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Utahns still benefit from 1930s work corps

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Man-made lakes like the one at Camp Kiesel near Ogden allow Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts to learn water sports in a controlled environment. Bryan White, a Scout leader from Farmington, spent a day on the lake with young boys in almost a dozen boats giving them their first lessons in rowing.

"Anything with water, Cub Scouts love," he said. "It's a very clean lake and well-maintained."

That lake was built about seven decades ago by a group of young men escaping poverty and hopelessness in the Civilian Conservation Corps — one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal alphabet programs.

Many of the corps projects are still serving communities — especially in southern Utah, Tooele, northeast Utah County and Davis County. In Farmington, Centerville and Bountiful horizontal terraces can be seen near the tops of the Wasatch peaks that were cut by the corps and are still keeping those cities safe from mud slides.

On March 31, 1933, Congress and Roosevelt approved a huge program to employ some of the millions of jobless young men across the country recently out of high school in doing forest conservation work, an issue close to the president's heart.

For the past 75 years Utahns have benefited from the work that in many ways saved 1930s Utah and set a framework for success in the future.

Looking back, historians agree the plan was genius. At the time, many senators from the West were suspicious of 18- and 19-year-olds from the East coming out to manage public lands, said Joel Briscoe, a community historian and teacher at Bountiful High School. But times were desperate. Utah's unemployment rate was the fourth highest in the nation at more than 33 percent. An influx of federal money was needed.

Six weeks later work began on Utah's first camp in American Fork Canyon. Over the next nine years 116 camps, many seasonal, popped up in 27 of the state's 29 counties, providing jobs to locals and cash for the men to spend in town.

"They'd build camps, work on a project, then move on. Those who worked in the camps weren't necessarily from Utah, but (it) was a great way for young men to gain employment during the Depression," said Paul Reeve, historian and assistant professor at the U.

But more than money was given to the state. The corps' work curbed flooding and erosion in the mountains, improved rangelands for ranchers, killed crickets for farmers, built more than 4,000 miles of new roads and provided hiking trails, campgrounds and other recreational facilities for Utah residents. Almost as important, the camps, equipment and staff of the corps created an infrastructure for the war effort, making it easy to mobilize combat-ready troops soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1989, Myron Gale of St. George wrote to the Deseret News that he was headed for a life of crime before he learned of the CCC. In 1933 his father was jobless and did whatever work he could to feed his seven children. Gale said he couldn't find any way to help his family or pay for any of the things teenagers care about like new shoes or taking girls on dates. Nearing a point of desperation, Gale began pondering ways of getting money unlawfully. Working for the CCC provided him with $5 a month plus $25 that went home to his family.

Eldon Schoonover's family all worked in coal mines in Ohio before the Depression. During the 1930s the mines could only afford to be open one day a week. Desperate for a better life for himself, Schoonover joined the corps and moved to Pleasant Grove where he learned rock masonry and carpentry — skills that allowed him to find gainful employment. He also met his wife of 62 years during his weekend trips to Pleasant Grove's drug store. The jobs he got after the CCC eventually helped him find work at Geneva Steel, where he worked for 33 years.

Historian Beth Olsen, also from Pleasant Grove, said the $25 a month received from each of her two brothers in the corps allowed her family to have a good Christmas one year. She and her brother received roller skates, the biggest gift either had ever recieved.

Most Utahns live near or drive past CCC accomplishments daily whether they know it or not.

High above Davis and Utah counties, the men dug terraces into the mountainside to stop erosion and mudslides that resulted from overgrazing and general misuse of the mountains. From the earliest settling of the West until 1933, more than 700 million acres of forest had been destroyed nationally and 300 million acres of farmland lay wasted due to overuse and poor management. Many rangelands had been overgrazed or were also suffering the effects of erosion or pests. Until the CCC, Olsen wrote in a 1994 article about the corps, there had never been an organized group large enough to tackle the overwhelming task of setting back nature's time clock.

