Historian recounts days of CCC
By CHUCK CLEMENT, Staff Reporter
Bill Jamerson travels across the Upper Midwest telling about the life and times of men in the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression, and he held listeners' attention on Tuesday at the Madison Public Library with recollections, songs and stories about young men whose lives were given purpose many years ago.|
Jamerson, a resident of Escanaba, Mich., introduced himself as a historian, songwriter and documentary filmmaker who had based his first film on the CCC. "Camp Forgotten -- The Civilian Conservation Corps in Michigan" was broadcast on 58 PBS stations. He produced 10 more documentaries about other subjects, such as General Motors and the chemist Herbert Dow.
However, he said that his first film, "Camp Forgotten," has remained special, mostly due to the stories that "the CCs" (one nickname for the corps members) recounted to him during his research about the CCC.
Jamerson said the program was created for single men ages 18-25 with families who were on relief as the public works program focused on environmental conservation. Perhaps as an intended goal, the CCC also offered its members "a second chance," according to Jamerson. From 1933-42, the CCC provided work for 3 million men, many who had spent the four years after the 1929 stock market crash struggling through terrible economic times.
"When you're broke, you don't feel real good about yourself," Jamerson said. "And a lot of (the CCC members) didn't have two nickels to rub together."
The CCC was able to provide its members with three square meals each day, cots for a good night's sleep, and good role models from its officers' corps. It also offered lots of physical work to burn off any resentment and aggression that the men may have held about their personal situations.
The CCC members were paid a dollar a day -- they were allowed to keep $5 each month and the rest was sent home to support their families. Jamerson said it was love and family duty that kept the men in the CCC despite the hard work.
He told one story about a CCC member crying after receiving a letter from home in which his father wrote about the food and the shoes for his sister that they were able to buy with his wages.
Jamerson pointed out that $1 during the 1930s held the buying power of about $20 today. Taking inflation into consideration, the CCs were able to keep about $100 worth of currency for themselves and send home about $500 each month. Jamerson said that 18 million to 20 million family members were supported by CCC wages.
In South Dakota, the CCC operated out of dozens of camps. Some were located near Huron, Lake Andes, Canton, Alcester, Columbia and Lake Norden. The men constructed multi-purpose dams, ranger stations, miles of overhead telephone lines and 1,500 miles of fire trails, and they also fought forest fires.
From its inception, the CCC was directed to perform work that the private sector wasn't interested in doing. Some critics resented the program and its members, calling the men "roughnecks," "cross-country crooks" or "cross-country convicts." And while some of the CCs were less than totally upright citizens, Jamerson said the majority were good men and they often won over the confidence of locals who lived around the camps.
The camp kitchens purchased local produce to feed the men, providing money to farmers. The CCs also built fences for the farmers, if the fencing material was provided, and planted tree shelterbelts. The camps offered pay to local skilled labor such as carpenters and masons.
Jamerson added that it was "not uncommon for a mother to come into camp carrying a sick child."
He recounted one story in which 80 men from a CCC camp were sent to clear snow with shovels to assist an expectant mother. Locals could also -- on the sly -- obtain leftover food from camp kitchens without the appearance that they were begging.
"The CCC provided relief for people who otherwise wouldn't have accepted it," Jamerson said.
During his presentation in Madison, Jamerson performed two songs about the CCC, "Franklin D." and "Chowtime," playing the music on his guitar.
Jamerson has also written a book about the CCC program and its members and created a compact disc titled "Dollar-A-Day Boys" consisting of songs written about the corps. In addition, Jamerson presents the histories of lumberjacking and iron mining to groups ranging in age from young students to adults.
©Madison Daily Leader 2013
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