Civilian Conservation Corps alumni look back on Depression

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

HARTFORD, Conn. -- An 18-year-old Harold Mattern welcomed the idea of clearing forest trails and building bridges and dams as a member of President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps.

It was the Great Depression. Many in his home state of Connecticut needed employment, hoping to earn enough to feed their families.

"My father was out of work so I was eligible. I was single and I was out of school and all, and unemployed," said Mattern, now 93. "It was good physical work, good hard work. But we were well-fed and well cared for."

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Emergency Conservation Act, which created the CCC and changed the lives of up to 4 million young men while reinvigorating a struggling nation.

Events are being held across the country to pay tribute to the CCC's work from 1933 to 1942. Statues are being erected in South Dakota, New Mexico and Arkansas. State legislatures in Florida, Virginia, Michigan, Maine and Massachusetts have passed resolutions honoring the CCC. Virginia, West Virginia and Idaho, enacted laws setting aside March 31 of each year for a special day of recognition -- the date FDR signed the CCC bill into law.

On Sunday, CCC alumni -- now in their mid-80s and older -- gathered at Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, Conn., the one-time site of the CCC's Camp Roosevelt. It's the first of a series of events organized by the state Department of Environmental Protection, honoring the CCC's work in the Nutmeg State.

Camp Roosevelt was one of 20 military-style CCC camps in Connecticut. They have since become state parks or forests. Similar reunions have been held or are planned in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas and Alabama.

"Young professionals across the nation, conservation professionals, park professionals, have really stepped forward to honor the guys," said Joan Sharpe, president of the Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, which operates the CCC Interpretive Center in Edinburg, Va., and promotes the CCC's history.

Most of the CCC boys, as they're still called, were 18 to 25 years old when they enlisted. To be eligible for the program, they had to be identified by the U.S. Labor Department as being on the "relief rolls," unemployed, physically fit and single. Most earned $30 a month, with the government sending $25 back to their families.

They developed national and state parks, planted about 3 billion trees, improved more than 3,500 beaches, built more than 46,000 bridges and countless picnic pavilions and park buildings, and surveyed millions of acres across the U.S.

Sharpe said many young people today are unaware of the lasting effect of FDR's New Deal program. Not only has the CCC been credited with creating the infrastructure for the nation's modern outdoor recreation system, it was the precursor to today's land management and conservation efforts. It's also seen as the granddaddy of other public service organizations, such as the volunteer AmeriCorps program.

Joe Iadarolla, now 85, remembers signing up at age 16 when he was living with his family in Waterbury, Conn.

"At the time, during the Depression, it was tough and my father was working for a company in Waterbury and he was only working a couple days a week," he said. "So, we needed food on the table. There were seven of us, besides mother and father. Nine people ate a lot of food."

Because each state was allotted only a certain number of a spots for CCC workers, Iadarolla was sent to a camp in Beulah, Colo. It was the first time he'd ever left home.

In Colorado, he and other young men built an earthen dam, at the time the largest in the country. He recalled digging irrigation ditches to help direct water to the dry prairie. Iadarolla later used the skill when he joined the Army and helped build a dam on the Pacific Island of Bora Bora during World War II to pipe water to the soldiers' camp site.

Iadarolla spent about eight months in the CCC, two months longer than the typical stint. He said he was kept on longer to help fight wildfires in Colorado.

"I think it was a great experience," Iadarolla said. "They need it today. It would be wonderful today if they had it and got the kids off the street and into a camp like that, work hard and earn money and learn what life is all about."

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