Kolb exhibit a journey from despair to hope
New Deal plan shaped young men and parks
A new exhibit at Kolb Studio explores the journey that 3 million young men took from hopelessness to purpose. But while "It Saved My Life: The Civilian Conservation Corps at Grand Canyon" tells the back story, their real legacy still stands virtually everywhere in the park - and on public lands across the nation.
The exhibit was spearheaded by interpretive ranger Bob Audretsch, who also organized a symposium held the weekend of May 30-June 1. Both coincided with the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first CCC unit here.
Presenters at the symposium, "Saving Lives, Shaping the Land, Building Parks: The CCC in the Southwest, 1933-1942," discussed CCC projects at Grand Canyon and beyond. The weekend also included hikes and tours as well as dedication of a CCC memorial at Cedar Ridge.
Also instrumental in organizing the effort were Mike Anderson, Pam Cox, Jenny Albrinck, Pam Frazier, Dave Schenck and Tom Pittenger, with support from Grand Canyon Association and the Park Service.
Audretsch said that the story captivated him three years ago, when he first heard a former enrollee, Roy Lemons, speaking about his experiences at the 2002 Grand Canyon History Symposium.
In 1935, at 17 years old, devoid of hope and haunted by the sounds of his siblings crying themselves to sleep due to hunger, Lemons signed up and boarded a train from his West Texas home to an unknown destination. All he knew was that he'd be doing conservation work on public lands for a dollar a day, keeping $5 for himself while the remaining $25 went home to his family.
The train brought him to Williams, where he boarded a truck for Grand Canyon. He spent two and a half years here and went from quarrying flagstone to working for former park naturalist Dr. Edwin McKee and then on to a successful career that took him to more than 60 countries.
"The whole thing of people going from hopelessness to bravery to accomplishment and triumph is just about as good as a story gets," Audretsch said.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in on March 4, 1933, unemployment in the U.S. was 25 percent, with another 25 percent underemployed. Thousands of banks had failed and billions of dollars in wealth had vanished.
On March 31, legislation was passed creating the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was based on programs he'd established as governor of New York to take poor boys out of the inner cities and put them to work planting trees in state parks.
His own progressive views on conservation evolved through his connection to the land on his family's 1,200 acre estate, Springwood, in New York. He saw the effects of erosion and noted that yields on crops were half what they'd been about a century before.
"He became a tree planting fanatic," said Neil Maher, author of "Nature's New Deal," about the CCC and the environmental movement. "He brought Springwood back into ecological balance and in the 1920s, he planted between 20,000 and 50,000 trees on his estate every year for erosion control."
There was some opposition from those who said that it was too ambitious a program to ever succeed. But the related agencies - the states' labor departments, the War Department and land management agencies - cooperated and the first enrollee was sworn in on April 7.
Enrollees were between the ages of 17 and 25, though some were known to lie about their age. One of those was Grand Canyon resident Jim Ware, who joined the CCC when he was 15 and then went into the Marines six months later.
They had to be unmarried, with their families on relief. In addition to the support for their families, the young men also received room and board, basic medical care and the opportunity to learn job skills.
They also had access to education and during the course of the program, more than 40,000 illiterate men learned to read and write and 400,000 finished high school. Many learned trades such as carpentry, plumbing and blacksmithing.
African Americans were also enrolled at levels that reflected their percentage in the general population.
"The leaders said that if 10 percent of a state's population was African American, then 10 percent were enrolled in the corps," said Audretsch.
Initially, units were integrated but in 1936, segregationists put political pressure on the government to divide the camps.
There were also some camps for women, but these focused on teaching domestic skills.
"We can look back on that and say, 'How horrible,' but you have to remember what these people were thinking at the time," said Maher. "They wanted to protect the male breadwinner, who was seen as the economic lifeline to the entire family."
Three months after legislation was signed, 247,000 young men were working in what would be the most popular of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. While enrollees and their families benefited, the economic boost extended far beyond, said Maher. The enrollees spent their $5 in local communities and the camps themselves also turned to the locals for goods and services, spending thousands of dollars with local businesses. Roosevelt used placement of the camps as reward and punishment based on who had supported him and who hadn't, he said.
The first Grand Canyon CCC camp was established on the North Rim on May 29, 1933. At any given time, some 800 men - four companies in all - served here between 1933 and 1942.
The two companies on the South Rim built the Community Building, warehouses, curbing, infrastructure (including the first phone and electric lines to Desert View) and the stone wall along the Rim Trail.
The company on the North Rim built water catchments, fences to keep livestock out and roads and trails.
Projects completed by the Phantom Ranch company included the nine-mile Ribbon Falls Trail, a swimming pool that was filled in the 1970s, the first trans-canyon telephone line and the two-mile River Trail - the most difficult, taking three years to construct.
Nationwide, the CCC built 28,000 miles of trail and 63,000 buildings, planted more than 3 billion trees and created 800 state parks.
Though drill sergeants managed the camps, in the early years of the program, in response to public concern they didn't teach enrollees military skills. In the final three years, however, as the country shifted to war footing, that changed and they learned drill and ceremony and skills for working on military equipment. About 80 percent of enrollees went into the military and the officers corps benefited from leaders who'd gotten experience managing CCC camps.
According to Maher, not everyone agreed with the government's philosophy of conservation. Some believed that the infrastructure projects violated the principle of wilderness, while others felt that practices like planting non-native species upset ecological balance.
"This turned out to be a very good thing," he said. "It created a national debate about what conservation actually was - was it conserving trees and soil, was it conserving these young men and making them healthier, was it maintaining ecological balance? It was this debate in the 1930s caused by some opposition to the CCC that created a dialog about this new thing we call environmentalism."
Desperate as the times were, Audretsch said it still required a great deal of courage by these young men, whose unofficial motto was "We can take it."
"For a 17-year-old boy getting on a railroad train, that had never been out of his community before, takes a little bit of bravery," he said.
The CCC exhibit is on display at Kolb Studio on the Rim near Bright Angel Trailhead through Oct. 19. It is open daily and admission is free.
The park is also offering a CCC Junior Ranger program. Visit the visitor center at Canyon View Information Plaza for details.
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