The state’s environmental agency is holding a series of reunions, starting this Sunday, to bring together the men who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s and 40s. The CCC was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s initiatives to get people back to work during the Great Depression. There were 21 CCC camps in Connecticut where young men cut trails, planted trees and built bridges and dams. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports from the Shenipsit State Forest which was once known as Camp Conner.
Eighty-nine-year-old Joseph Prucha is standing outside one of the original camp buildings in Stafford Springs. When he first came here he was a bashful 17-year-old. But after a short while, he felt at home living in the barracks with about 200 other boys.
“Barracks One was right at the edge of this woods here,” says Prucha.
Like many others in the program, Prucha’s father had lost his job. And with eight children in the family living on a small farm, times were tough.
“We sold a little milk, but it wasn’t enough to carry us through,” he says.
Not only did Prucha join the "C’s" (as the Civilian Conservtion Corps is known), so did three of his brothers. The program was only for boys between the ages of 17 and 25 who were unmarried. Their families had to be on government assistance. The average educational level of the enrollees was eighth grade. At any one time there were 3000 to 4000 young men working in the camps in Connecticut. About three million nation wide.
At the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum in the Shenipsit State Forest there is a display of tools used by
enrollees: saws, axes, fire fighting equipment, and a dynamite blasting box. Museum curator Elliotte Draegor demonstrates how it worked.
“I guess it’s a sign of how different things were back then because I don’t know how many teenage boys I'd trust out in the woods with dynamite these days, but back then they used it to create roads and working in the forests in general,” says Draegor.
They did a lot of work in the state’s forests and parks. They built the steps that lead up to Kent Falls. A dam at Chatfield Hollow State Park. Trails at Squantz Pond State Park. And rebuilt the Comstock Covered Bridge on the Salmon River.
The boys got three meals a day, a place to sleep, clothes and medical care. The government paid them $30 dollars a month, $25 of which was sent directly to the boy’s parents. Walter Sekula, who joined when he was 17, says that was a lot of money in those days
“Every penny counted, and I mean every penny,” says Sekula.
Elliote Draegor says the boys got a lot more than money.
“The dignity of work," she says. "Not just getting a hand-out on the dole, not being given a free bowl of soup, but to actually go out and do something and to learn some skills too.”
There were camps all over the country, even in Alaska and the Virgin Islands. They built the Red Rocks Ampitheater in Colorado. The stonework on Skyline Drive in Virginia. They worked at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Some of the boys from Connecticut were sent out west. Including Walter Sekula, who turns 90 next month.
"It was all manual labor pick and shovel," he says.
Sekula worked on public grazing lands in the Rockies in Colorado from 1938 to 1940, building fences to separate sheep from cattle. He remembers being issued old World War I uniforms that smelled of moth balls .
“Solid wool!" cries Sekula. "Only good thing about that though, if it got wet it got awfully heavy, but it kept you warm, very warm, matter of fact it was warmer if it got wet in the rain.”
Later they got new uniforms that were forest green. Sekula remembers being served beans three times a day, including bean sandwiches at lunch. The food inspired a song.
Sekula sings: “The coffee that they serve you they say is mighty fine. It’s good for cuts and bruises and tastes like iodine. I don’t want no more of the CCC. Gee but I want to go home.”
But actually many of the young men didn’t want to go home where the Depression lingered, including Joseph Prucha. But the rule was after two years, you were out.
“I enjoyed working here it was great," remembers Prucha. "Of course there was still no work on the outside. There was still no work.“
The program ended in 1942, when many of the young men joined the service. Their CCC experience gave several a leg up, including Walter Sekula.
“As soon as I was sworn in I was made a sergeant in charge of 14 men because they figure two years, I had the discipline, the respect for myself, and respect for others," says Sekula. "That was the difference.”
Marty Podskoch is writing a book about the CCCs. He says it was like a job training program that served the boys for the rest of their lives.
“It gave them a sense of worth," Podskoch says. "Now they had done something to help their family.”
With the recession hitting Connecticut, Governor Rell launched a smaller version of the program this summer. The state hired thirty teenagers to work in the state parks and forests. The governor may have been inspired by the story of her own father, who had enrolled in the Conservation Corps when he was a young man.