Conserving the Youth: The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in the Shenandoah National Park

By Clancy, Patrick | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview
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Conserving the Youth: The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in the Shenandoah National Park


Clancy, Patrick, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in the Shenandoah National Park

by PATRICK CLANCY*

WHEN Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in March 1933, millions were out of work, breadlines and soup kitchens spread across urban America, and people everywhere found it increasingly difficult to provide for their families. Young men were especially discouraged. Many quit school to earn money for their families, only to find that no jobs existed. Others who took to the road in search of work had to live as hoboes while begging for food or going hungry. These transients worried many Americans, who feared that they were failing to acquire not only employment skills but also values that would bind them to society and strengthen it in the future.l

Roosevelt wanted to alleviate the plight of these young men, but he wanted any such relief effort to be a productive experience that would instill a work ethic and reassure taxpayers that their money was being spent wisely. In addition, the president had been considering ways of reclaiming public land damaged by years of unchecked exploitation. A lifelong conservationist, Roosevelt had experimented with conservation programs while he was governor of New York and hoped to establish a national one during his presidency. He combined these ideas on 5 April 1933, when he created Emergency Conservation Work, which quickly became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).2

The program was designed to accomplish Roosevelt's objectives by establishing work camps in America's public parks and forests. There young, unmarried men (eighteen to twenty-five years old) would be employed on a variety of conservation projects and at the same time gain valuable work experience in a healthy, outdoor environment. They would receive $30 a month, of which $25 would be sent home to their families. Although unemployment relief and land reclamation were its publicly expressed goals, the CCC had a third, equally important, mission. The president, concerned that joblessness might induce moral decay, hoped to use the CCC to instill a well-defined set of principles in a discouraged, dispirited youth. In his message to Congress requesting the establishment of the CCC, Roosevelt addressed this concern and promised that the program would "eliminate to some extent at least the threat that enforced idleness brings to spiritual and moral stability."3

Would these moral, ethical, and spiritual values that the president hoped to encourage mirror the dominant themes of the New Deal? A CCC camp seemed the perfect environment in which the administration could impart its own ideas of cooperation, collectivism, and increased government involvement in the social and economic welfare of citizens to a disheartened, misdirected youth. A close examination of a string of CCC camps in the Shenandoah National Park, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern Virginia, suggests the complexities of attempting to modify cultural values.4 Because of conservative army officers, the regimentation of the camps, and the sheer difficulty of rapidly coordinating such a large undertaking, CCC administrators tended to reinforce such pre-Depression values as rugged individualism and personal responsibility, which were already important to the young men. When they tried to modify the enrollees' outlook by promoting social mobility through academic education or by mixing enrollees of diverse backgrounds, however, they usually failed. The CCC was unable to overcome strongly imbedded sentiments of localism and sectionalism or to promote reliance on the federal government for social and economic security.5

This essay examines the experiences of the men who worked at the CCC camps in the Shenandoah National Park. It seeks to understand how camp administrators tried to inculcate values and why they were successful in reinforcing certain values but not others. In addition, by considering the interactions, friendships, tensions, and conflicts among the young men assigned to these camps, this study will present one example of the tremendous social and cultural changes at work that were brought about by the Great Depression and the forces of modernization and industrialization.

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