As you enter Fort Defiance State Park from the west, you'll see what appears to be a castle turret with bars. Once you get into the park, you'll see a ranger's house. And then there's the picnic shelter, bathrooms, lodge. And then of course there's the trails in the floor of School Creek valley along with bridges (at least what's left of them), and on one trail that's now closed, there's even a drinking fountain. Word is there's an amphitheater somewhere, couched amid the trees.
Pretty much all these structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a hardy, eager cadre of young men who worked for a dollar a day - sending most of their monthly allotment home - while they built many of the structures that remain today in America's national and state parks.
Bill Jamerson, author, songwriter and filmmaker from Escanaba, Mich., presented his program, Dollar-a-Day boys, at the Estherville Public Library community room Thursday night. Joining Jamerson for part of the presentation was Cliff Merrill of Estherville, himself a former CCC worker.
Bill Jamerson, presenter of the program, Dollar-a-Day Boys, visited with Cliff Merrill of Estherville who served with the CCC in northern Minnesota in the early 1940s.
EDN photo by Michael Tidemann
Alternating between reading from his novel, playing period songs and showing a video clip of a documentary he produced, Jamerson regaled his audience of all ages for better than an hour with his tales and songs.
Jasperson was making a documentary film when he heard about the Civilian Conservation Corps. So he decided to drop in at one of their reunions with 500 former Corpsmen attending.
"They said 'it was the best year of my life. It turned me from a boy into a man,'" Jamerson said.
The CCC was a relative snap for farm boys used to hard work. For city boys, though . . . well, that was a different story.
The CCC took young men from 17-25 into its camps run by reserve Army officers. From 1933-42, over 3 million young men signed up as well as 450,000 World War I Veterans.
Jasperson said each camp of 200 young men was led by LEMs - Local Experienced Men - who were paid $40 a month, or $10 a month more than their charges, and who lived outside the camp.
The CCCs were referred to by various names - Roosevelt's Tree Army, The Soil Soldiers and the name Jamerson uses for his program, the Dollar-a-Day Boys.
The CCC boys were paid $30 a month - $25 of which was sent home, letting them keep $5 of their pay. A lot of families used the family to live on. Merrill came home to find a 1936 Ford waiting for him in the driveway.
Despite the Great Depression, a lot of people wouldn't accept relief - people distrusted the government, a holdover from the old country they had left behind. That's why the CCC was welcome. One CCC worker often fed five or six dependents.
"It was a relief program for 15 to 20 million Americans who otherwise wouldn't accept relief," said Jamerson. "When we talk about the C's in that period of time, it was a lifesaver," he said.
They were fed well, their food coming from produce grown by local farmers. And if a farmer should hit a deer or bear with his car, he could take it to the local CCC camp and get $3.
"The food was good," said Jamerson. "Every camp had its own baker."
Local CCC-built structures still standing include Lakeside Lab, the lodge at Fort Defiance and buildings at Okamanpedan State Park on the south shore of Tuttle Lake.
It wasn't easy duty, though.
"They stuck it out for their families. The money was going to their families back home," said Jamerson.
In Iowa, CCC workers helped farmers build contours to prevent soil erosion - at no cost to the farmer. They repaired gullies and planted black locust trees for shelter belts. In streams, they built wing dams to reduce the current. And they put up fencing for free.
The Cs were a mixed lot - some were mama's boys - for a while - and others were hiding from the law. Jamerson said the Chicago crime rate dropped by 53 percent from 1933 to 1935, the first years of the Corps. About 10 percent of the CCCs were on probation.
The camps were policed, though.
"There was no crime really in those camps," Jamerson said. And after getting up at 4 a.m. and doing a full day's work, everyone was too tired for any monkey business.
The Cs built over 2,000 miles of road in Iowa, along with 1,800 miles of telephone lines.
Leaders in the
CCC became platoon sergeants in World War II and 83-84 percent of them went into the military during the war.
The work day ended at 4 p.m. After that, there were educational and training programs geared toward helping them advance themselves in their career and life.
They had fun though, too.
After camp cleanup Saturday, they had off from lunch time Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday. While a lot of fathers may not have approved, girls tended to go out of their way to meet the Cs. Jamerson said many towns didn't have dance halls until the CCCs came. And then old churches, barns, what have you - became dance halls overnight.
The CCCs transformed young men, teaching them how to work. For many, it was the first time they had three, square meals a day. And after working all day, they got eight, good hours of sleep at light.
The Cs were legendary for their Good Samaritan acts. In Wisconsin, one woman was stranded in a blizzard, ready to give birth. The CCC boys came to shovel her out.
In another instance, the CCCs dug a 30-foot trench to rescue someone who had fallen into a well.
And they saved a number of people from drowning.
All told, the CCCs did work in 800 state parks around the country and planted 3 billion trees. They were part of the environmental movement in the sixties and seventies. "They knew the importance of preservation and conservation," Jamerson said.
Merrill worked at a CCC camp near Ely, Minn. and at another Minnesota camp on the Canadian border. He planted trees and fought fires.
Sometimes he manned a fire tower for 12-hour shifts. And sometimes he counted deer or bear.
Merrill remembered when the camp had all-new Chevrolet trucks with the governor set at 35 - something that make making it up icy hills pretty tricky at times.
"I can't think of any place in the country that has so many parks the CCC built," Jamerson said of our immediate area - Gull Point, Lakeside Lab, Fort Defiance and Okamanpedan State Park.