Photographs and interviews documenting the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Tennessee.
This unit of the Tennessee Virtual Archive features images of the work and history of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Tennessee. Created in 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to preserve and nurture America’s natural resources, the CCC brought forests back from the brink of destruction, established recreational destinations, and provided work for tens of thousands of young men from the Volunteer state. Approximately three million American men, including more than 75,000 Tennesseans, enrolled in the program. The legacy of the CCC, which was dissolved as the country entered World War II, endured in the lives of the men who served in its ranks and in the improvements made to the nation’s physical landscape.
By the early 1930s, the Great Depression settled in as a reality for Americans, who widely recognized that the nation’s woes were not limited to Wall Street. America’s farmers, as well as others living far from metropolitan areas, had already realized this during the so-called Roaring ’20s. The dire financial situation ultimately trickled down across the nation, resulting in widespread and unprecedented unemployment and poverty.
At the same time, America’s natural landscape was suffering. Generations of farmers, developers, and others had not always been good stewards of the country’s natural wealth. This was made evident by devastated forests, severe erosion, and other environmental problems.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt conceived the Civilian Conservation Corps (originally known as the "Emergency Conservation Work Program") as a tool to conserve and nurture America’s two most important resources: its land and its people. Over its decade of existence, the CCC would boast a total enrollment of about three million young men. Most of these men were between 17 and 23 years of age, but World War I veterans and Native Americans beyond those ages were also eligible to serve in the corps. Participants were required to be jobless and already out of school.
The young men who served in the CCC, known as "enrollees," hailed predominantly from urban areas. While rural areas suffered from the depression just as severely as cities, the scarcity of jobs in urban centers provided a practical impetus for men to seek out work in CCC camps. Men in the countryside and on farms, on the other hand, were needed to remain in those areas to work the land. Enrollees were typically paid $30 per month. Program requirements mandated that most of this amount be remitted to the enrollee’s family, ensuring that the CCC’s positive effects reached beyond the borders of each camp.
This collection of the Tennessee Virtual Archive reflects the CCC’s operations in Tennessee, which was part of the CCC’s Fourth Corps Area, District C. The CCC was integral in establishing a state park system for Tennessee. Its presence in the state was absolutely essential to create the infrastructure necessary to support the visitors that would visit the parks in the years to come; today’s state park visitors still benefit from the projects created by CCC enrollees decades ago. In the 1930s, it would have been impossible for the state’s cash-strapped economy to fund the creation of such recreational areas.
In Tennessee, a total of 76,600 enrollees served; 72,600 of these men were residents of the state. The camps depicted in the images of this unit of the Tennessee Virtual Archive represent just a sample of the average of 45 camps operating in Tennessee each year of the program. Camp Sam Houston, in Pikeville, and Camp Wiley Post, in Vonore, are both represented among these photographs. Other images portray CCC enrollees working at present-day Pickett State Park, one of Tennessee’s more rustic recreational destinations.
At these and other camps across the country, enrollees performed a variety of work. Soil conservation and reforestation were core goals of the CCC (the corps collectively planted an astonishing three billion trees between 1933 and 1942), but the program’s young men often found themselves engaged in even more pressing matters. Many enrollees aided in fighting wildfires and helping with flood relief, especially in a major flood of 1937.
Enrollees were also eligible for the educational offerings available at their individual camps. Courses were not required, but enrollees were wise to take advantage of the scholastic opportunities featured at each camp. The Tennessee State Library and Archives holds several CCC textbooks, all of which were written in a manner that the average enrollee would have found non-threatening and very easy to understand. Along with basic arithmetic, writing, and civics instruction, the young men were taught how to succeed socially and in the workplace. These skills were especially vital for enrollees because most had only completed an eighth-grade education.
Although not represented in these images, African Americans and Native Americans did enroll in the CCC. Minority camps, like much of American society at the time, were completely segregated. The CCC did not establish separate recruiting campaigns for these groups, and limited minority enrollees to a percentage of total enrollment that reflected national minority populations.
Most of America’s aging—and quickly disappearing—CCC alumni remember their time in the corps with great fondness. With any such social program, however, the CCC experienced its share of setbacks and problems. It may be surprising, given the success and popularity of the program, to note that the CCC struggled with high rates of desertion. The principal reason for this was homesickness, which was not surprising at a time when many Americans seldom traveled far from home at all.
While Tennessee benefited from the physical improvements made to the state’s natural landscape, the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps had much larger national ramifications. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the country found itself equipped with a large pool of manpower which had been prepared (to some extent) for war service that had been fostered in CCC camps across the country. Efforts to continue the CCC did continue, notably led by the program’s creator, President Roosevelt. However, public support for the CCC diminished as the nation shifted its focus from surviving the depression to engaging in a world war. In 1942, the final Congressional appropriation for the CCC—$8 million—provided for the program’s dissolution.
Those researching the Civilian Conservation Corps’ operations in Tennessee may also be interested in the oral histories obtained as a part of the CCC in Tennessee collection. These interviews were conducted with former CCC enrollees in 1983. Read more about the entire collection at http://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/civilian-conservation-corps-ccc-tennessee-collection-1933-1942.