Ninety years ago this month, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill that created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC established labor camps around the nation where unemployed men did forestry work and park improvements.
Much of their hard work is evident in state and national parks, which are still enjoyed by the public. At the time of its creation, the CCC was described as a “novel work-relief plan.” But it was not entirely novel. A similar program was being run in Rockland County, New York.
On a cold and snowy day in December 1932, twenty-five men arrived–men who had been living at the Municipal Lodging House in New York City. These single, unhoused, unemployed men were pioneers – or, at least, they soon became pioneers.
They had been brought to a site in Blauvelt which had been used for various purposes over the years. Originally it was a National Guard rifle range, but had also been used for summer camps for young people, for military training, and as a recreation area for disabled World War I veterans. All of these had one thing in common: they were geared for use in good weather–primarily during summers.
The vanguard of pioneers had, as their first assignment, the task of adapting the fair-weather quarters for winter use, so that it would be capable of housing the 175 men who were expected to join them in a matter of weeks. To heat the dormitory, old oil drums were gathered. With stovepipes added, these became wood-burning stoves. Firewood had to be gathered, and trees felled, so there would be fuel for the stoves. Damaged underground pipes were located and repaired, so that the camp would have a reliable water supply.
An Experimental Work Relief Program
This new Camp Bluefields (as the former rifle range had come to be called) was to be an experiment, suggested by the Welfare Council of New York City, and funded by the New York Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA). There had been earlier work relief programs, both tin the U. S. and Europe, but this was one of the first in the nation where out-of-work men would be working outdoors, doing conservation work. (Some forestry camps had been established in California in 1931-32, but those differed in that the workers were housed and fed, but not paid for their work.)
The Blauvelt project seemingly was not publicized right away. It was announced by TERA chair Harry L. Hopkins (who would later manage work relief programs for President Roosevelt) on January 14, 1933 – weeks after the twenty-five pioneers had begun work.
Hopkins said that 200 men would be sheltered at the camp, and would be “put to work…on improvement work in Palisades Interstate Park.” Men would earn $6 a week, out of which they would pay for the food they received. Unemployed men had to have resided in New York for two years to be accepted at the camp, which was, according to Hopkins, an “experiment…being conducted in an effort to learn the best way to relieve the homeless men’s problem.”
Cots, blankets, articles of clothing, and shoes were supplied by the War Department at minimal cost. The shoes were oversized – surplus from the First World War – but the men stuffed them with rags so they would fit. Private donations of money and equipment were also received, so that the men could occupy themselves with reading books, playing games, and participating in sports activities like baseball and football. On February 4, the camp entertained a notable visitor: former Brigadier General Pellham D. Glassford.
Glassford had been head of the Washington, DC police department during the encampment by the Bonus Army in 1932. Having resigned from that position, he wanted to have a look at the camp in Blauvelt to get ideas for a similar camp contemplated for the Washington area. Glassford was quoted in The New York Times: “My experience with the bonus army in Washington has put relief work in my blood.” If similar camps were created around the nation, “we could defeat the depression,” he said.
Camp Considered a Success
In the spring of 1933, after the camp had been operating for a few months, it was considered a success “from the view of those who direct and those who occupy it,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 26, 1933. A reporter from the Eagle paid a visit to the camp, noting that the men had arrived there with “morale shattered and with hope gone.”
The first batch of workers, who had been “set down among these frozen hills” in December, had been “physical and mental wrecks, wrecked by bad liquor, by malnutrition, by restless and unhappy wandering, by long discouragement.” But they had since thrived. They had all gained weight–from 10 to 20 pounds–and “were healthier …and far happier” than when they’d been in the city shelter.
The campers mainly managed their community themselves, with minimal supervision. There were few problems, probably in part because liquor was not allowed at the camp, and the men knew that violating that rule would result in expulsion.
Although only required to put in two hours of work a day, six hours was more typical. Staying busy with work kept them from dwelling on their troubles. The work carried out included removing dry brush, cutting down diseased trees, blazing trails, creating riding paths, and even constructing an air strip that pilots could use for emergency landings.
When not working, the men could play baseball, checkers, or chess – or just relax reading or getting good use out of their cots. Those who were so inclined would stage shows for the amusement of their new friends. Meals (which the campers paid for, out of their earnings) were good, since a former army cook had been hired.
As the camp’s operations progressed, citizens from nearby towns supported their formerly down-and-out neighbors. Doctors checked on their health, and local entertainers gave performances.
“We All Work and We Like It”
Another writer who checked out the camp was Loula D. Lasker. Her observations, reported in an article titled “Rediscovered Men,” in the July 1933 issue of Survey Graphic magazine, echoed those of the Eagle reporter. In addition, she noted that the camp residents were encouraged to form athletic teams, with teams from nearby communities sometimes playing against them.
It was suggested to the men that, once they had managed to save up $30, that they leave the camp so as to allow others to come and take advantage of it. Some of them had indeed left, for that reason. Of those who were then at the camp, there was general contentment. One man told Lasker: “We all work and we like it.”
Precursor of the CCC
Lasker wrote that “there are those who believe Camp Bluefield[s] is the original inspiration of the federal civilian conservation camps,” and she noted that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and House Speaker Henry Thomas Rainey had expressed that belief in speeches.
The camp’s success was extolled in an editorial in a Gloversville, New York paper. “The work is healthful…[and] the morale of the men has been restored to a tremendous extent.” Besides, “much of the work must be done anyhow; and the cost of having it done under the camp system is a far cheaper proposition to taxpayers than keeping the men in lodging houses doing nothing.” The editorial concluded that “there would seem to be no reason why hundreds of thousands of men should not be given healthy, temporary employment of this nature throughout the country” (Morning Herald, January 23,1933).
At the time, it seemed apparent that Camp Bluefields was the forerunner of the CCC. Roosevelt’s proposed program for “putting jobless men to work on reforestation has already been tried out…in miniature” at Blauvelt, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had noted. “It is on this camp, the President himself has indicated, that he expects to model the more ambitious experiment for the nation.”
Illustrations, from above: Glassford, Evansville Courier, February 11, 1933; and Reforestation, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 26, 1933.