland, Tex.
CCC Company 893 in Pineland, Texas, shows African American members of this “mixed” camp to the far right of the photograph. 1933. Credit: Connie Ford McCann, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

Speakman, along with other historians, have argued that the CCC failed to live up to its original commitment. Indeed, the restriction on black involvement is often forgotten in New Deal history. Had the CCC stuck to DePriest’s intention perhaps we could measure the success of the CCC not only in trees planted or miles of road built, but in strides toward racial equality.

Fullersburg Forest Preserve and Graue Mill Improvements – Oak Brook IL

In 1933, a troop of men from the Civilian Conservation Corps troop V-1668, made up of veterans, started building what would become the Fullersburg Forest Preserve. The men built a caretakers cottage (Old Water Mill), a boathouse, bridges, and picnic shelters at the site. They also renovated a mill located at the site. The work in the park was largely finished by 1936 (Du Page Clerk), and by 1937 the historic Graue Mill, originally built in 1852, was functioning as an educational facility for the community (Sweet).

The oldest standing part of the Fullersburg Forest Preserve is the Graue Mill. The mill was built in 1852, and was handed down through generations of the Graue family as they produced flour and cornmeal (Graue Mill and Museum). According to the Graue Museum that currently stands inside the mill, it actually served as part of the Underground Railroad during the civil war (Graue Museum). After years of heavy use up through the early 1900’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps troop V-1668 was dispatched in 1934 to begin renovations of the mill (Old Water Mill).

Today, a museum stands in the Graue Mill. Inside are many artifacts from the 1800’s, with scenes frozen in time. In the basement is a hidden away treasure trove with information on the Underground Railroad, and maps pointing out which areas of Chicagoland were also a part of the secret movement. There are also demonstrations and educational community events (Graue Mill and Museum) (Welcome).

The impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps work is also evident on the Fullersburg woods. Upon entry, the biggest structure you see is the original boathouse built by the camp in the 1930’s. It now serves as a nature education center. All of the benches have recently been redone with fresh wood due to deterioration since the 1930’s, and the bridges have been renovated since the CCC’s work. While the picnic pavilions have been renovated as well, they are still reminiscent of the work of the 1930’s. Most retain the original CCC stonework bases and have preserved the original designs regardless (Thompson).

This New Deal project served to preserve the past and conserve wildlife. As written in the Chicago Daily Tribune in February 1937, the historic mill boosted interest in the area historical society. The Fullersburg woods serve as a recreational and educational outlet, some parts of which look frozen in time (Sweet).

Building for the Birds

1938 Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge entrance

1938 Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge entrance
Sacramento, CA 1938

The Civilian Conservation Corps was envisioned as a peacetime army to put young men to work preserving the nation’s forests and wildlife. When Congress approved funding in 1934 to add eight million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System, the CCC spread out across the country to build it.  In May 1937, two hundred CCC enrollees arrived in California to start construction of the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

The goal was to provide habitat for migratory birds and wildlife on 10,700 acres of failed farmland in the Central Valley. The Bureau of Biological Survey—later renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—oversaw the work. As it was the Biological Survey’s second wildlife refuge, the CCC camp was named BS-2.

People Power

People Power
Men raise a telephone poll by hand.

Heavy equipment was in short supply that first summer and much of the work was done by pick and shovel. The men restored some ranch buildings for offices, and demolished others using the salvaged materials for camp repairs and project work. Mosquito bitten, sunburned, and dust-choked, the men worked year round constructing levees, dikes, and jetties; laying pipe; and clearing creeks, channels, and drains to create wetlands for the refuge. They planted rice and millet within the refuge in order to keep the waterfowl from feeding on nearby farmland.

In summer, CCC crews fought wildfires in the surrounding foothills and mountains. In bad winters, they helped sandbag against flooding in the small towns along the Sacramento River some ten miles east.

Snow Geese at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

Snow Geese at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge
at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

While few camp buildings survive, a 100-foot tower built as a fire lookout still stands today. Biologists likely used the tower when they tallied 36,000 ducks and 72,000 geese on the refuge in December 1937. In December 1938 more than a million birds were counted.

Today, the site of CCC camp BS-2 serves as the headquarters of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The present pond system and many dikes and roadways are products of the summer of 1937. The refuge welcomes some 250 species of birds, hundreds of thousands of wintering waterfowl, and 75,000 visitors annually.

The headquarters area is eligible for designation as a National Historic District, but there’s currently no funding to preserve the structures to Historic District guidelines.

What the CCC Build at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge:
–    52 water control and road structures
–    1 diversion dam
–    1 combined bridge and dam
–    16 miles of refuge roads
–    10 miles of fence
–    Manager’s residence and garage
–    Labor patrolman’s cabin
–    Equipment storage shed
–    Service Building
–    Water tank
–    Lookout tower
–    Refuge office
–    Barn
–    Duck hospital
–    Grain bins
–    Flag pole
–    Miles of dikes
–    Numerous nesting and resting islands
–    Farmland producing feed for wildlife
–    Entrance and location signs

With thanks to Lora Haller, Visitor Services Manager at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

The Moral Equivalent: Redefining the Warrior Spirit

CCC Men

CCC Men
Fighting Fires

Our National Forests, no less than their infrastructure, are a mess after decades of neglect. The Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park last summer made that abundantly clear as it burned over 400 square miles of the Sierra Nevada flank — the largest wildfire in California history — after similar monster wildfires decimated Colorado’s Front Range.

During this fiery summer, Columbia University professor Mark Mazower published an essay in the Financial Times titled “The West Needs A Replacement of the Warrior Spirit“. Mazower seemed to rue the loss of the civic virtue and egalitarian camaraderie that, he asserts, linked warfare in the 20th century to the kind of welfare typified by Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The problem of how a nation sustains political unity in the absence of an external enemy also vexed the American psychologist and philosopher William James, especially once advanced weaponry made it possible for war to erase entire cities, nations, and ultimately the planet. James’s answer was more definitive than Mazower’s rhetorical question “where is the heroism, or the warrior spirit, in wielding a joystick?”

CCC Men
in front of barracks, 1933

In his influential 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” based on a talk he delivered at Stanford University, James recommended that in place of military conscription the U.S. should adopt a “conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”

Many feel that James’s essay played a role in FDR’s advocacy for and creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Less adversarial in its approach to nature than James, the C’s were known as Roosevelt’s Tree Army, not only for the forests and wind breaks they planted but for the extent to which three million young men manually managed existing stands of trees; repaired and stocked streams; countered flooding and erosion; constructed fire look outs, and served on fire crews.

Roosevelt and others in his administration often likened the New Deal to a war against want, a battle that constructed rather than destroyed communities and land while it built the self respect of the men and women it employed.

CCC Worker Statue
photo: Creative Commons

 

When I read the accounts of CCC vets, I am as struck by the pride and gratitude they carried throughout their lives as a result of their service as I am by their superb craftsmanship in our national and state parks.

That was the constructive surrogate for the warrior spirit of the past that our forests — and our youth — cry out for today.