Civilian Conservation Corps

A Civilian Conservation Corps crew in 1935 turns the soil of an old farm field in preparation for a prairie restoration planting.

A Civilian Conservation Corps crew in 1935 turns the soil of an old farm field in preparation for a prairie restoration planting.

A smaller-than-usual group, about 10 visitors, turned out for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) tour today.  It was a warm and somewhat windy afternoon. We began with a brief explanation about the origins and the mission of the CCC. The CCC was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) on March 31, 1933, as one of many federal government programs to try to improve the livelihood of the unemployed young men during the depths of the Great Depression. Unemployment was about 25 percent of the adult male population. The mission of the CCC was briefly stated as conservation and reforestation.

In April, 1933 enrollment began with about 300,000 men between the ages of 18 and 25. The enrollees were mostly unemployed young men. For many this was their first full time work. The National Park Service supervised the CCC men while they were working during the day, and the Army was in charge of them when they were not working. Most went through a month-long boot camp to get in shape for the work. They lived a rather military lifestyle with daily marching, revelry, and regularly scheduled meal and sleep times. Each enrollee earned $1 per day for a monthly total of $30. They were only paid $5 of the $30 they earned because $25 was sent back to their family to provide funds for food, clothing, and other expenses. Sometimes the $25 sent home saved the family farm or home from foreclosure.

The CCC was intended to do conservation work and to build men from the many young unemployed males. The physical conservation work of reforestation and constructing buildings, roads, and bridges in national and state parks and forests built more than muscles. It built a sense of pride and maturity, as well as lasting friendships. Enrollment was for six months, with the opportunity to reenroll for an additional six months for up to two years. One could leave the CCC fairly easily, but few did.

Through the efforts of A.E. Gallistel—a member of the Arboretum Committee, which was searching for a source of labor, money, and equipment to build the Arboretum—arrangements were made for a CCC group of approximately 200 men to set up camp here starting in August of 1935. They first occupied a few existing barracks that had been built under the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Program (WERP). The CCC built and occupied a total of 10 barracks, a bathhouse, garages, a warehouse, a supply building, and other structures. Each man was issued blankets, sheets, towels, and two sets of clothing, one for warm weather and one for cold weather. The old Nelson barn was converted into the mess hall with a recreational hall upstairs. It burned down in a fire on March 17, 1935. The Nelson farmhouse was used by the forestry officers, and the army officers lived in a barracks that is still usable today. The Arboretum CCC Camp was named Camp Madison. It was the only CCC Camp in the nation on university property. It is now one of the few camps with original CCC buildings still in use today.

We started our tour by looking at a picture of the old Nelson barn burning. The CCC and some local fire fighters were not able to save the barn, but did save the attached kitchen by forming a bucket brigade that continually soaked the roof. By the next day the army had put up a tent as a temporary mess hall. The CCC eventually built a replacement building that served as both the new mess hall and an indoor recreational facility.

Next we visited the CCC memorial rock installed in 1983 to mark the 50th anniversary of the CCC founding. The inscription plaque reads: “In a time of despair, they re-created a piece of the past to make hope for the future.” We looked at the low stone square and the rock steps built by the CCC near the well that was used by the CCC. Those stones are now covered by lichen and moss after 80 years.

After reading the three CCC historical panels near the pump house, we walked into the maintenance area to see the CCC-built buildings that are still in use today. We saw the warehouse where the CCC men were issued blankets, towels, and two sets of clothes. Then we entered the old garage building. It was a forestry garage during the CCC days and now houses some of the work trucks and other large machinery. We guessed some of the beams had been replaced and the cement floor added. Coming out of the garage we noticed the small building now labeled “Seed Storage.” This may have been where the CCC stored oil and spare parts for their trucks. Why a small shed like that is still standing after 80 years is a bit of a mystery.

Visiting the “Teaching Barracks,” we compared it to a few old CCC pictures. The old interior beams and windows are still evident. At some point an interior ceiling was added, a stronger floor, new doors, and other things changed. During the CCC days this was the quarters for the army officers who ran the CCC Camp, and at the far end was a small first aid area. For years it was used by the guides and naturalists, and today it is used in summer by the Earth Focus Day Camp.

Last we visited the CCC bath house, which is now the lab building. It looks much more permanent than the other CCC-era buildings. There is very little indication that it was originally a bathhouse. Today it is the ranger’s office and also used for seed processing and storage, plant propagation, and storage for volunteer work party tools.

For the rest of our tour we enjoyed the warm sunny afternoon strolling through Curtis Prairie to see what the CCC had created when they set out to plant the first restored prairie. Mid-November is not the prime time of the year to visit a prairie. There were hardly any plants flowering, but we could see the tall grasses and Silphiums, and lots of goldenrods. Most of the prairie plant seed heads had already dropped their seeds or they had been eaten by birds and other animals. We tried to imagine what the prairie looks like with a managed fire burning across it. We noted some of the woody invasives and discussed some of the factors that limit our grounds crew from burning as often as they would like.

In addition to planting Curtis Prairie, the CCC planted several of the woodland areas in the Arboretum, including those near the west entrance along Seminole Highway, along Manitou Way, and around the spring pond. The Arboretum would certainly not be what it is today without the thousands of hours of labor by the CCC men during the six years they lived and worked here.

—Levi Wood