Florida’s Wilderness Wonder Workers – Life in the Civilian Conservation Corps –

By Lee Hoffman –

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a major experiment in the 1930s that aimed to put people back to work. It established a legacy that can be found speckled across the landscape in national, state and local parks.

In 1933, as the hardships of the Great Depression loomed over America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged to alleviate the country’s suffering by developing the New Deal Act.  The Depression was a reminder that the American dream was at the mercy of unregulated corporate economic manipulation. American society was struck with famine, unemployment, and hopelessness. Destitute people searched for something, anything that could fill their empty stomachs and purposeless hands.  One of the social reform programs created by the Roosevelt administration was the Emergency Conservation Relief Program, which evolved into the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

CCC Boys
A Crew of CCC boys helping to create Royal Palm State Park. From the May Mann Jennings Collection.

The CCC offered employment to men, ages 18 to 25, and provided a way for members to support their families during a time of economic strife. Members worked on infrastructural and conservation projects designed to preserve the ineffable American wilderness. In Florida, their impact can be seen in Royal Palm State Park, Florida Caverns, Fort Clinch, Gold Head Branch, Highland Hammock, the Hillsborough River, the Myakka River, and O’Leno and Torreya state parks. In these places, the CCC built cabins, water towers, culverts, pavilions, meeting halls, trails, and bridges, all of which contributed to Florida’s blossoming eco-tourism industry.

Documentation of the CCC’s involvement can be seen within the May Mann Jennings Collection in Special Collections. Photographs show members of Company 262 and their conservation efforts at Royal Palm State Park. The company had been transferred from Niagara Falls, NY at the request of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs. CCC members constructed trails and other historic structures in the Spring of 1934 for tourists and residents to enjoy Florida’s natural beauty.

CCC Construction
CCC crew at work on a building, Royal Palm State Park. From the May Mann Jennings Collection.

Contracts for Civilian Conservation Corp members were a minimum of 6 months service. Barrack camps were established near their assigned project sites. Work units and camps were segregated by race. In addition, there were camps established specifically for veterans of World War I, as a response to veteran’s demands for access to federally promised benefits. After work, members were able to recreate, explore town, or participate in vocational trainings.

education 2
Common header sketch for educational section within newsletters

In the summer of 1934, the State Educational Advisor P.G. Reynolds developed additional programs that taught valuable job skills to CCC members for the purpose of expanding their future employment opportunities. In a letter from Reynolds to the All-State Coordinating committee, this programming was regarded as “one of the major aspects of the CCC program and is one of the important factors in wide approval being given to the CCC nationally.” Classes offered three types of training: Vocational training, vocational agriculture, and arts and crafts (industrial arts). Access to education was an immense privilege during the Depression. Curriculum was handled in part by the University of Florida. Classes on Latin American History, Geography, Elementary Law, Business Letter Writing, and even Dance were provided.

Journalism was a popular class that taught CCC members how to produce weekly camp newsletters. A selection of Florida newsletters is held in Special Collections at George A. Smathers Libraries and are also available for perusal in the UF Digital Collections. These newsletters provide an intimate well-documented glance into the everyday lives of Conservation Corps camps.

The newsletters are a true product of their time. Articles, unsurprisingly, consist of misogynistic rhetoric, which is characteristic of gender roles in the 1930s. The CCC’s sexism was a product reinforced by the all males camp. Comics and gags often used women as the punchline of jokes. However, one newsletter, The Wanderer (Co. 1421), called out harmful misogyny. An editorial tells their readers that approaching women unsolicited is rude and creepy. They say “Prepare yourselves for a shock. Most of you are not irresistible to all women” and concluded that women “can get along quite well without being acquainted with you.”

comic
Comic in Everglade (Co. 269), published December 3rd 1934

The CCC’s newsletters are a gateway for present day readers to explore Depression era beliefs and values. An article published in C-bring C-amp C-ourier (CO. 262), published out of Sebring FL, advised rookie members with an insightful list of witty wisdoms, such as “Never oversleep because cots can be dumped very easily” and “Never talk back to a leader”, which was written nine times for emphasis.

Feelings of isolation were an experience felt by men and women during the Great Depression.  The CCC gave men a chance to find friendship, purpose, and space to grow within the Corps. Many ex-enrollees would write about their gratitude for the program, expressing their fondness for experiences that they had. C-bring C-amp C-ourier (CO. 262) published an article titled “Echoes and Rechoes” in which one member wrote – “I am pining for Co. 262, it is hard getting used to the house after [having] enjoyed yourself in the open so long.” In Everglade (Co. 269), published out of Miami, another member contributed a poem:

The Old Gang of Mine

“As I sit upon my bunk

And I think of those wonderful times,

It broke my heart to know they’re gone

That old gang of mine”

dancing
CCC newsletter cover of the Myakka Rattler (Co. 1421), published February 14th,1935; Cartoonist: Carl Powell

Newsletters also recounted aspects of CCC social life. The Rogers Post (Co.453), published out of Sebring FL, had articles about multiple dances that all occurred in the same week. The article told of a Halloween party where “Joe Rosendo and his Spanish friends from Key West opened up the festivities with a number of Spanish songs.” More formal events had exhibition dances that were attended by CCC boys. CCC member Joe Rosendo popped up again in the same newsletter as contributing a Cuban dance “to everyone’s delight.”

