Thanksgiving is one of our favorite American holidays; filled with great food and plenty of it, football on the television (usually the Detroit Lions losing their annual traditional game) and sharing happy memories with your families. At least that’s how we normally think of it. Now put yourself in the shoes of a young enrollee in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the middle of the Great Depression. Their Thanksgiving experience was surprisingly not that dissimilar to how we celebrate today. Except for being away from family.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was created in 1933 shortly after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inuagerated as the President of the United States. The Emergency Conservation Work act (or ECW) was a cornerstone of his “New Deal” and would put young men back to work, help to heal the forests and soil of our Nation, and create much needed parks throughout the country. The ECW became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (or CCC) and would employ over three million men from April 1933 to June 1942. Most enrollees were “junior enrollees”, young men between eighteen and twenty-five. These “CCC Boys” were unmarried men who came from families that received some form of relief. When they joined the CCC they received $30 a month for a six-month term of service, however $25 of their pay was sent directly to their families back home to help them out. If the men had no family, then the money was placed in a savings account for them. The remaining $5 that they received would be spending money for the men for the entire month.
Shortly after its creation, the CCC was expanded to include war veterans of both the Spanish-American War (1898) and the World War (1917-1918. These men could be of any age and be married. There was also an “Indian Department” of the CCC in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs operated CCC Camps, most on Indian Reservations for Native American enrollees. The CCC Camps that all of these men served at, regardless of age, were located near their work projects, normally national or state forests, parks (either national, state, or local), or near soil conservation and erosion control projects. In Michigan, the bulk of CCC work was in forests (national and state) and parks, mainly state parks, but also including Isle Royale National Park and a few local parks.
The CCC Camps were administered by the Department of War (the Army) and employed out of work Army Reserve officers to command the camps, however the CCC Boys were never part of the military. The CCC was managed by multiple agencies, not just the Army. The Department of Labor supervised the enrollment of the men and the departments of Agriculture and Interior shared responsibilities of supervising the work projects. The Army’s responsibilities included the feeding, clothing, and training of the men, and equipping the camps; thus CCC enrollees in their surplus army uniforms made them appear as soldiers. This lead to the nicknames of “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” and “Soil Soldiers.” Camps were laid out similar to Army camps and when a camp was first established, it was a tent camp, using the Army “pyramid” tents. Army dicipline helped to shape the young men too. They woke to reveille in the morning and followed a regimented schedule, but were allowed free time that many used by taking a variety of educational or vocational classes that helped them find employment. For those who volunteered or were drafted into the military during World War II, this training helped them gain quick promotion.
When many of the men joined the CCC, they were undernourished, somtimes going days between solid meals. One of the first tasks of the CCC was to put meat on their bones so they would be able do the work required. Unlike at home, food was plentiful in the CCC Camps, if not always the best tasting food. When possible, CCC Camps would employ local cooks to run their mess halls and feed the men. An old logging camp cook would be very valuable as it was known that these men would provide large amounts of hearty and usually good food. When a local cook was not available one of the enrollees would be promoted to Cook, whether he had cooking experience or not. At these times, balogna and ketchup sandwiches might become a daily staple. The Army’s Quartermaster Corps provided much of the food supplies for the camps but some was purchased from local farmers. If the camp was located in an area with plentiful game, some of the men with hunting experience might try for a deer or other game to suppliment the daily menu; but on holidays the men would get an extra special treat.
As seen in this Thanksgiving Menu from Camp Bewabic, near Crystal Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the men’s 1940 Thanksgiving dinner was very hearty. Dinner started with chicken noodle soup and crackers, and tunafish salad with French dressing. The main course was Roast Young Tom Turkey, liver and oysters, dressing, glazed candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, creamed cauliflower, buttered asparagus tips, jellied fresh cranberry sauce, celery hearts, giblet gravy, Parker House rolls, sweet mixed pickles, queen olives, Jello crystal, hot mincemeat pie with hard sauce, ice cream, Wisconsin cheese, coffee, tea, and mints. Quite a feast for these young men! Many a man felt guilty eating these big meals when they knew their families were not fairing nearly as well, regardless of the $25 a month that their pay provided for them.
Most of the enrollees remained in camp during the holidays. Passes were available for men to go home if they had the opportunity, but travel tended to be difficult and much longer than today. There were no Interstates and few fast highways. For those in the Upper Peninsula they had to contend with the slow car ferries across the Straits of Mackinac as the Mackinac Bridge would not be built until the 1950s. Train travel was available, but cost money. Few of the enrollees had automobiles as private vehicles were not allowed in camp, so hitch-hiking or the bus were the only alternative. Passes were not lengthy, usually only for about five days at the most, so going home for Thanksgivng or Christmas was rarely an option. So the CCC Boys spent Thanksgiving with their buddies eating a big meal, enjoying the day with music in the camp’s Canteen (recreational hall where they could get low alcohol beer and bottles of pop). Many camps had bands made up of the enrollees who played instruments, such as guitar, banjo, accordian, harmonica, etc. There would usually have a radio and a record player too. And yes, they could even listen to the Detroit Lions play on Thanksgiving! I imagine a few letters were written to families back home on that day.
The CCC Boys did endure their holidays away from home. Most did miss their families, but as Michael Rataj, who served in the CCC at Camp Mackinac in the late 1930s said “I didn’t miss home as it was terrible there. There were no jobs, we were poor, and didn’t have anything to eat.” Mike came from Detroit to the wilderness of the U.P. and when he joined the CCC and later when his brother also joined, his mother received $50 a month because of her sons! She was able to open a bank account, be able to feed and buy new clothes for Mike’s youngest brother and young sister, and made more money than the firemen at the fire station next door.
Enjoy your turkey or whatever you and your family will be having for Thanksgiving tomorrow and remember the CCC Boys who were forced to spend the holiday far away from their loved ones. Happy Thanksgivinig from North Country History!
You can learn more about the Civilian Conservation Corps and their Legacy in Michigan and the Great Lakes region with one of the offered CCC programs available through North Country History.