Veterans of the 'Tree Army'

Sunday, March 1, 2009
ELIZABETH DODD ~ Les Eagle, 88, of Cape Girardeau, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. It was a program that put young men to work and provided money for their families at a time when unemployment was high.

In some circles, it has recently become fashionable to blame President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Great Depression or at least proclaim that Roosevelt's New Deal policies prolonged the economic calamity.

But don't say that around Bob Kunkel, an 87-year-old veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC enlisted young men for projects such as tree planting, road building, park improvements and swamp draining.

While most of the camps where the "CCC boys," also known as "Roosevelt's Tree Army," are long gone, their work endures. At Sam A. Baker State Park in Wayne County, the CCC built the rustic stone cabins and the park lodge. Similar structures and work, including roads and trails, continue to be enjoyed by thousands at other Missouri parks.

"The CCC made a man out of me," Kunkel said. "It made a man out of a lot of boys."

It was October 1936, the depths of the Depression. Kunkel was a 15-year-old farm boy living near Waterloo, Ill., with his parents, brother and five sisters. There was plenty to eat but no money. Hobos were a common sight, riding the rails and stopping at the farm fence to beg a meal.

Kunkel, now a retired salesman living in Cape Girardeau, said he decided to join the CCC when his father refused to go to a doctor. "He told my mother, 'Rose, I don't have two and a half dollars to give a doctor,'" Kunkel recalled.

He knew that CCC recruiters were visiting Waterloo the next day, so he gathered up a 17-year-old hunting buddy and went in. When the recruiter told him he must be 17 to join, Kunkel protested. "He's 17 and I can do any damn thing he can," he recalls telling the recruiter. With a stroke of the pencil, his birth date was changed to 1919 and Kunkel was in.

ELIZABETH DODD ~ Bob Kunkel, 87, of Cape Girardeau joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at age 15 during the Depression. It was a program that put young men to work and provided money for their families at a time when unemployment was high.

CCC boys were paid $30 a month. Of that, $25 was sent home for their families and they received $5. In addition, the youths were clothed, fed and transported to their assigned camps.

Kunkel first went to Camp Hull near New Canton, Ill., where he worked on stream-bank stabilization and roads. Then he went to Elco, Wis., to plant trees. "I planted enough trees to build a subdivision," he said.

Emergency measures

When Roosevelt took office March 4, 1933, the United States was in economic paralysis. Unemployment was 25 percent. Among nonfarm workers, the rate was 37 percent. In many large cities, unemployment was more than 50 percent.

Southeast Missourian file photo This undated photo shows a flag-raising ceremony at the CCC camp near Delta, which housed men assigned to clear drainage ditches.

In the first two months of 1933, more than 4,000 banks failed, wiping out the savings of millions and shutting hundreds of thousands of businesses off from their cash. The crisis had been building since 1929, when a stock market bubble burst. While few people were direct losers, the crash put enormous pressure on banks and businesses. The crisis worsened as credit systems failed, pushing banks over the brink.

Emergency measures were the order of the day. In one of his first acts as president, Roosevelt ordered all banks to close. Only banks found to be sound were allowed to reopen.

Roosevelt comforted the public in the first of his famous Fireside Chats. "I can assure you that it is safer to keep you money in a reopened bank than under the mattress," Roosevelt told the nation.

The next step was putting people to work. Young single men were among the hardest hit. When jobs could be found, they often went to men with families. When a company announced it was hiring, thousands applied.

ELIZABETH DODD ~ Bob Kunkel, leftm in his CCC uniform with a friend, Arthur Savage, he met at the camp.

Roosevelt created the CCC by executive order March 21, 1933. Congress passed a bill authorizing the program March 31, 1933.

Much of the debate about the New Deal has been sparked by a book, released in November, titled "New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy has Damaged America," by Burton Fulsom Jr.

For Joan Sharpe, executive director of the CCC Legacy Foundation, there is no debate about the effectiveness of the CCC. It had nearly universal support, and many saw it as a way to absorb a great mass of unemployed young men. A Chicago judge at the time attributed a 55 percent drop in crime in that city in part to CCC enrollments, according to a history on the foundation's website.

Over the nine years of its existence, the CCC enrolled 3.6 million young men.

"Those politicians can debate the CCC program and its value for ever and ever and ever," she said. "It did good across America. It helped families survive. It helped nurture young boys into men, into soldiers that helped win World War II and civic leaders that built the America we have today."

Les Eagle of Cape Girardeau was one of those soldiers. Now 88, Eagle was 17 in June 1938 when he joined the CCC in Cape Girardeau, hoping to go West. Instead, he was sent to Iowa. For money, Eagle had been mowing lawns and picking blueberries that he sold for 20 cents a gallon. He also set pins in a bowling alley.

CCC camps were commanded by officers from the U.S. Army. The camps were regimented, with lights out at 10 p.m. and reveille at 6 a.m. "They were real strict," Eagle recalled.

Over 18 months in the CCC, Eagle helped teach contour farming to control erosion, build levees for flood control and plant trees. "It was good for me," he said. "We did a lot of hard work in zero weather and everything."

Modern programs

The CCC lives on, both in the memories of the men in their 80s and 90s who served and in youth corps programs today. Many states, including Missouri, have programs that enroll teens for conservation work and reward them with scholarship stipends through the AmeriCorps program. The economic stimulus bill approved by Congress in response to the national economic crisis includes $201 million to support expansion of the state and national AmeriCorps programs. It also has $1.2 billion for youth jobs.

Phil Helfrich, recently retired as a community outreach specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation in Southeast Missouri, helped coordinate the Missouri Youth Conservation Corps program in this area. He has also made studying the CCC in Missouri a labor of love, producing a documentary film called "Two Birds, One Stone: The CCC in Missouri."

He's searched for the remnants of CCC camps in state parks, documented the still-visible CCC projects and boiled the work down to numbers -- 100,000 young men in dozens of camps built 126 fire lookouts, planted 48 million trees and cleared and cleaned 98.7 million square yards of stream channels along with other jobs.

"It took over my life for a while," Helfrich said. "I couldn't stop listening to these guys talk about the unbelievable effect it had on their lives."

And he saw the same in the modern young men and women who enrolled in the Missouri Youth Conservation Corps.

"It can change people's lives around," he said. "You can actually track the tremendous change in people and the landscape in just an eight-hour-day program."

For both Kunkel and Eagle, the value of the CCC is unquestioned. Both served in World War II -- Kunkel in the Navy, Eagle in the Marine Corps.

While Eagle isn't enamored with President Obama, a new effort to enroll young people in a CCC-type program makes sense, he said. "I think it would help in a lot of ways."

For Kunkel, the CCC was one of the defining experiences of his life. In the January issue of the foundation's newsletter, Kunkel wrote "If we had the CCC today we could tear down half or more of the DAMN prisons in America," adding at the end: "God Bless America, President Franklin Roosevelt and the CCC."


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Bob Kunkel talks about the CCC days

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