Emerson Baker: Memories of the CCC
Emerson Baker lives with his wife and adult son in a tidy little house in Montpelier, Vt. He's in his 90s and says he's feeling his age, but he keeps busy. He's got his computer, and the digital camera he loves to fool with. He shows his son a picture he took this morning: a partly-eaten piece of toast with raspberry jam on it.
"My false teeth bit my initials into that toast!" he says with glee. If you look at it just right, what's left of the toast looks like a letter E, or maybe a B.
"I'm a nut for taking pictures," he adds.
Baker also runs a local chapter of Civilian Conservation Corps alumni. Every year, there are fewer alumni left, and it's harder for them to get together, but groups of them still gather at chapters around the country to reminisce about their days in the CCC. Baker loves to spend time with other "CCC boys," as they call themselves.
"You'd have to have been one to know the instant, no-questions-asked compatibility with these guys," Baker says. "You can meet a guy that you never met in your life and he's your friend. He's your friend in an hour because of what we all went through."
What they all went through, Baker says, was the Great Depression - living with nothing, and then working to become something at the CCC camps.
The Depression was a hard time for Emerson Baker's family.
"It was terrible," he says. "Just terrible. My father had left us, left my mother with four girls and me and we just had no, nothing at all."
Baker's mother took in washing, and Baker did what odd jobs a boy could do: caddying at a golf course, packing fish, and working in a grocery store.
"Organizations like the Catholic Daughters who heard about our circumstance would bring food once in awhile," Baker says. "Nothing regular, nothing to keep a family going."
At the time, there was no such thing as federal welfare. There was no social security. It was assumed that private charities would care for poor people. But charities were overwhelmed during the Depression. Nearly a quarter of American workers could not find jobs. Many lost their life savings as banks collapsed.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was Franklin D. Roosevelt's first salvo in the war against what he called "enforced idleness." Beginning in 1933, the government hired millions of jobless young men to do conservation work.
"Everyone knew about Franklin Roosevelt's CCC," says Baker. "It was in all the papers and I remember we did have an old three-dial radio. You had to dial a number on each dial to get station you wanted. And I remember hearing about it on that, too. That's when Amos and Andy were famous on the radio."
After Baker finished high school, he signed up. He lived in Gloucester, Mass. at the time, but he was sent to a camp in Vermont.
"It was a different world," he says. "Oh, yeah. We had to learn not to get friendly with porcupines and woodchucks and things like that. And we would hear wolves howling at night and [say], 'What's that?'"
Baker says most of the other guys "were from the cities, literally from the streets … Kids that had nowhere to go, no jobs, no future, no ambition. A lot of us didn't even know what we didn't know. And a lot of them never finished high school like I was lucky enough to."
The men lived in tarpaper barracks heated by woodstoves. During the day, Baker was assigned to a forestry crew that pruned spruce trees, "pruning them up to 18 feet high so that 20 years later [they] were knotless spruce, prime stuff," he says.
At night, the recruits could take classes. "Whatever you wanted to learn, they'd teach you, and a lot of men learned their life vocations right there in that CCC," Baker says.
"Recreation-wise, every Saturday they used to truck us to Rutland and we'd go to a movie or to the park and hear a band concert," Baker says. "And every Sunday they trucked us off to church."
The boys made $30 a month, but $25 of it was sent directly to their families. Emerson Baker says that money paid his mother's rent.
After he'd been in the CCC for six months, Baker suffered a gruesome accident. He slipped under the wheels of a dump truck loaded with stone. He was in the hospital for months, and when he got out he couldn't do physical labor.
Still, he went back to the CCC, and a forester named Skip Lansing found a job for him. "He visited my cot one day and asked me if I'd be interested in learning the office end of what we were doing in the field, so he took me under his wing and taught me rudimentary mapping."
Baker ended up leaving the CCC for a map-making job, and eventually made a career out of it.
One day, he needed some typing done for a project he was working on.
"And there was this beautiful woman who worked on the same floor and I used to see her in the lunchroom," he says. "What a doll! And I called and asked her if she would type up the description, and then she did, and then we got married and had two kids, and I'll be 92 this month," he finishes abruptly, seeming surprised that the story has come out this way.
Like a lot of former CCC boys, Baker says the CCC made him who he is today. But he's not sure a similar program would work nowadays.
"With certain modifications," he muses, it might work. "Something on that order should be done to get these aimless kids off the streets. That was the big thing, put us in one place under rigid military control."
But then he adds, "Of course maybe some of the families wouldn't allow it today. Everybody is so me, me, me. I'd hate to be in charge of it."