PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

The Civilian Conservation Corps in Nevada: From Boys to Men

by Renee Corona Kolvet and Victoria Ford

Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006

xxi + 154 pages

Appendix, notes, bibliographic references, and index

$34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-87417-676-6

The Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona’s Rim Country: Working in the Woods

by Robert J. Moore

Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006

xvi + 127 pages

Appendix, notes, bibliographic references, and index

$34.95 (cloth) ISBN 0-87417-677-3

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to office in 1932, as the devastating impact of the Depression was being felt on a personal level by a tremendous percentage of the American public. Defining the economic emergency as an American problem with American solutions, he put his brain trust to work to develop a series of federal agencies and projects designed to provide relief and foster recovery. While scholars disagree about the economic impact of these New Deal programs, the success of the New Deal can be measured in two ways. First, the New Deal helped re-imagine the federal government as an intimate friend rather than a distant manager. Second, the New Deal fostered the creation of a truly national history and landscape by documenting and preserving vernacular traditions, local places and indigenous practices as essential to American identity.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, perhaps the most popular of the New Deal programs, contributed significantly to both of these processes. Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed roughly three million young men on thousands of conservation projects across the country. By the time the program ended, the CCC had built 46,854 bridges and 126,000 miles of roads and trails, and implemented hundreds of thousands of environmental conservation projects on federal lands. From the perspective of most visitors to National Parks and Forests, the CCC may be best remembered for planting well over two million trees, and for building comfort stations, fire watch towers, and visitors’ centers. It is not a stretch to say that the CCC is responsible for the creation of a modern infrastructure for both recreation and conservation in America’s National Parks and Forests. Given the enormous breadth of CCC projects, and their measurable impact on the national landscape, it is surprising that synthesizing literature on the corps remains somewhat thin and dated.

The best recent work tends to focus on the ways in which CCC projects and workers affected local landscapes. Two examples—The Civilian Conservation Corps in Nevada: From Boys to Men by Renee Corona Kolvet and Victorian Ford and The Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona’s Rim Country: Working in the Woods by Robert J. Moore—demonstrate both the enormous value of this local-history focus and the ways in which such an approach can limit our ability to recognize the significance of the CCC as a whole.

I first became interested in the CCC when I was conducting research about the philosophical origins of the profession of public history. When the National Park Service established its History Division in the 1930s, it created a formal tie among federal authority, historical narrative, conservation and recreation, setting in motion a series of complicated relationships that public historians are still untangling. In this context, the CCC is significant as an avenue by which young workers participated—however unselfconsciously—in structuring the ways in which most Americans experience the past, the landscape and the nation. I mention my work here because it colors my assessment of the value of each of these works.

Robert J. Moore’s Working in the Woods is most useful as a study of memory. Moore is a high school history teacher who works as a seasonal interpretive ranger, planning historical displays for Mogollon Rim Lakes Visitor’s Center at Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona. His interest in the CCC began when he and his students developed a small series of signs describing the work of the CCC in the area. Realizing that the signs described the CCC in the most basic terms, Moore set out to humanize the corps experience by identifying and interviewing men who had worked for the CCC in Arizona. With what he describes as reluctant assistance from the National Association of CCC Veterans, Moore identified just a handful of men. Six informants were particularly valuable to Moore, and their voices dominate this slim volume.

Although Working in the Woods is light on analysis, Moore’s description of camp life is rich with first-hand accounts invaluable to future scholarship. Moore has reconstructed the histories of 13 CCC camps in Arizona, and his work documents in some detail the day-to-day labor that ultimately improved recreational facilities and helped build a tourist infrastructure. Perhaps more importantly, the details he has selected also document the ways CCC workers in Arizona both participated in and were transformed by a larger cultural process of national-identity making.

