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Fighting for the Forest

How FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps Helped Save America

In an inspiring middle grade nonfiction work, P. O’Connell Pearson tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps—one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects that helped save a generation of Americans.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, the United States was on the brink of economic collapse and environmental disaster. Thirty-four days later, the first of over three million impoverished young men were building parks and reclaiming the nation’s forests and farmlands. The Civilian Conservation Corps—FDR’s favorite program and “miracle of inter-agency cooperation”—resulted in the building and/or improvement of hundreds of state and national parks, the restoration of nearly 120 million acre of land, and the planting of some three billion trees—more than half of all the trees ever planted in the United States.

Fighting for the Forest tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corp through a close look at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (the CCC’s first project) and through the personal stories and work of young men around the nation who came of age and changed their country for the better working in Roosevelt’s Tree Army.

Chapter 1: Waiting for Hope CHAPTER 1 Waiting for Hope

On the gray, cold morning of March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt woke in his room at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. This was a big day, perhaps the biggest day of Roosevelt’s life. But he started the morning the same way he had for years at home in New York—he ate breakfast in bed. Roosevelt wasn’t lazy, not a bit. As governor of New York, he had often worked while he ate—reading newspapers and going over important documents. Then a personal aide would take away the breakfast tray and lift Roosevelt from the bed to a wheelchair and help him use the bathroom. FDR was used to this morning routine, used to having someone help him with the most basic things. His legs had been completely paralyzed for nearly twelve years.

Once the aide helped him into his underthings, Roosevelt strapped on the metal braces that allowed him to stand up for short periods of time. Though the braces were heavy and uncomfortable, they were frequently part of FDR’s routine. On most days, Roosevelt wore a business suit. But on this morning, he chose formal striped trousers and a morning coat. After all, at noon Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be inaugurated president of the United States.

Meanwhile, in Herndon, Virginia, twenty-five miles west of Washington, Woody Wilson started his own morning routine. It was nothing like Mr. Roosevelt’s. The walk from Woody’s back door to the outhouse could be frigid on such a damp day, but he was used to it, never having had an indoor toilet. He was also used to wearing the same worn clothes day after day, because that was all he owned. Eighteen-year-old Walker Woodrow Wilson—named for President Woodrow Wilson, who was in office when he was born—lived with his parents in the small house his father had built. He would have liked to be out on his own like his five older brothers and sisters were, but he didn’t see a way to do it. Woody was stuck with no money, no job, and no place to find work. He’d quit school five years earlier at the end of eighth grade and found temporary jobs here and there for a while. But for the last three years—well, the economy had been in ruins. Woody couldn’t even find enough work to help his parents buy food for the three of them, and it hurt to feel useless, especially with his father unemployed.

Thomas Wilson, Woody’s dad, had worked for years on the railroad that collected milk from dairy farms in Virginia’s hilly countryside and delivered it to the dairies that processed it in and near Washington, DC. Back and forth, every day—hundreds of gallons of milk. But people could no longer afford to buy all that milk or any of the other factory and farm goods that trains hauled.1 As a result, Tom Wilson lost his job. And he wasn’t alone.

All over the United States, thousands and thousands of men and women faced unemployment as the big spending of the 1920s slowed and the economy slid into a depression: a depression that had worsened every day for three years. How had it happened?

Economic depressions are like the flu: contagious. Suppose a factory closes and the workers lose their jobs. Since they don’t have money coming in, they stop buying new clothes. After a while the clothing stores go out of business and those workers lose their jobs. The factory workers and the clothing store workers stop going to restaurants. Pretty soon the restaurants close and those workers lose their jobs. The spiral widens and widens, pulling everything down with it, like water swirling into a drain.

There had been depressions before, but none like the one that started in 1929 and became known as the Great Depression (“great” meaning huge, not wonderful). The stock market—where people can buy small pieces, or shares, of businesses in hopes of making a profit when they sell their shares later—had crashed. Instead of growing, businesses failed and the shares many people had spent their savings on were now worthless. Banks collapsed and lost their customers’ savings. Thousands of factories went bankrupt, leaving their workers without jobs. As everything fell apart, people wanted to know why it had all happened. But three years later, on Franklin Roosevelt’s Inauguration Day, ordinary people like the Wilsons didn’t care anymore about what had caused the Great Depression. They didn’t care why the stock market had collapsed or why banks lost all that money. They just wanted to know what the new president was going to do to fix things so they could find jobs again and be able to feed, clothe, and house their families.

