The interior of one of the barracks at Camp Wilgus in North Westminister.
Westminster Historical Society
The interior of one of the barracks at Camp Wilgus in North Westminister.

How ‘Roosevelt’s Tree Army’ remade Vermont

In the 1930s, the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the recreation infrastructure we still are using today

-It was 91 years ago this week, on April 5, 1933, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of his New Deal, a program intended to get people back to work during the Great Depression.

Anyone visiting state or national parks in the U.S. today still benefits from the work of the CCC. The program virtually created more than 700 state parks, and National Parks across the country benefited from CCC workers.

When Roosevelt took office in 1933, unemployment nationwide was around 29%. In some parts of the country, it was at a staggering 80% or higher. By the time World War II put an end to the Great Depression, Roosevelt's New Deal programs had dropped unemployment to around 12%.

As its name suggests, the CCC was aimed specifically at providing manual labor for the conservation and development of natural resources in rural areas. It was originally called the Emergency Conservation Work program under the Emergency Conservation Work Act of 1933. The U.S. Army organized and supervised the camps.

Roosevelt made clear that the government wasn't going to employ people in competitive businesses, but he would put them to work on projects that improved and restored natural resources for everyone.

Deforestation, unchecked soil erosion and poor farming practices had created a massive environmental disaster across the nation. During the infamous "Dust Bowl" in the Southern Plains, states lost tons of topsoil per acre due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Millions of acres of farmland could no longer grow crops or sustain cattle. Farm families were financially devastated, which contributed to the Great Depression and resulted in the largest mass migration in the nation's history.

As governor of New York State, before running for president in 1932, Roosevelt had successfully tried similar programs on a state level. In his first 100 days as president, he called an emergency session of Congress and implemented programs like the CCC that put people to work.

And Roosevelt made sure it happened immediately. Rather than taking years to see results, within days of signing the bill that brought the CCC into existence on April 5, the first members of the Corps were registered, and camps were set up and operating within the first two weeks. Within three months, Roosevelt had put more than 300,000 young men to work in 1,433 camps across the country. All told, more than five million men would find work through the CCC.

In Vermont, the CCC built roads, trails and shelters. In Windham County, it created Dutton Pines State Park on Route 5 in East Dummerston, Grafton State Park, and infrastructure in the Green Mountain National Forest and dozens of other places.

Southern Vermont had CCC camps in Cavendish, Ludlow, Peru, Plymouth, Wilmington, Townshend, Weston, Windsor, and Westminster. The one in Westminster, Camp Wilgus, is most often referred to as being in Bellows Falls or Rockingham. In fact, it was just outside of Bellows Falls in North Westminster, locally referred to as Gageville.

Eventually there were up to 500,000 men in 2,900 camps nationwide. Vermont is usually said to have had around 30 camps, but the Vermont Historical Society lists 42, some of which were likely just temporary tent camps. The camps initially housed around 200 men each in military tents, but ranged in size from 100 to 300 people.

In a time before there was unemployment compensation or any kind of social security program, tens of thousands of young, unmarried men aged 17 to 28 were put to work, and in southern Vermont, much of what they accomplished is still being used today.

A job, and a whole lot more

People applying for work with the CCC were mostly unmarried young men with no other employment. They worked five days, 40 hours a week, and had to sign up for a minimum of six months. They were paid $30 a month and provided with food, housing, clothes and medical care. That pay is equivalent to about $600 a month today. Those hired into specialized or leadership positions could make from $36 to $45 a month, or $717 to $896 in today's dollars.

The government also automatically sent $25 from workers' checks each month to their families, which was a huge factor in boosting the economy out of the Depression. Grim evidence of the state of the nation was that 70% of the young men accepted into the CCC were malnourished. For many of them, their time in the CCC would be the first time in their lives that they were fed three meals a day.

In addition to the pay the men and their families received, the camps also boosted the economy by buying food, clothing, building materials and other supplies. The CCC camps also hired what were referred to as LEMs - locally experienced men - who would train and supervise the CCC men in carpentry, roofing, forestry, mechanics and other skills. This provided much-needed income to the rural regions around the camps.

Each camp also had teachers, an infirmary, and a doctor on site, providing medical care on a level unimaginable in most of the country. Eventually the CCC camps would house four groups, usually racially segregated. There were separate camps for young, single unemployed white and black men, camps for Native people on reservations, and eventually camps were established to employ older veterans of the Spanish American War and World War I.

Most of the men had only an eighth grade education or less. Many were illiterate. One of the little-known aspects of the camps was that on weekends and evenings, classes, intramural sports and other programs were part of the daily schedule. Thousands were taught to read, and many were able to get a high school diploma, and even take college courses.

The camp in Westminster had ball fields and an outdoor boxing ring. Others had libraries with books donated by area residents. There were classes daily in dozens of skills and crafts, including blacksmithing, leather work, music, engineering, aviation, transportation, mechanics, electrical work and many others.

The camps often published their own newsletters. At Camp Wilgus, it was called The Bellower. The first group of 185 CCC workers arrived from Massachusetts in 1933, and they lived in tents while constructing a more permanent camp. In its eight-year history, Camp Wilgus would eventually comprise around 20 buildings, including four large barracks, an infirmary, showers, garages and a recreation room.

Not all the local residents were pleased with having a camp of 200 young men nearby. While many CCC camps were built in rural locations, Camp Wilgus in Westminster was barely a mile from the village of Bellows Falls.

Lovell's History of the Town of Rockingham noted that "some decided that the camp was too near Bellows Falls for the good of its young people, a result of some unpleasant experiences."

Sentiment was so strong against the camp that it was decided in January 1936 to move it north to Waterbury that spring. But that never happened, which would turn out to be a blessing.

Serious flooding in March 1936 and the Great New England Hurricane in September 1938 kept the Camp Wilgus workers busy with erosion control, forest cleanup, and clearing and opening up the roads in the Connecticut River Valley during both natural disasters.

In the two years after the 1938 hurricane, the Camp Wilgus men cleared 985 acres of blown down timber, opened up 80 miles of road and, during the winters, cleaned up and burned around 10,000 piles of brush and debris.

One of the main projects for Camp Wilgus workers was pest control - in particular, fighting white pine blister and infestations of tent caterpillars like the spongy moth.

In particular, their efforts were focused on the forests around Minard's Pond, the water supply for the village of Bellows Falls. The fact that periodic spongy moth infestations continue to be a serious problem in the area shows that, despite the efforts, the pest was far from eradicated.

In addition to its work creating state parks, public picnic areas, trails, roads, dams, power lines and other infrastructure in Vermont, the CCC also was instrumental in developing the state's ski industry.

Perry Merrill, the Vermont State Forester from 1930 to 1966, helped establish Vermont's public land policy. Travel in Europe had exposed him to the sport of skiing, and he thought it would be perfect to introduce it to Vermont. Merrill had Vermont's CCC camps put to work building the first trails on what would become the ski resorts of Stowe, Bromley, Burke Mountain and Okemo.

Reforestation was such an important part of the CCC's work that it was nicknamed "Roosevelt's Tree Army." In less than 10 years, the CCC planted a staggering 3.5 billion trees. Since the 1970s, many Vermont state parks have built lean-tos and cabins using timber harvested onsite from trees the CCC planted in the 1930s.

With World War II approaching, the need for CCC camps waned. Camp Wilgus closed in April 1941. In 1942, the town gave the Forestry Service permission to use the buildings for the Army Corps of Engineers and Military Police, which they did until 1943. When the Army left, the town took over the buildings.

Over the years the area had various owners and for a time was used as picnic grounds. Some buildings were used for woodworking and wooden bowl making, but were eventually abandoned.

When Interstate 91 was constructed in the 1960s, it cut through parts of the camp. Over time, the wooden structures collapsed. All that remains today are the two stone piers at the entry to CCC Road, several stone foundations, and the fieldstone fireplace that was once part of the camp's recreation building.

The CCC and the legacy of the New Deal

The programs of Roosevelt's New Deal are credited with stabilizing wages and prices, giving the nation a sense of hope, and salvaging the U.S. economy. In a bit of an odd twist, it has been said that the federal social programs of the 1930s ended up saving capitalism.

Other programs that came out of the New Deal include the National Labor Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and, in 1935, the Social Security Act, which also introduced the system of unemployment insurance.

Some of the programs, such as the CCC and the WPA, were intended to be temporary and were discontinued when no longer needed. Others, like Social Security and unemployment insurance, are still with us nearly a century later and remain overwhelmingly popular among working class citizens regardless of political party. More than half of retired citizens say that Social Security is the major source of their income, and it remains one of the most popular and effective social programs in the history of the nation.

An unintended consequence of the CCC was that many of the young men in the program would end up in the military as soldiers during World War II, which gave America's war effort a tremendous boost.

Though the term socialism is a hot-button word in today's politically polarized culture, Roosevelt's social activism in the 1930s is credited with bringing back the nation's economy. It put millions of people to work, and accomplished hundreds of construction and natural conservation projects that are still enjoyed today.

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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