Most of the young men who came to Arizona were transplants from other regions. Units from Texas and Pennsylvania confronted their own regional differences and biases. Richard Thim recalled a unit from Texas who seemed uncomfortable in Arizona, “They must have been homesick, because after the first month, about fifteen or twenty of them went over the hill and started walking for home. Down at the Blue Camp, you are surrounded by mountains and you don’t really see out. Those boys from Texas were used to the wide open plains, and I suppose just couldn’t take it there on the Blue” (116). Charlie Pflugh commented on differences in perception between himself and his fellow enrollees in a unit from Pennsylvania: “Those fellows were Pennsylvania men like me but they were from the eastern part of the state, around Philadelphia.” On the surface, recollections like these seem mundane, but they hint at the ways in which the CCC experience helped transform individual idle workers into active American citizens. This process was, to some extent, transparent. Blue Camp commander, Ernest Massad, described the ways in which the CCC had transformed its workers in his March 1940 comments to departing workers:

I know that there are many things including trades and professions that most of you men have learned since you first joined the Civilian Conservation Corps … . You are leaving and going into your communities to become part of that community and will take the places of the leading citizens of that community (121).

From Boys to Men by Renee Corona Kolvet and Victoria Ford is a useful companion to Moore’s book because it demonstrates the ways in which first hand accounts can support a broader analysis of the social and cultural significance of the CCC. Renee Corona Kolvet is an archaeologist who had excavated CCC camp remains in remote regions of Nevada. Working outward from her discovery of material remains, Kolvet identified relevant archival collections in museums, historical societies and other repositories that enabled her to map the locations of all 59 CCC camps in the state. Her co-author, the oral historian Victoria Ford, had an experience similar to Moore’s in that she was only able to identify a handful of Nevada CCC alumni willing and able to serve as informants. However, rather than situating their memories as central in the book’s narrative, they serve as a meaningful complement to archival and physical evidence.

While Robert Moore humanizes the CCC experience, his book’s emphasis on memory tends to overwhelm his efforts to explore the specific impact of the CCC on the state of Arizona. In contrast, Kolvet and Ford provide a detailed and analytical description of the specific impact of the Depression and the New Deal on the state of Nevada. In 1930, Nevada was the least populated state in the Union, and it did not immediately feel the impact of the Depression. However, the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935 meant that several thousand workers were laid off and the state’s unemployment rate rose steadily. By the late 1930s, the mining and ranching industries in the state were faltering and company towns were profoundly affected. The great majority of CCC workers in the state were employed not in the field of recreation (although there was some work in Nevada’s parks and forests) but in the arena of land conservation through the Division of Grazing. Twenty-six of the state’s camps were engaged in the rehabilitation of rangelands.

Kolvet and Ford integrate a variety of sources and informants to document the significant impact of the CCC on Nevada’s industries. While Working in the Woods is organized around the narratives of individual workers and the history of specific camps, From Boys to Men analyzes the types of work accomplished by CCC workers in Nevada. Chapters analyze the impact of the CCC on wildlife management, irrigation and erosion as well as on tourist infrastructures. Ultimately, Kolvet and Ford argue that it is difficult to measure the success of the CCC programs in Nevada because their economic impact on the state was more of a by-product than a goal of the program. However, because the goal of the program was to provide immediate relief to unemployed young men, CCC records carefully document the ways in which participation in the CCC improved the physical health and job-preparedness of its workers. Kolvet and Ford add to this analysis a thoughtful discussion of the ways in which interactions between transient workers from the North and South and native Nevadans transformed the social, cultural and economic landscape of Nevada, providing further evidence of the lingering significance of the New Deal in shaping American identity.

Both The Civilian Conservation Corps in Nevada: From Boys to Men and The Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona’s Rim Country: Working in the Woods provide ample evidence of the historical significance of the CCC. Robert Moore’s work contributes a human dimension to our understanding of the CCC. The work of Renee Cornoa Kolvat and Victoria Ford demonstrates the usefulness of incorporating a variety of historical resources and analytical tools for measuring the program’s long-term impact.


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