Before the Greatest Generation enlisted in the military during WWII, many were part of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet soup agencies – the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Spread across the United States, these young men, 17 – 25, were sent out to reforest America. In just three generations, the United States had reduced its 800 million acres of forests to around 100 million acres. Even in a country as large as America, that’s a lot of land. But you can’t just hand a young man a shovel and truckload of trees and say “Go forth and plant!”
The CCC camps became life training grounds for many young men. C. H. Brown of Georgia tells about a young man that came to camp. After he received his uniform, the new recruit came into the tent and sat on his cot and cried. The CCC had just given this 18-year-old his first pair of new shoes. In addition to food and clothing, the men of the CCC received an education. Whether it was learning to read and write or getting a high school diploma, they were encouraged to learn.
Last weekend I was fortunate to meet several of these CCC boys. Vogel State Park, here in Georgia, has an annual reunion. There aren’t many of the CCC boys left and all are in their 90s, but they can still remember their days in the woods with the CCC.
Although the camps were run by the Army, experienced tradespeople were brought in to supervise. Initially, many of the camp cooks were veterans of the First World War, but as the program expanded, recruits were brought into the camp kitchens.
Herbert Brimen reported to Fort McPherson in Atlanta and was quickly taught to cook. When he arrived at his first assignment, he discovered the camp had been told an “expert” was on the way. The camp swiftly learned how little training he had. One of the first assignments given to him by the chief cook was to get the bread for bread pudding: he grabbed a couple of loaves – there were 200 people in camp. He was banished to working in the gravel pit.
After a week, a Lieutenant took pity on Brimen and asked him to be a steward in the officers mess. From there he was able to work his way back into the kitchen. Gradually his pay increased from $5 a month ($25 was sent home to families) to finally as Chief Cook he made $20 a month. Mr. Brimen said when they took the noon meal to the guys working in the field it was always a mystery what the food was (hot or cold) until they opened the lid of the thermal pot.
Bill Jamerson http://www.billjamerson.com/ from Michigan has interviewed many CCC alums. As he and I quickly compared notes, it’s obvious that camps and especially camp food was specific to regions of the country. Hearty beef soups and pot roasts appeared everywhere, but the South seemed to have fried more chicken, whereas the northern camps got plenty of fresh blueberries in their muffins. The work may have stopped for the holidays, but not the food.
The young men of America came to the CCC unemployed with no help and undernourished. They left the CCC taller, healthier and with marketable skills. For a person who had never been outside his small town, working for the CCC was a life changing experience; for some it was being put on a train and moved across country; to others even having a toothbrush was life changing.
I'll have more about the CCC and its food in my next blog. If you have stories about the CCC, don't let them fade into obscurity, share them with the Grit community in the comments section below.