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Depression-era stimulus put millions to work in national park system

Some in Congress and elsewhere are calling for a new program similar to the one that left a lasting imprint on Yosemite and other parks.

February 01, 2009|Julie Cart

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The economy was a shambles. Millions of Americans were out of work. Saying something drastic needed to be done, the newly elected president announced a massive economic stimulus package aimed at repairing the nation's sagging infrastructure and putting people back to work.

The first "emergency agency" established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually put 3 million men to work in the national park system.

By the end of the program in 1942, CCC workers had built scores of bridges, constructed flood-control projects, cut 97,000 miles of fire roads and planted 3 billion trees, prompting the nickname "Roosevelt's Tree Army."

The rustic, rock-and-timber buildings and massive lodges constructed by highly skilled artisans are now famously part of the national parks' visual style, often referred to as "parkitecture." In parks such as Yosemite -- where an unusual number of projects were undertaken -- the CCC's imprint remains.

Now, some in Congress and elsewhere are reaching back to embrace Roosevelt's Depression-era strategy by calling for a similar parks restoration program to be included in President Obama's economic stimulus plan. The House version of the bill has $2.25 billion earmarked for projects in parks. The Senate version is still under debate and expected to be voted on Monday.

The CCC was born with the Depression in full roar and one out of four American wage earners out of work. Tens of thousands of unemployed and hungry young men took to the road rather than be a burden to their families.

The Labor Department recruited around the country, and working for the corps became a much-desired job. The program accelerated so quickly -- 300,000 men joined in three months -- that at the time it was the most rapid large-scale mobilization of men the country had ever witnessed.

Each enrollee signed on for a one-year stint and was paid $30 a month -- with a stipulation that $25 be sent home to support their families. In addition to young men, the corps hired what it called LEMs, or "local experienced men," to lead work in skilled trades.

Former National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy, whose forthcoming book about the CCC and the parks is called "When Art Worked," said the program was intended to heal the spirit of the workers as well as the nation.

"The CCC was a great deal more than a work program," Kennedy said. "It was an education and nutrition program. Most of the people who worked there got the first decent meals in their lives. You could see the people growing, literally, eating good food and working hard outside. You can see the transformation in the photographs from the time."

At Yosemite, Jack Rettinhouse and his mother lied about his age -- he was 16 -- and signed him up for the CCC in Fresno in 1937.

In a sloppily typed letter in the Yosemite archives recalling his time at the park, Rettinhouse wrote: "I reminber I only weight in at 96 lbs when I went in and after two years I came back to Fresno and weight in at 145 lbs, so I gusse you can say the food wasn't bad. . . ."

There were some 600 CCC camps in various national parks during the program's decade of existence. Yosemite had more than most, with 10 encampments scattered throughout the park, from the Valley's meadows to the high country and atop El Capitan.

Yosemite's archive contains several colorful histories from corps enrollees who were stationed in the park. The letters of many, who had never been away from home, were filled with wonder at nature.

Darrel E. Stover ended his with this passage: "Yes, I would do it all over again. It was a new life for a nineteen year old kid. I, like so many of the others, inlisted as a teenager and came out a man. And it happened in the most beautiful place in the world, YOSEMITE."

Each camp housed about 225 workers, living in reinforced tents or wooden barracks. Although the park service directed the work projects, the Army operated the camps, with daily reveille, chow taken in a mess hall and military discipline.

Not long after the program began, an educational component was added, both to train enrollees in job-related skills and to address the widespread problem of illiteracy. Some enrollees taught their compatriots to read and write.

"That's when science and history and education went into the national park system, in a serious professional way," said Kennedy, the former park service director.

He said that the still-new idea of national parks gained a foothold as a generation of men connected with wild places. "Environmentalism took its largest forward leap in this country when those people learned it with their hands and with their feet," Kennedy said.

Filmmaker Ken Burns focuses on the CCC period in one episode of his upcoming six-part documentary to be shown on PBS, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." Surviving CCC members are interviewed, telling how the program transformed their lives.

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