Economies and Depressions

An economy is everything anyone in a country does to make, buy, and sell goods and services. That includes finding resources, building factories, hiring workers, trucking goods to stores, advertising, and on and on. When the economy is doing well, most people can find jobs and afford decent housing and food. An economy that is doing very well is said to be in a boom. When economic activity slows down, people lose jobs, buy fewer things, and spend less money. That means that they can’t afford the things they normally buy, and businesses can’t sell everything they produce. An economic slowdown is called a recession. A very serious slowdown is called a depression. The worldwide depression that started in 1929 was the worst economic slowdown in modern history. It lasted for a decade and is known as the Great Depression.

At ten fifteen, President-Elect Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, and their invited guests entered St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House for a brief service. Some members of the congregation saw that Mr. Roosevelt kept his head bowed for a very long time. Thinking about the economic crisis and the problems FDR would face as president, they decided that if he was praying for strength and guidance, he had good reason. Meanwhile, a mile east at the end of the National Mall, reporters and cameramen tried to ignore the bone-chilling wind as they set up their equipment on the grounds of the United States Capitol. The streets in Washington had been nearly empty earlier in the morning, but now people began to gather. Hundreds and then thousands of spectators made their way toward the lawn in front of the huge domed building. They stamped their feet and pulled their scarves tighter against the cold as they waited for the ceremony to begin—but they didn’t say much to one another. One man said the crowd was “as silent as a group of mourners around a grave.”2

The mood was the same around the rest of the country. On most Saturday mornings people would be busy with trips to the market, the barbershop, the bank, and more. But during the past week, the governors of most states had ordered all the banks to close. So many banks had failed—and so many others teetered on the edge of failing—that the governors feared violence and rioting. That had already happened in some places when banks couldn’t give customers the money that was supposed to be in their accounts. People had panicked.

With all the banks closed, even men and women who had money in a solid, safe bank couldn’t get to it. Businesses couldn’t pay their workers. Guests at fine hotels in Washington who’d come for the inauguration couldn’t cover the cost of their rooms. This was long before credit cards or ATMs, so what were people supposed to do?

Just before eleven o’clock, Roosevelt arrived at the north entrance to the White House in the back of an open touring car, a convertible. He waited with a heavy blanket over his thin, braced legs as President Herbert Hoover came to join him. The two men rode toward the Capitol together, hardly speaking at all. There really wasn’t anything to say. Hoover had run for a second term against Roosevelt in November and been trounced. He knew Americans were angry as well as frightened. During the presidential campaign, some people had even thrown rotten eggs at his car as he rode by.3 Four years earlier, Herbert Hoover had won election easily. But now voters blamed him for the terrible financial disaster that was destroying their lives and their country. The blame wasn’t entirely fair.

The Depression began about eight months after Hoover took office in 1929. But the problems that led to it had been growing for several years. When the economy fell, Hoover actually did more to try to lift businesses and banks than any president had ever done before. However, nothing he did seemed to help, and millions of Americans found themselves hungry and homeless.

For three years President Hoover assured Americans that the economy was getting better even when everyone knew it was getting worse. He tried to explain that he was doing everything a president could do, and he meant what he said. He believed that “voluntary organizations and community service”—people helping one another—were the best way to get money and food to the needy. The federal government (the government of the whole country) didn’t belong in citizens’ personal economic lives.4 But the crisis was too deep. As Inauguration Day approached, Hoover told an aide, “We are at the end of our string. There is nothing more we can do.”5

Franklin Roosevelt disagreed. He believed that in such terrible circumstances the federal government had to save people from starvation and save the country from collapse. Roosevelt was convinced that there was much, much more the government and the president could do to turn things around.

When Election Day came in November 1932, voters rejected Hoover’s philosophy and elected Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide.

What Caused the Great Depression?

Several factors came together to cause the Great Depression. During the 1920s, many businesses used their profits to buy new equipment and build new factories but didn’t increase workers’ pay. As a result, workers couldn’t afford to buy things, which left business owners with warehouses full of goods they couldn’t sell. They slowed their production and had to fire workers. At the same time, demand for farm goods, which had increased during World War I, now fell. Farmers couldn’t make enough money to pay back the money they had borrowed to buy new tractors and the like. Additionally, many banks used the money their customers had put in savings accounts to invest in risky businesses. When those businesses failed, the banks could not give customers their money. That, in turn, caused panic at other banks. Problems in international trade also hurt the economy. The result was a severe, worldwide depression.

