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The Nation

CCC Leaves a Legacy of Hope, Beauty

Begun by FDR during the Depression, the program built roads and national parks while shaping the lives of the men who participated.

May 25, 2003|Sue Major Holmes | Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Civilian Conservation Corps introduced Carl Walker of Santa Fe to a way of life that became his career.

Procopio Martinez says the $25 the CCC sent to his family each month kept their home.

For Vicente Ximenes, the hard work enlightened him to the importance of an education.

The CCC, which was formed 70 years ago this spring, lasted nine years, during which its workers built roads, trails and small dams, fought forest fires, cleared land for farms, arrested erosion on 20 million acres, planted 3 billion trees and started many of today's parks.

Just as important, it put 3 million men to work during the Depression. "Most of them considered this the turning point in their lives; it was that significant for them," said Richard Melzer, author of "Coming of Age in the Great Depression: The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in New Mexico, 1933-42."

The workers earned $30 a month -- $25 of it sent home. The program fed and housed men in camps organized by the Army, and helped countless towns by buying food and supplies locally.

The program came into being when newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt called an emergency session of Congress, which passed the measure within days. He signed it on March 31, 1933. (At the time, presidents were inaugurated in March, not January.) An improving economy and World War II ended the CCC in 1942.

Many former members joined the military during the war, Melzer said. The CCC gave them good food and medical care, and taught them how to take orders, work hard and live in barracks, so they adjusted to military life with relative ease, he said.

"In short, the CCC prepared the generation that fought World War II in ways that would have been impossible, especially during a depression like we faced in the 1930s," said Melzer, who teaches history at the University of New Mexico Valencia branch.

Ximenes of Albuquerque is bothered by the fact that the CCC is largely forgotten today even though its work remains in plain sight. Among their prominent New Mexico projects, CCC men built the rock work still seen around Elephant Butte Dam; the National Park Service headquarters in Santa Fe, the largest adobe building in existence; the now-historic buildings and trails throughout Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and 31 pueblo revival-style structures around Bandelier National Monument.

In California, CCC projects included construction of fire lookouts in Southern California forests, facilities in the San Dimas Experimental Forest and a water supply system for Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

The CCC "was the greatest congregation of people in peacetime doing public work, and people don't know about it," Ximenes said.

Ximenes graduated from high school in Floresville, Texas, with little hope for a job. His family of seven -- not including grandparents and an uncle's family -- was having trouble getting enough food even though his father worked.

A working family member disqualified Ximenes for the CCC, but he explained about his large family to then-Rep. Lyndon Johnson. The future president's recommendation got him in.

His first job was digging out mesquite for a pasture.

"It was one of the hardest jobs in the world," said Ximenes, 84. "You had to dig it out with grubbing hoe and get all the roots out or the mesquite came back. That was one of biggest motivators in my life to go back to school."

The camp commander posted a notice seeking a typist, and Ximenes stayed up at night to practice typing at the camp school. He got the job.

After leaving the CCC, he graduated from the University of New Mexico as an economist. Eventually, he went to the White House as an aide to Johnson and an Equal Employment Opportunity commissioner. He credits the CCC with teaching him about human nature.

"In the final analysis, it goes back to the work with the CCC. There were people who were in need, people who had differences, people who had problems, but also who had skills and intelligence just like everyone else," Ximenes said.

Martinez tried for a year to join the CCC but was turned away because his father worked.

"What people couldn't understand, couldn't see, was there were 13 members of my family, including my grandmother and her brother," he said.

In desperation, he wrote New Mexico Gov. Clyde K. Tingley. Three days later, Martinez was on his way to a CCC camp that built roads in the Manzano Mountains.

"I was 17 years old and had never been away from my parents' home," he said.

He stayed in for 26 months, got out for a few months and rejoined. This time, he was assigned to a carpentry crew at Bandelier. Eventually, carpentry became his career.

"The $25 that I sent home during those years enabled my parents to pay their house mortgage, plus put food on the table, clothing for all," said Martinez, 85. "CCC camp employment was a blessing to the whole country."

William Ferrar, a Texas native who now lives in Silver City, came to southwestern New Mexico because of the CCC.

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