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Country Views: When unemployment hit 70%

Seventy percent unemployment is not something I can imagine.

I’ve been reading some histories of the Civilian Conservation Corps. They say that unemployment on Minnesota’s Iron Range ran that high in the early 1930s when the government started the CCC program. It seems like 70 percent unemployment would mean that there would be no money around. It would make economic activity nearly impossible.

Clair T. Rollings described the impoverished group of young men who enrolled at the CCC camp near Bena, near Deer River in northern Minnesota, in 1933.

Rabideau Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, Picnic Shelter, County Road 39, Blackduck, Beltrami County, MN. Photo from the Library of Congress

“Their families were without jobs, many without any income of any type. The first 200 enrollees in Co. 708 came largely from the Iron Range with a few from the Twin Cities and other villages and towns throughout Minnesota. None was from out of state. They were hungry, broke, some were poorly clothed, some had dropped out of school and a few had gotten into mischief largely because they had no gainful work to do.”

The circumstances like Rollings described were those that my grandparents had to raise my parents under. I always had respect for the elders who said, “I grew up in the ‘30s,” but I think I never really understood. For adults, it must have felt like the end of civilization as they knew it. For the young people, like those described by Rollings, the future must have seemed bleak and hopeless.

Rollings was educated at the University of Minnesota, and he became the education advisor for the Bena CCC camp. He doesn’t say, but I expect that landing that job was a real plum for him and his new wife. I don’t expect there were many jobs for college graduates in 1933.

What he does tell in his typewritten History of Company 708 Civilian Conservation Corps is a part of the history of how Americans pulled our country away from the abyss during the 1930s.

Part of the solution to the economic disaster of the 1930s was that young Americans were ready to work and regain their dignity. They just needed something constructive to do, Rollings said.

“But practically every enrollee was willing and anxious to work, to accept and respect leadership and above all they were happy for the opportunity to improve their own financial status and to help their families back home.”

Those young fellows – and they were all men – worked as hard as only the young can. Within days they had a tent town for two hundred, including a mess and recreation tent. Before winter came they’d sawed enough logs to build a small town, with a school, repair shop, library and infirmary, as well as the above-mentioned mess and recreation halls. They did this while fighting forest fires, cutting firewood, building bridges, and taking some time to study reading, writing and arithmetic.

They also built officers’ quarters. And this is the other important ingredient for the amazing success of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The officers’ quarters were for the U.S. Army officers that ran the camp. The Army, along with the U.S. Forest Service and a dozen other federal agencies, put their leadership and organizational skills behind the enthusiastic young people and gave them focus and discipline. It was this discipline and focus that allowed CCC camps across the U.S. to plant between two and three billion trees and build 125,000 miles of roads, among many other projects. Some of those trees are just now being harvested, and the roads are still in use.

Clair T. Rollings doesn’t describe the hard work of road building, tree planting, and fire fighting that the young men did. He was in charge of education and recreation, so his story focuses on that.

“As a qualified high school instructor I was able to teach such basic and practical courses as English, Math, Public Speaking, etc. My assistant, O. Anderson taught Spelling, Typing, etc. Foresters taught some on-the-job training courses in which Enrollees got both classroom instruction and field experience.”

Further instruction included personal hygiene, first aid, singing and instruction in various musical instruments.

“One of the Foresters’ wives, Mrs. Bruce Centerwell, a music instructor, helped develop a good enrollee band. The clarinet player, Arvid Olson, had played a year with a good St. Olaf College band. Pretzel on the trumpet and Pearson on the piano also had a year or more of music training in college.”

The Company 708 band became good enough to provide music at dances in nearby towns.

My high school music classes allowed me to enjoy and understand music these last 50 years in a way I never would had I not been able to take those classes. I treasure those lessons, and I suspect those young men treasured theirs for a lifetime also.

But I take my lessons in reading and writing for granted. Of course, we learned how to read and write. Not so the young people of the 1930s. Tens of thousands of youngsters were dropping out of school or never enrolling. The United States was on the verge of having a generation of illiterates. The CCC recognized that those young people could not be left behind. So across the country, men like Clair Rowlings set out to change that. More then 40,000 young enrollees came to the camps illiterate and left as competent readers.

Some say that the Depression ended and the CCC camps closed when WWII started. There is another perspective. It is that the two to three million CCC men, trained, focused, strong and well nourished, and well acquainted with leadership structures put America in a position to win the war.

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