Window into Yesterday - Civilian Conservation Corps
by David Kess for the Ely-Winton Historical Society
North on the Echo Trail or northeast of town towards the North Shore, are some newer groves of pine - too young to be virgin timber but looking like they will someday be ready to be logged. These trees were likely planted by young men enrolled in the CCCs (Civilian Conservation Corps). The idea of was developed by President Franklin Roosevelt as a part of his New Deal at the time of the Great Depression. He was extremely concerned about the prevalence of forest fires and the restoration of forest lands. CCC men planted more than three billion trees, as well as building trails and shelters in 800 existing parks, and established 700 new state parks during the nine years of the program.
By 1933, the Great Depression had already crippled the nation: unemployment was at an all time high and in the Ely area, mines were either closed or operating on a much reduced schedule. Some residents tried to survive by gardening, fishing, and hunting (or even poaching). Immigrant families were especially reluctant to apply for government relief.
The CCC not only addressed Roosevelt’s concerns of conservation and fire fighting but it also provided a paid service for young men. Each man earned $30 a month of which $25 was sent to their families. The $5 covered candy bars, cigarettes, pop, and beer.
By July of 1933, 1433 working camps were established across the country with a number in NE Minnesota.
Basic education, such as reading skills, and vocational training were offered at some camps. These included forestry, typing, surveying, spelling, letter writing, mechanics, forging, carpentry, mapping, music, dancing, use of a slide rule, photography, public speaking, besides various sports activities. Some of the young men received enough academics to graduate from high school. Both Protestant and Catholic services were conducted each week but attendance was not compulsory. Weekend dances and weekend passes were frequent.
At the start, housing and other necessary accommodations had to be built in the forests, so the first shelters were tent camps. Logs were later obtained from the forest to construct more permanent dormitories, a mess hall, recreation halls, etc. Other buildings were constructed with purchased lumber. Drilled wells provided drinking water even though the camps were often located near lakes.
The enrollees were mostly young, unskilled, and unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25. Leaders in the camps were army officers and LEMs (locally experienced men). Clothing came from surplus supplies from WW I. Enrollees were also given underwear, shoes, coveralls, army fatigues, hats, rain gear, mosquito netting, and army cots and blankets.
Each man was obligated to serve for a minimum of six months, although most stayed longer. While the program did last for nine years, by 1942 men were needed for serving in WW II. More than 2,500,000 had been enrolled in various places in the country. Actors such as Walter Matthau and Raymond Burr were CCC enrollees, as were Stan Musial and Chuck Yeager, the famous astronaut.
Thousands and thousands of acres of forest lands had earlier been logged or burnt over. The trees that the CCC planted are a living monument to the work of these men.
Camps in this area included #701 at McDougall Lake, #704 at Halfway, #711 was on the Echo Trail, and #707 at Cutfoot Sioux. Camp # 702 was located near Bena. Other camps included in Minnesota were Portage River, Cold Springs, Dunnigan, and Baptism River.
Years after the CCC had folded, Kathy Kainz, a local forest service employee, interviewed some of local men. The following transcribed interviews are on file at the EWHS:
Theodore Fredrickson related there was an education building in the camps where many of these men learned math and how to read and write. Ted felt the CCC was very successful in improving the environment and also very helpful in supporting families during the Depression.
Paul Lekatz recalled this: “The food at Ash Lake was good. Hovland food was bad...It (we) had an aluminum dish, aluminum cup, an aluminum canteen, an aluminum spoon.” Kathy also asked if any of the men got homesick. Paul said, “Some did, and some ‘went over the hill’ but were rounded up and brought back.”
John Lekatz: “The miners were then working two days a month earning $90 a month. It (the Depression) was world-wide. He (Roosevelt) promised many things and they came about. He reconstructed the whole economy and government. I earned extra money by washing clothes and ironing. You had your cereal in the morning, your eggs and bacon, your staples, potatoes, beans, whatever. Sometimes there were two kinds of meat in the evening.”
Uno Saari was an L.E.M. He thought all-in-all FDR did very well, especially with the CCC. “We had to build roads with pick, shovel, wheelbarrows, and a team of horses.” Later on they got a caterpillar tractor. “We worked on road construction and tree planting... (There was) boxing, a library, basketball, and baseball...Parents came out a lot.”
Eino Kaukola was at Camp #724 and Camp #725. He stated that neither camp had any educational classes. Nor any job skills training as there had been in other camps.
Kenneth Keuhn: “In the summer it was primarily fire patrols. We surveyed for blister rust and removed gooseberry bushes to stop the blister rust.”
Earl Gary: “We told stories, music, movies, pool, ping pong, the library, and we had schooling.”
The CCC effort truly gave many young men a boost when so many needed it. The families of these men were certainly better off during the Depression years because of it.
For more details, see J. C. Ryan’s The CCC and Me. Copies are available at the Ely-Winton Historical Society Office at the Minnesota North Colleges (Vermilion Campus). An exhibit of pictures from the CCC is now on display in the Fine Arts Lobby. The summer hours for the office and the museum are noon until 4:00, Tuesday through Saturday.