The Civilian Conservation Corps and Texas politics combine for a great piece of history.
The Great Depression is one of the bullet points of American History, one of those vague events that most people have heard of but would have probably have difficulty describing in any detail.
The economy tanked, some stock-brokers hopped out of a few windows, the Joad’s farm got repossessed by the bank, something something Dustbowl: to most people, the Great Depression is simply history, something remote and with little every day relevance.
This is unfortunate, because it is also untrue. The Great Depression shaped much of modern America, and has left an indelible mark on our cultural and, in fact, physical landscape. Banking, agriculture, tax structure, and more were all were reorganized under Roosevelt’s presidency in an attempt to reverse the effects of the Great Depression.
Perhaps most relevant to the outdoors enthusiasts today, however, was FDR’s “Alphabet Soup,” the organization of federally hired and deployed labor that included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
With unemployment reaching 25% in the 30s and no relief on the horizon, the federal government took it upon itself to provide jobs and training to unemployed men, despite fears of “reckless spending” and socialism. The Civilian Conservation Corps was just one part of the broader Work Progress Administration strategy.
The CCC was developed primarily to hire unskilled labor to be used to develop and protect the natural resources and public lands of the US. In Texas, this program was to have a profound effect.
Texas had (and continues to have) a unique relationship with its public lands; namely, it sold most of them off by the early 1900s. As a result, relatively little of this enormous state was available for use by the public.
Road building, as a response to the steady increase in car availability and driving, meant that many people were for the first time able to quickly and easily travel to other parts of the country. Teddy Roosevelt’s National Park system had established a framework for outdoor recreation, and insipient camping and hiking culture lead people to want to protect and preserve land for public use under law.
However, Texas’s earliest attempts at forming state parks were met mostly with failure. The state legislature, while approving the formation of a Texas State Parks Board, refused to allow them funds to buy land for the purpose of forming a state park.
As such, by the late 20s, there were a few parks in the state. When the Depression officially became Great, the strain on state funds put a halt to any further development plans.
Luckily for us, however, the federal government and the CCC stepped in.
The CCC’s army of young men, 18-25 and earning $30/month, established camps mostly in the eastern part of the state, though there were a few western camps as well. Billeted on site, the CCC undertook a wide range of local projects based on the proposals of local communities.
Because of the CCC’s uniquely environmental bent, the majority of these had to do with developing trails and facilities in newly acquired park lands. The combination of local interest and guidance with federal funding allowed these parks to develop and retain much of the specific regional charm that made each site unique.
The CCC also helped improve the highway system in Texas and other states, allowing for more citizens to easily access the newly developed state parks.
Today, 29 of the Texas State Parks are the direct result of the CCC, including such gems as Palo Duro Canyon, Davis Mountain State Park, and Abilene State Park.
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At these and other sites, the CCC provided thousands of hours of back-breaking labor and hard work to build roads, improve access, and construct facilities and trails that we still enjoy today, all paid for by the federal government.
The TPWD maintains an fantastic resource online detailing the specific history of the CCC in each of these parks; it makes for interesting reading, and really drives home the point that our public lands are the products of human labor. Take a moment and hike through any of these, and you’ll quickly come to appreciate why the CCC was easily the most popular program of FDR’s New Deal.