It’s interesting to read about the CCC members perspective about Florida landmarks. Members had the opportunity to travel and explore Florida’s developing landscape. A publication of Everglade details a trip to Palm Beach. The members describe “the winding road” of the Federal Highway and the “fine winter homes,” which can still be seen today. They stopped at Lake Worth and Delray. When they arrived at Palm Beach, they described taking photos and admiring “the famous Bradley’s Casino – the Monte Carlo of the new world – the Breakers hotel, and the Paramount theatre.”

Although the CCC program was an opportunity of hope the work was wrought with challenges and hard labor. Articles recount health concerns such as dengue fever and malaria spread by mosquitos. An editorial in Everglade (Co. 269) encouraged members to be in “a spirit of cooperation of the men with the Medical department.” The editorial urged the cooperation  and told members who were skeptical of taking the pills and medications that “you are cheating yourself of something that was furnished to you in the conscientious belief that it has some value in preventing the disease.”

Rescue Workers Fingerprinting the Dead
Rescue Workers in the Keys fingerprinting the dead in order to identify them.

Another sobering aspect of conservation work was written in The Wanderer (Co. 1421).   Published Sept. 12, 1935 out of Miami, an editorial recounted the impacts of the fatal 1935 hurricane in the Keys. The CCC unit was called down to Key West to support disaster relief efforts, which entailed the grueling recovery of storm victims’ bodies. The work suspended normal camp activities, including the publication of that week’s newsletter. A photo album of recovery efforts, although not showing the work of the CCC, depicts scenes that members would have encountered while aiding with recovery. An accompanying editorial, printed the following week, honored veterans, many of whom had lost their lives during the hurricane while stationed with the Key’s Bonus Army. “They had survived the fury of the World War to perish on the lonely Florida Keys, casualties of the war upon the depression. May they find in death, the peace, which they seemed to have found little of in life.”

Ultimately, CCC newsletters are insightful because they offer diverse perspectives that contextualize historical events. Newsletters could be an outlet for CCC members who needed to express frustrations about the systems that had radically changed their way of life. Nuanced opinions regarding American patriotism can be found. For example, in the Myakka Rattler (Co. 1421), published in 1935, Bob Kelly, editor of the newsletter, wrote about Memorial Day.  He denounced it, saying “the day was set aside to honor the victims of the stupidity and folly, the self-aggrandizement of politicians.”  The world had just barely recovered from the Great War, and yet people found themselves on the uncertain precipice of another. Kelly mentions his fear of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s fascist dictatorships, as well as his wariness for U.S. involvement in another war. He bitterly remembers the outcome of WWI; “These are the costs of the war. These are the benefits: The unpaid War debts, and the empty glory of Versailles. A high price for that which was received, too high.”

 

rogers post
CCC newsletter cover of the Roger’s Post (Co. 453), published September 18th,1935; Cartoonist/Artist: Marcel Rannou, showing Bok Tower, Florida.

Newsletters were also an integral part of camp life and CCC members spent significant time and energy creating their publications. Newsletters were printed with a mimeograph, a machine known to some as a poor man’s printer. Before camps were given the funding for camp owned equipment, editorial staff would use machines provided by local organizations from nearby communities. The C-bring C-amp C-ourier (CO. 262)  printed their newsletters with a machine graciously provided by the Sebring Chamber of Commerce.

Using a mimeograph was a painstaking process  that took hours to produce. Articles were type written and the letters in headings were created using stencils. Sketches for covers, advertisements, and comics were created by hand-etching an image onto wax stencil paper.

advertisement
Advertisements from The Wanderer (Co. 1421), Published October 5th 1935

The Wanderer (Co. 1421) reported that originally newsletter subscriptions were 15 cents a month. Later, as newsletters became a popular part of CCC life, they were able to do away with subscriptions because the papers began to run on advertisement revenue. Surplus revenue was then turned over to the company fund for dances and recreational activities.

 

The Civilian Conservation Corps has quietly evolved since the 1930s and is currently funded through AmeriCorps, open to “individuals of all ages and backgrounds,” with a youth section for anyone between 18 and 26, and a senior section. Opportunities with AmeriCorps open a door for young people who are interested in environmental stewardship, community development, and disaster recovery. Conservation Corps programs continue to provide access to education in the form of Education Awards, which are granted to members after a completed term of service.

 

SideBar FEATURE: My Life in the Modern Corps

By Lee Hoffman

AmeriCorps

My own experience within service has greatly shaped my personhood and priorities. I served in 2021 with AmeriCorps NCCC, which led to unimaginable adventures, life lessons, patience for other experiences, and a deep respect for environmental conservation. It has been a wonderful opportunity to connect with the predecessors of this program. Although the program has changed immensely, the stories and attitudes in the newsletters were relatable to my own experience with my AmeriCorps team. From constructing homes in Texas, to chainsaw work in Oklahoma, to vaccine distribution in Colorado, we lived, worked, learned, and shared everything with each other. I met all types of people throughout my adventures that have challenged how I navigate the world and my own relationships. Conservation Corps programs were made to strengthen communities and connect people to other experiences within the nation. They continue to do so.