I’m enjoying a book about a work program that gave Iowa a national leadership role in conservation work over 80 years ago. “Civilian Conservation Corps in Northeast Iowa,” by Linda Betsinger McCann, tells the story of that program during one of the most difficult eras in our history. 1933 was a rough year in what became one of the roughest decades in Iowa history. Demand for crops and livestock had dropped to critical levels. Jobs were nearly impossible to find; particularly for young men. An epic drought, now known as the Dust Bowl, had set in and entire farms literally blew away on the Great Plains just to our west. Hunger and poverty were affecting more and more people here and across the nation. Something good came out of all of the despair, though.
The new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was offering a “New Deal” to help the nation get back on its feet. Part of that was a plan to federally fund massive employment projects to get men back to work and to complete important infrastructure and conservation projects that would serve the public good for generations to come. Iowa became an early focal point for projects by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Iowa’s head start on other states came about because back in 1931, Gov. Turner created the Iowa State Planning Board, one of the nation’s first statewide planning agencies. Their 25-year Conservation Plan fit perfectly with the kind of things the WPA and CCC were created to do. With those plans already in place and some state funds already committed, Iowa was ready when federal funds began to flow into the new employment programs.
Cities and counties bid for “camps” to be created in their areas to address erosion control, flood prevention, reforestation and park creation. A typical CCC camp employed about 200 young men, housed in quickly built barracks, but some lived in tents for months. The camp was usually headed by a U.S. Army officer. The camp offered far more than just work. Each camp had a library and a recreation hall. Classes were offered during off-work hours. Sports teams were formed and competed against each other in statewide tournaments. Many of the men who entered the program were undernourished and some were illiterate. Basic classes in reading, writing and math were offered, as well as training in various occupational skills. Some completed high school degrees while employed with the program.
Those grand old stone and log park buildings and stone trail steps so familiar in our oldest state parks all date to those years before WWII. So do the dams for many park lakes and even ISU’s Lake LaVerne. Some parks, like Beed’s Lake near Hampton, were built from scratch. Less known is the soil conservation and reforestation work the men completed. Thousands of acres on Iowa farms had terracing and contours laid out by the CCC men. Hundreds of miles of stream banks and ravines were stabilized. Millions of trees were planted. Many of the now-mature trees in our state forests and parks were planted by them. Note that there was a known need for water quality improvement even then!
WWII put the nation back to work on a vast scale, and the CCC and WPA lost most of their available employees to military service. Many of the camps themselves were taken over by military services. Though the work programs ended, the ideas behind them did not. They reappeared in the early 1970s in the form of the national Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). That wonderful program provided summer employment, along with an element of education for high school kids for several years. Trails in McFarland Park, Robison Park and the Skunk River Greenbelt were built by those kids. Federal funding dried up after a few years, but the program was so successful and popular here in Iowa that state and local funding kept it going as the Iowa Youth Corps (IYC) for several more years. Story County has one of the strongest and longest records with these programs, and hundreds of local kids benefited. The idea continues yet today, with a program that employs young adults for a year called Conservation Corps Iowa (CCI). As in the past, the program has a strong educational component, with opportunities for hands-on learning, even as the enrollees complete valuable natural resource projects. Invasive species control work and trail improvements in several Story County parks are ongoing by CCI crews.
I have fond memories of working with crews of YCC and IYC kids back in the ’70s and ’80s, and I’m still in touch with some of them. I hope there’ll always be a way for future generations of young people to spend time working in the great outdoors on meaningful conservation projects. There’s still no end of work that needs to be done.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.