Reporter's Notebook

Producer Catherine Winter on a hike at Tettegouche State Park.
Photo by Chris Julin

I spend a lot of time outside, and once in a great while I notice a plaque at a state or national park saying that something there was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It might be a bridge, a building, or a stone stairway. But until I began work on this project, I didn't really know what "built by the CCC" meant.

I knew it meant that the structure was old, from my grandparents' youth, but I had a vague idea that the CCC was some sort of summer volunteer program. I didn't know that the men who built the parks where I hike and camp were desperately poor.

In doing the research on this project, I learned that the CCC was meant to provide something useful to do for hundreds of thousands of young men who could not find work during the Great Depression. The idea was to get them off the streets and to get all sorts of outdoor work done, such as planting trees, building park buildings, clearing trails, building fire towers, and fighting insect pests.

To get into the CCC in its first years, you had to come from a family that was on relief. Many of the young men who signed up were so poor that they were malnourished. Once they started getting fed in CCC camps, they gained an average of 12 pounds apiece even though they were doing hard work all day.

When I realized who built the parks, I felt guilty at first. Here I was enjoying leisure time on the backs of men who had nothing at all.

But then it occurred to me that after the Depression, many of them could have enjoyed the parks themselves, along with their families and descendents. Maybe they were glad to leave such a legacy for future generations.

As it turns out, the former CCC members I was able to speak with as part of this project were all deeply proud of what they had done. Many former "CCC boys" do visit the sites of their labor. Even though the times were hard, they remember them fondly. They're glad that people are using the things they built, even though park visitors usually don't know the trails and buildings were built by the CCC. There's usually no plaque.

A few days before I finished this documentary, I talked to my dad on the phone, and he casually mentioned that his father had been a member of the CCC.

I was bowled over. I had no idea.

I hardly knew my grandfather. He lived to his 90s, but he and my grandmother lived far away, and we didn't visit often. I knew he'd been a school administrator in Oregon and I thought he had grown up there. Then a few years ago, Dad sent me an old black-and-white photo of Grandpa with his football team. They look like a bunch of guys you wouldn't want to mess with. Their shirts say "Duluth." That's where I live. It turns out he spent his boyhood here. And it turns out he was in the CCC here.

My father says his dad had a great time in the CCC. He says Grandpa loved team sports and hard work and camaraderie, and that seems to be what the CCC camps offered. And Grandpa would have been proud of a job well done. I think that, like other former "CCC boys," he'd be pleased to know they built things so well that we're still using them today.

I thought my research on this project was done, but it turns out there's something more I want to find out. I want to know where my grandfather's camp was, and what the men who lived there built. If I can figure it out, I know where I'll be going for a hike this summer. I'm going to go have a look at what my grandpa left behind.

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