Come, Sit A Spell: Civilian Conservation Corp Contribution To Alabama and Our Nation's Parks, Forest, People, and Tourism
Celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial 2019 Theme: Our Stories
Pearl Harbor. This depression-era program primarily took young men and put them to work on projects that included planting trees, building flood barriers, fighting forest fires, and maintaining forest roads and trails.
The architecture of the organization mirrored several aspects of the military. The CCC recruited men as young as 17 and eventually grew to include World War I veterans into their 40’s who were U.S. citizens. Recruits served 6-month terms and were allowed to re-up for additional terms up to two years. The command positions were staffed by military officers in the camps and everyone lived by a regimented schedule.
Camps were created...
... with barracks; the CCC recruits were provided food, medical care, work clothes and boots, old military uniform for dress needs and other necessities. Their monthly allotment was $30.00 for their work - $5.00 of which they kept for their basic needs and $25.00 of which was sent home to support the family. This may not sound like much to modern comparison but in a time of the Great Depression, nearly 25 percent of the workforce was unemployed, the other remainder were forced to adjust for deflation causing salaries to fall by 40 percent and industrial wages to fall by 60 percent.
Life in the CCC Camp wasn’t all work though. The CCC recruits would play games, read, study, practice and take evening classes in their recreation halls – with 90% of the recruits participating in class that taught them to read and write as well as future job-seeking skills. They cobbled together baseball teams or took to the ring for boxing. Local communities would take on the CCC teams in competitions as well as neighboring camp teams. The doors of the recreation hall were often swung open for Saturday night dances with invitations to the community to attend.
The local Civilian Conservation Corp group was the TVA-6 Athens Company 286 Company 5401, also known as TVA-CCC Camp Houston and was open May 25, 1934. TVA-CCC Camp Houston was one of twenty-three TVA-CCC Camps located in Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia. The humble camp with barracks and canteen was nestled at the edge of Athens on the corner of West Market Street and Hines Street where the present day United States Post Office sits.
TVA-CCC Camp Houston opened its doors to the Limestone County community in 1941 for an open house to mark the eighth anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corp’s creation. Lieutenant Charles H. Orrick, commander, announced via the local paper that the visitors would have the opportunity to inspect the barracks, mess hall and educational projects at the camp from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m by guided tour. Lieutenant Orrick also invited the public to spend time with members of the camps who would be holding brief talks about camp life, explaining the organization and demonstrating some of the work already accomplished.
This was more than a public relation stunt, this was a chance to connect progress with the camp’s activities in the face of overwhelming discussion of Tennessee Valley Authority dam development and the practices associated with them – relocation of communities and cemeteries and flooding prime farm land along the Tennessee River basin. TVA-CCC Camp Houston worked hard to development anti-erosion methods in the county as well. Many considered the unproven terrace emplacements unconventional in comparison to old methods placing of riff-raff rock piles or planting grass cover.
The Superintendent of TVA-CCC Camp Houston, John W. Oxford, reported the Athens’ based camp’s accomplishments in an October 1, 1934 Annual Report of the U.S. Forest Service TVA Units in the Knoxville, Tennessee jurisdiction. He alluded to techniques the camp was developing to fight erosion in passing, his report of the camp’s activities were as followed (archives.gov/atlanta/exhibits/item365-exh.html):
One of the main projects of combating erosion saw TVA and the CCC plant eroding areas with trees. Working in tandem with the newly created Soil Conservation Service, the CCC worked to educate farmers to the importance of crop rotation, contour plowing to follow the natural topography, terracing, cover crops to protect topsoil, erosion-controlling check dams, and planting trees on unused farm lands.
The Civilian Conservation Corp helped sculpt much of America’s and Alabama’s infrastructure including Tennessee Valley Authority’s waterway and dam system including sites in Limestone County. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) goal of establishing dams to manage flooding, produce electricity, improve river navigation, improve soil was boosted by the partnering with the CCC’s efforts. One of TVA-CCC’s unconventional approaches was to create recreational facilities along riverfronts creating greater access to the public including parks on the banks of the Tennessee River and establishing game-breeding refuges like Wheeler Wildlife Refuge that spans the river into both Limestone and Morgan Counties. The efforts didn’t end with greenspace but continued with the construction of pavilions, stairs on hiking trails and overlooks that are enjoyed to this day.
It gave young men a means to support their families in the face of the Great Depression and contribute to the creation of national and state parks facilities and attractions boosting tourism and travel’s economic impact and the adjacent community’s financial futures. Between 1933 and 1942, 30 CCC Camps operated each year in Alabama employing 66,837 men. The contribution to the State of Alabama was 1,800 miles of roads, 61 lookout towers, 490 bridges, 188 buildings and 1,430 miles of telephone wire.
The CCC in Alabama was tasked with constructing the archaeological museum of Moundville by excavating the land to help in the telling of the story of the Mound Builders. Additional improvements to the newly established Alabama State Parks including trails and infrastructure and developing the Natchez Trace Parkway also benefitted from the CCC’s presence. Cheaha Lake was constructed and land management and recreational facilities were erected in Bankhead National Forest and Conecuh National Forest to encourage the use and preservation of public lands. Gulf State Park, Cheaha State Park, Chewacla State Park, Flagg Mountain, DeSoto State Park, Muscle Shoals Reservation, Little River State Park and Monte Sano State Park still feature CCC created structures for public enjoyment including museums, towers, trails and cabins. The recruits of Alabama’s CCC unknowing laid the foundation for some of the most popular parks and natural attractions in Alabama’s tourism and travel industries.
The CCC efforts of reforestation and conservation of state and national forest addressed the dwindling timber stands from over-logging by commercial harvesters, preservation of native species, wildlife conservation and combating erosion but also engaged them as the first-line defense forest fire fighting. The CCC Camps in Alabama constructed firebreaks to prevent sweeping fires from destroying acres of land. They inventoried forest resources across the state and help develop infrastructure for managing forest. By 1943, Alabama had more than nine million acre of forested land under the protection of the State Division of Forestry – increasing Alabama timber crop value to $150 million annually.
Many of the Civilian Conservation Corp generation have passed on with little heralding of their efforts to rebuild America’s economy in the face of the Great Depression or their hard work that created points of natural beauty that we appreciate today. However, their legacy to Limestone County, the State of Alabama and our nation survive in the national and state parks, national and state forest, the Tennessee Valley Authority continued mission, and lessons of conservation and preservation they left behind for us.
Civilian Conservation Facts: