‘Boys of CCCs’ made America better

By Matt Troll
Special to The Journal

First of a series

America was celebrating in the days following the end of our involvement in the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” No one on that November 1918 day realized the next two decades of relative posterity were to soon wane and events would abruptly bring our nation to her knees. Millions of boys, many not yet born, would work together to lift the country back on its feet. They were from all walks of life, all colors and all nationalities but collectively they were to be known as the Tree Army, the Civilian Conservation Corp, the CCC, or simply call them “The Boys.” Each enrollee joined the ranks of young men who eventually worked their way through the Great Depression, changed the landscape of this country and succeeded in writing write pages in American history. Sadly, that history is often forgotten today.
In these articles, we will remember the daily lives of those men, how the CCC came to be, and question how this nation would be today without the sweat and commitment of those young men.

The middle of second decade of the Twentieth Century peaked in relative prosperity and abundance. In the countryside, forests and farmlands reaped their rewards but the planting practices demonstrated no consideration for the future. The second half ended in pandemic economic collapse and unanswered cries from hungry children.

America was in a financial upswing after World War I. Men were returning from the War to find easy credit to procure the “high tech” items of the day. Purchasing meant production and production meant jobs for Americans. Labor-saving home appliances were to be had by consumers. “Paying over time,” was the new monetary inspiration. Soon the former soldiers and their families were leaving the forests and fields and moving to the growing, and eventually over-populated, cities. In 1926 for example, over 1,000,000 Americans made this transition. During that time New Orleans increased in population and became a center for the arts in an Art Deco world. Young women began trading hand-sewn, feed sack dresses and gabardine garb for glitzy flapper attire. Most felt America was on the fast track to what was thought to be a never-ending prosperity. The rest of the world had a similar outlook.

Even with the exodus of workers from the farmlands of the state, new farm technologies filled the reduced labor force and, in fact, increased productivity over the nation’s entire breadbasket. After the phenomenal crop of 1926, farmers continued to use their recently purchased tractors to plow the land and replant the same crop without rotation. They cultivated millions of acres of secondary grasslands and used this virgin acreage with no regard to environmental repercussions. The rich lands in Louisiana hummed with the sounds of mechanized agriculture. Along with the weather, the ramifications from the farmers’ disregard would soon lay waste to our fertile farmland and generate a major objective that would be assaulted by the Army.

In the mid-1920’s, America was just becoming aware of conservation but the demand for timber had been expanding without environmental considerations for decades. In the first quarter of the Twentieth Century increased demands for Louisiana timber continued clear-cutting policies over millions of acres without any, or at least inadequate, attempts at reforestation. No one can say for sure if that was caused by apathy on the part of private landowners and the federal government, lack of foresight, or a shortage of human resources and funds to complete the task. As with the farmers’ disregard for the land, the CCC would play the major role in rectifying the Louisiana forestland issues years in the making.

The issue of mosquito control had been a major health concern for years. Beginning just before the War, insect infested standing water had been coated with fuel oil or kerosene to kill the mosquito larvae before the resulting mature adults spread dreaded malaria. Louisiana has vast breeding locations so stagnate backwaters needed to be bled dry. But that required manpower willing to challenge the countless hazards of the swamps. This was to become yet another challenge that would be turned over to the Boys.

The next article in this series will remember the birth of the Civilian Conservation Corp, the measures of a new president, and how untrained boys from urban and rural backgrounds banned together to write chapters in Louisiana’s history.