Roosevelt waved his hat to the crowds that now filled sidewalks and stretched over the stairs and porches of office buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. People cheered when they saw the president-elect’s jaunty smile. They hoped that smile meant help was on the way and everything would be all right. They hoped the country had made the right choice.

FDR looked confident and energetic. He knew it was important for people to see that their president believed the situation would improve. But even as he lifted his top hat to his supporters, he was well aware of the grim statistics he and the nation faced. He knew the numbers that kept economic experts awake at night. Those numbers told a terrible story.

Let’s start with the number twenty-five. Twenty-five percent of the workers in the United States were unemployed in 1933. The US had never had such high unemployment before and never has since. Not even close.

Like Woody’s family in Virginia, most families in those days relied on just one worker to provide all the money for housing, clothing, and food. If that one worker lost his job, it left the whole family with no income—so when one hundred people lost their jobs, four or five hundred people found themselves in need. Twenty-five percent unemployment meant that millions of American workers and their families had absolutely no income. In addition, millions more men and women had gone from full-time to part-time employment, some working as little as one day a week. Even people who still had their regular jobs often had a hard time because they had to support their own families and out-of-work brothers, sisters, parents, or other relatives.

To make matters worse, the government provided no “safety net” programs at the time—programs to help people who can’t find jobs. No unemployment insurance, and no government help with the cost of food, housing, medical needs, or anything else. If a jobless person couldn’t get aid from extended family and local charities that had nothing left to give, that person had nowhere to turn.

Across the country, millions of Americans lived on cheap oatmeal and macaroni meal after meal. They gave up their telephones and turned off the heat. Sometimes they turned off the electricity as well. They brushed with baking soda instead of toothpaste, put cardboard in their shoes to cover the holes, and even used the pages of free shopping catalogs in place of toilet paper. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” became their motto. Even so, starvation was a real possibility.

Numbers such as unemployment percentages are averages, of course. While unemployment wasn’t nearly as high as 25 percent in some places, it was much higher in others. In Detroit, Michigan, for example, a young man named Houston Pritchett had worked hard to finish high school, beating the odds for African American men in the 1930s. Only one-third of all young Americans had high school diplomas in those days, and the rate for blacks was far less than that. But even with a diploma, Houston couldn’t find a job. Unemployment in Detroit was 50 percent overall and much worse for African Americans, and Houston Pritchett spent his days in the streets, terribly poor.6 Thousands of other young men like him did the same. They stood on corners or huddled in doorways, and when their hunger got too bad, they sometimes turned to stealing food, or money to get food.

In Toledo, Ohio, the situation was unbelievably awful. Unemployment there neared 80 percent.7 Think about that. Eight out of ten workers in Toledo had no jobs. That meant that eight out of ten families, or at least 230,000 of the 290,000 men, women, and children in the city had no income.8 What could the new president promise people in Detroit and Toledo? What could he do to help people like Woody Wilson and Houston Pritchett and their families?

While President-elect Roosevelt and President Hoover rode slowly toward the Capitol, the people Roosevelt had invited to the prayer service struggled to get from the church to the inaugural ceremony. Cabinet members and many other guests were expected to sit behind the new president as he took the oath of office and gave his inaugural address. But there had never been so many people in Washington, and the huge crowds made getting to the Capitol difficult. Men and women packed the sidewalks and hundreds of pedestrians blocked traffic as they spilled into the street.

Frances Perkins, about to become the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet, tried to find a taxi outside St. John’s Church. She had no luck. Neither did Henry Wallace, soon to be secretary of agriculture. Together, they flagged down an ordinary car and begged the driver to help. He took them as far as he could, but the crowd was too thick. Anxious to be on time for the ceremony, Perkins and Wallace jumped out of the car and ran up Pennsylvania Avenue, pushing their way through the crowd. They ducked under a police rope and onto the cold, wet lawn, where Frances Perkins’s high heels sank into the soggy grass. They raced up the Capitol’s steps and, gasping for air, slipped into their seats as the inauguration got underway. They had nearly missed the first official duty of the first day in their new jobs.9

Both Perkins and Wallace were newcomers to Washington, and both were anxious to get busy. They knew how desperate the country was.

Frances Perkins had worked with terribly poor people in huge cities like Chicago and New York. She’d fought for better conditions for men and women in dangerous factory jobs, where workers often lost fingers or hands in machinery or inhaled fabric fibers or coal dust day in and day out. As bad as those jobs were, though, they were better than no job at all. And many of those people were now out of work. Perkins knew the workers’ children, who went to school ashamed of being constantly dirty and smelly since they had no hot water for a bath. Many stayed home from school in bitter cold weather because they owned no coats, mittens, or boots. Instead of learning anything or playing outside or seeing other children, they stayed in bed and under blankets and quilts in their unheated homes.

Millions of children also suffered from malnutrition because they didn’t have enough to eat and rarely got fruits or vegetables or good protein.10 In Woody’s home state of Virginia, 90 percent of the children in schools were malnourished.11 And when a teacher in Washington, DC, asked a boy why he hadn’t brought lunch to school, he answered, “It’s my sister’s turn to eat today.”12 Lack of good food left children too weak to fight off colds or other illnesses. Their noses ran constantly, they had no energy, and their skin turned scaly and dry. Poor nutrition could also lead to diseases such as scurvy, which causes exhaustion and pain, and rickets, which softens a child’s bones.

Imagine going whole days with nothing to eat or putting ketchup on a piece of bread and calling it dinner. Children felt real pain in their stomachs because of the hunger. They went to bed hungry and woke to go to school without breakfast. Picture feeling that way day after day and knowing each night that the next day would be no better. In the years before school lunch programs for the poor, thousands of teachers used their own money to buy food for their students, but other teachers couldn’t do that—many of them were just as poor as the children they taught. Misery spread everywhere.

The Depression had forced entire families to live in their cars or trucks, or cram into cardboard and scrap-wood shacks in camps called “Hoovervilles.” These shantytowns appeared on the edges of nearly every city and town in the country, often close to rivers, where people could use river water to wash, no matter how dirty it might be. Five-year-olds begged on the streets of places like St. Louis and Baltimore. And men who had been previously well-off stood on corners selling apples or wearing signs asking for food.

Churches, synagogues, and charities turned their basements and hallways into makeshift kitchens where a person could get a free meal. Hungry people stood in “bread lines” that stretched out the door and around the block. Houston Pritchett waited in a line like that almost every day for a bowl of thin soup and a little bread. Often, it was all he had to eat. Thousands more hungry men and women prowled alleys behind restaurants and markets, foraging for food in garbage bins, their mouths and noses covered with handkerchiefs to mask the stench of rotting meat.

Eighty years later, one woman, her voice breaking with emotion, said, “You can’t imagine how poor people were. You can’t imagine it.”13

The misery hit big cities, small towns like Herndon, and even the farmlands of America. Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s choice for secretary of agriculture, came from Iowa and knew more about farming than almost anyone. He understood the hardships agricultural families experienced. Just like city homeowners, farmers borrowed money to build barns or houses or buy land and equipment. But when farm incomes dropped, they couldn’t pay the banks what they owed and the banks could take their land in what’s called foreclosure. By Inauguration Day, nearly one-third of the farmers on the Great Plains—the dry grasslands that stretch east to west between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains—faced foreclosure on their land. The same was true of ranchers in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and elsewhere.14

Farmers in every part of the country who’d been doing well a decade ago were now bankrupt. The land simply wasn’t producing what it used to, or prices for crops had fallen to practically nothing, or both. Farm children suffered red, itchy skin when their mothers were forced to dress them in shirts or smocks made of old feed sacks. And most went without shoes much of the year. How would the nation survive if something wasn’t done?

Throughout the United States, workers with and without jobs, families in marble mansions and in tar-paper shacks, farmers watching spring rains irrigate their fields and farmers seeing the dry soil turn to dust—all gathered around the nearest radio on Inauguration Day. They wanted to hear the new president speak. Americans everywhere—those who had voted for Roosevelt and those who had not—sensed change was coming. Most hoped that it was.

Millions had nothing left but hope.

Patricia O’Connell Pearson is a former history teacher with a master’s degree in education from George Mason University. She has contributed to and edited history textbooks and published articles in magazines and newspapers including The Washington Post. Always enthusiastic about sharing the stories of history, she earned her MFA in writing for young people from Lesley University and now writes both historical fiction and nonfiction. When she is not writing about history, she can often be found talking about history as a volunteer with the National Park Service in Washington, DC. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

"A well-researched, informative introduction to a topic seldom discussed in books for young people."

– Booklist, starred review

"An informative, inspiring look at desperate times and how government can achieve great things through cooperation and good leadership."

– Kirkus Reviews

  • CBC/NCSS Notable Children's Book in Social Studies
  • Jefferson Cup Award Honor Title (VA)
  • TX Triple Crown Nominee
  • Topaz Nonfiction Reading List (TX)
  • Children's History Book Prize Finalist
  • Triple Crown Lamplighter Award Nominee

More books from this author: P. O’Connell Pearson