One of the dozens of New Deal programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to fight the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was primarily designed to put thousands of unemployed young men to work on useful public projects. Roosevelt put the program under the direction of his Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes, who became an enthusiastic supporter.
Since the vast majority of federal public land was in the West, Ickes created most of his CCC projects in that region. The young men who joined, however, came from all over the nation. It was the first time many had left their homes in the densely populated eastern states. Many of them later remembered their time spent in the wide-open spaces of the West with affection, and many later returned to tour the region or become residents.
Participation in the CCC was voluntary, although the various camps often adopted military-like rules of discipline and protocol. Ickes put his CCC “armies” to work on a wide array of conservation projects. Some young men spent their days planting trees in national forests, while others built roads and dams, fought forest fires, or made improvements in national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone. In exchange for their labor, the CCC men received a minimal wage, part of which was automatically sent to their families back home. The program thus provided employment for unskilled young men while simultaneously pumping federal money into the depressed national economy.
The training provided by the CCC proved particularly valuable to the 77,000 Indian and Hispanic youths who worked in the Southwest. Many of these young men left the CCC able to drive and repair large trucks and tractors, skills that proved highly employable during WWII. Likewise, many former CCC enlistees found the transition to life as a WWII soldier eased by their previous experience with military-like discipline.
Despite the rigid regimentation and low pay, the CCC remained popular with both enlistees and the public throughout its history. By the time Congress abolished the agency in 1942, more than two million men had served, making the CCC one of the most successful government training and employment projects in history.