The legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transcends the physical work they accomplished. From the conception of the program as part of the New Deal to the value placed on conservation by its very existence, the CCC encouraged Americans to appreciate and protect the natural world for its intrinsic value. With foresight that can be attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the creation of the CCC also underscored the importance of natural resource management, as opposed to out and out resource exploitation. Because the program was implemented as a social service, it became a tangible example of the goals can be accomplished by working together.
But it’s not the academic legacy of the volunteer corps that stirs nostalgia in our hearts. It’s the physical structures they built that – after 80 years – continue to provide refuge from the elements. It’s that distinctive timber and wood shelter that excites you for the wild lands that lie beyond. We make the trek to see Half Dome and Old Faithful, but it’s the distinctive CCC cabins and signs and shelters that tell us, “You’ve arrived.”
The stamp of the Corps is everywhere. Structures built by the CCC are in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Though Alaska and Hawaii were not states when the program ran, they did have CCC camps.) It’s an architectural style of necessity and charm, built from local materials on little to no budget. With the attention and quality of workmanship that the young men of the CCC put into their work, that style has become a treasured part of our national identity.
You know a CCC building when you see it. They’re iconic: roughhewn timbers, locally collected stones, and simple log construction. The CCC stamp of functional, naturalist form is on welcome signs, park museums, ranger stations, overlook refuges, and picnic shelters – so many picnic shelters – across the country.
When considering the sheer quantity of work accomplished, it’s extraordinary to note that the CCC only ran nine years, 1933-1942. It was the brainchild of newly elected President Roosevelt. The concept was simple. In exchange for shelter, clothing, food, and a small stipend, young unemployed men would do necessary conservation work around the country. Initially, the efforts were focused on erosion prevention and reforestation.
The program received overwhelming support from government officials, the general public, and the hordes of “boys” in line to sign up. Of its greatest strengths was its ability to be fluid at the administrative level. This fluidity manifested in changing the process when unforeseen opportunities and needs arose. For example, communities encouraged the CCC to welcome local, skilled craftsman to work alongside and train the “traveling” enrollees. When the fiscal success of the program was proven, the CCC began to offer educational programming to its enrollees. The education component was inconsistent and somewhat controversial. Still, more than 40,000 illiterate enrollees were taught to read and write.
Building park infrastructure was just one check on a long list of accomplishments. The CCC was firmly entrenched in conservation on all levels. In its nine-year run, the men of the organization:
- Planted more than 3 billion trees
- Built 3,470 fire towers
- Built 97,000 miles of fire road
- Constructed more 800 parks
- Fought wildland fires
- Protected range and wildlife corridors
- Improved drainage infrastructure on 84,400,000 acres of land
- Responded to regional emergencies
All told, more than 3 million young men enrolled in the program. Of their $30 monthly stipend, they were required to send $25 home. That money is largely credited with keeping small communities liquid throughout the Depression. And the men, many of whom were too poor to feed and house themselves, regained health, strength, and pride through the work. The CCC ended its run in 1942, when the United States entered into World War II, and those same boys were drafted into the armed forces.
Most powerful legacy or not, the structures built by the CCC are inextricable from our national outdoors experience. They are the harbinger of excitement as you enter a national park; the appreciation for shade when you stop for lunch at an overlook; the sense of camaraderie that washes over you when you rest against the cool of an oversized rock pillar and know that someone – a long time ago – was looking out for the future of our wild lands.
CCC picnic shelter at Saguaro National Park, Tucson
CCC shelter at River Bend, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
CCC pergola, Abilene State Park, Texas
Zion National Park, south entrance sign
CCC enrollees on their way to work
CCC Building in progress, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Weekend Cabin isn’t necessarily about the weekend, or cabins. It’s about the longing for a sense of place, for shelter set in a landscape…for something that speaks to refuge and distance from the everyday. Nostalgic and wistful, it’s about how people create structure in ways to consider the earth and sky and their place in them. It’s not concerned with ownership or real estate, but what people build to fulfill their dreams of escape. The very time-shortened notion of “weekend” reminds that it’s a temporary respite.