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For men of the Great Depression era, Civilian Conservation Corps was 'hard work, good deal'

Palmer Pederson, Perham, who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934-35, is pictured with book author Barbara Sommer, who spoke at the Perham veterans museum as part of the History Museum of East Otter Tail's lecture series. Born out of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal at the height of the Great Depression, the CCC supplied jobs to more than 77,000 Minnesotans in need. Their work left a lasting legacy, visible today in Minnesota's thriving forests, state park amenities, and soil conservation p...

For hundreds of thousands of unemployed men during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was "Hard Work and a Good Deal."

When unemployment was running about 50 percent, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt established various public works programs. It was the CCC that was perhaps the most successful and fondly remembered, according to author Barbara Sommer, who spoke in Perham Nov. 6.

In Minnesota alone, there were 150 camps between 1934 and 1942-including five in and around Otter Tail County.

Based largely on oral histories from men who worked in Minnesota's CCC camps, Sommer's book title is based on the most frequent comments made by the CCC veterans: "Hard Work and a Good Deal."

An estimated 124 million trees were planted in Minnesota-every one of them by hand-by CCC workers. Park buildings, some of which still stand and are in use today, were built by the CCC-perhaps most notably, the structures in Itasca State Park.

Water, soil and forest conservation projects were the most common at CCC camps, including work at the 21 state forests and 12 state parks, said Sommer. "The CCC left its handprint on Minnesota," said Sommer. It was also "one of the greatest and only national conservation programs," added Sommer, who spoke to a group of about 40 gathered at the ITOW Veterans Museum Nov. 6.

In the audience for the lecture was Palmer Pederson, a retired Perham mail carrier who worked for a year-and-a-half in camps near Rochester, near Deer River and in Grand Morais. He built dams in southern Minnesota farm fields; thinned trees and burned brush in state forests; and "fought mosquitos" while working the woods in the far north of Minnesota.

"We were very disciplined. We couldn't go anywhere," said Pederson. Because the camps were remote, there wasn't much to keep the men occupied. They gambled with pennies, he recalled.

Run by the United States Army, it was a boot camp experience for the soldiers. "We had inspections every day. It wasn't much different from the Army," recalled Pederson. And for thousands of the young men, it was experience that was applied again when they served in World War II-including Pederson, who served in Alaska and stateside during the war.

Audience members shared a few stories about the CCC, including John Dermody, Frazee, who said his mother met his father while he was serving at the Frazee area camp in 1934. Also in the audience were family members of Jim Snelgrove, who displayed photos of the Perham farm boy at the Ely, Superior National Forest, camp.

Snelgrove died 27 years ago, after a farming career in Perham. At 6 foot, one inch, Snelgrove was a big, healthy fellow, towering over camp mates in the 1935 photo outside one of the CCC barracks.

Sometimes called "Roosevelt's Tree Army," the CCC was intended to employ young, idle men and make them "strong, rugged and ready to re-enter the ranks of industry," as Pres. Roosevelt was quoted.

Men were paid $30 a month-$25 of which the federal government sent directly to parents, to help families get through the Great Depression. Most of the camps accommodated 200 men. Camps even published newspapers, such as the "Dora Lake Ripple," for the Otter Tail County water conservation crew based near the Otter Tail River.

Because of the nature of the work, it could be dangerous. There were injuries and some deaths, but the federal government promoted many of the worker-oriented practices that are now commonly accepted, such as workplace safety and the 40 hour work week. A typhoid epidemic struck at least one Minnesota CCC camp, said Sommer, and several died.

Born out of hardship in 1935, the CCC continued nationally until 1942. Mostly, enrollees were young men age 18-25-though opportunities were also provided for older, out-of-work World War I veterans.

With the U.S. entry into World War II, all hands were needed to fight the Germans and Japanese, ending the CCC.

"It was a federal program that actually ended, imagine that," said Sommer. But during its relatively brief history, the CCC provided work, fed hungry men, and gave them a "new lease on life," she added.