Nationally the corps replanted millions of trees, earning the nickname "Roosevelt's Tree Army." In Utah alone, almost 3.3 million trees were replanted. Re-seeding and re-vegetation projects improved more than 214,000 acres of rangeland, and 423 small dams were built to improve the collection of water for human use including the beginnings of Deer Creek Dam. By 1939 crews had built 700 miles of mountain terraces along the Wasatch Front.

If laid end to end, those ditches could have been a canal from Bountiful to Los Angeles. Additionally, corps members stocked streams and lakes with fish, created bird refuges, cut hiking trails and created recreational areas like campgrounds and amphitheaters.

Like Schoonover, the men learned rock masonry, carpentry, heavy-equipment operation, truck driving, road construction, cooking, clerical work and other valuable job skills. Also like Schoonover, most were from out of state. Because it was a federal program, the government decided to send boys from the East, where the population was large and the public lands were small, to the West where the reverse was true. In Utah's CCC camps there were six men from the East to every one Utahn. That said, about 18,000 Utah men benefited from the program (almost 800 of whom which were American Indians) and approximately $4.2 million was sent to their families during those nine years.

Enlistments were six months long, and more than five men applied for every opening in Utah. At the end of the enlistment men could either re-enlist or go home. The average stay was 18 months.

"I graduated from high school on Thursday night and then was inducted into the camp that Friday," said Cleon Tucker of North Salt Lake who stayed in 30 months.

Tucker said he really enjoyed the camaraderie that developed among the men and said the surveying skills he learned helped him in his career as a mountain real estate land developer. One of his side-jobs in the camps was as a barber where he earned 15-cents per cut. He saved that money and used it to buy a 1931 Model A Ford for $100 when he got out.

At night in the camps, classes were taught. In the beginning, 55 percent of the men were from rural areas, 45 percent had never had a job and only 13 percent had graduated from high school. Nationally, 60 percent of the men participated in the evening classes, allowing many to earn junior high and high school diplomas. As the prospect of war grew closer, the Army began emphasizing classes that would be useful during war time such as radio operation, first aid administration, welding and engine repair.

The camps were always administrated by the military with the Forest Service leading work projects during the day. By 1939 many generals and admirals suggested the corps be turned into a soldier training program. Politically, this proposal was unpopular and "undemocratic" because so many of the young men were from working class families — a similar criticism of recruitment strategies today. By 1940, however, the camps were being run with more discipline with more drilling and leadership training. According to Olsen, this trend was most obvious at the Pleasant Grove camp. When enlistments were almost up, presentations were given on the flying cadets and merchant marines. About 70 percent of the tasks assigned to the corps were ones similar to those performed by combat engineers.

The corps proved to be a huge asset to the military after the country entered the war. The administration of the camps was excellent training for both active-duty and reserve officers. The 2.5 million men who had participated in the corps nationally from 1933 to 1940 had learned discipline, team work and valuable skills. They had also gained muscle and strong lungs from three square meals a day and hard physical labor in the mountains. Some people began to joke that CCC men were too valuable to be given guns. The corps was also able to turn over the nation's largest fleet of mechanized equipment and camps where soldiers could be stationed and trained. Interviews with CCC alumni suggest that about 98 percent went on to serve in the military and the other 2 percent most likely worked in industries that supported the war effort.

Utah was sad to see the camps closed. Many mayors had lobbied Congress to get camps built near their towns. A camp cost about $20,000 to build, and that money was spent locally to purchase labor and supplies. Much more than that was required to support the camps, and everything from food to teachers was obtained from the local towns. Camps that were active year-round brought in between $50,000 to $60,000 annually to the community. By the end of the program the federal government had spent $52.8 million in Utah for the corps.

Corps alumni usually speak of their time in the CCC with fondness and say that in addition to the money and training it felt good to be busy on such valuable projects. Schoonover said he used to take his children to the campsites he had worked on. Julie Sorenson's father helped build trails in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. Her father took her and her siblings there when she was a teenager, and he used to stop along the trail and note work that he had done.

E-mail: akirk@desnews.com