Primary Source Adventures
Life in the Civilian Conservation Corps
This PSA gives learners an opportunity to explore the use of oral history to discover the past. Students will gain an understanding of the effect of the Great Depression on Texas, as well as an inside look at life in the CCC and how it aided those in need.
Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.
The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, research, and present interesting reputable sites during lectures.
Life in the Civilian Conservation Corps
prepared by Vale Fitzpatrick
edited by Nancy Reis
One of the most defining events in American history was the Great Depression. No portion of the United States was immune from its effects—despite initial claims to the contrary from Texans. This Primary Source Adventure (PSA) will examine the harsh realities of the Depression and explore one program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), developed by the federal government to mitigate unemployment and create jobs. Learners will utilize transcripts from the oral account of Texan Claude L. Hendon to learn firsthand how ordinary Texans were affected by the Great Depression and what life was like in the CCC.
On “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929, stock prices crashed, suffering a loss of 12 percent of total market value. During the next four years, forty billion dollars were lost. The market continued to fall some 89.2 percent overall until it reached its nadir in 1932. While the fall of the stock market did not destroy the American economy, it did create a depression which sharply curtailed confidence among investors and consumers. Businesses left with large inventories cut back on hiring and production while individuals reduced spending. Consequent reductions in consumer confidence and investments strengthened the downward spiral of the economy. The stock market crash also destroyed banks which were left holding worthless stock as collateral for loans. Depositors panicked at the news and rushed to withdraw their savings, thus precipitating more bank collapses. These “Runs” destroyed thousands of financial institutions, further eroding investor and consumer spending.
Initially, Texans believed the Great Depression would affect only those who gambled on the stock market or greedy northeasterners who had placed their faith in the paper currency of the stock market. Most Texans supported President Herbert Hoover’s statements that the economy was sound and the weakness could be corrected within the stock market. The cotton crop of 1929 had been sold at a healthy profit before the crash, and Texas’s cattle and oil industries were based on land—not Wall Street paper. Texans could produce enough food on their farms to keep from going hungry; New York’s financial disaster seemed a long way away.
Although Texas legislators and newspapers dismissed the seriousness of the Great Depression, by 1930 widespread unemployment was evident in cities throughout Texas. Overproduction of oil drove prices down to eight cents a barrel in 1931. Prices for corn and cattle dropped 50 percent from 1929 to 1931.1 Tenant farmers occupying 307,362 of the 507,426 farms in Texas were pushed into financial ruin.2 The Great Depression had hit Texas: industrially, financially, and agriculturally.
A federal program for the unemployed that had a notable presence in Texas was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Operating from 1933 to 1942, the CCC provided employment for 2.5 million young men working out of nearly 3,000 camps nationwide under the supervision of the United States Army, and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior with state cooperation. This program targeted unmarried men aged 17 to 25 whose families were on relief. Enrollees lived a regimented life in camps and worked on soil and forest conservation projects. The CCC planted trees, built trails and parks, stocked fish, built thousands of wildlife shelters, dug diversion ditches and canals, restored Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, and fought forest fires.3 One of the CCC’s most visible and lasting achievements in Texas was construction of significant portions of the state’s park system. Of the 56 parks built by the CCC, 31 still exist today.
Claude L. Hendon was an ordinary citizen who served in the CCC from 1939 to 1941. He was driven to join by the needs of his family members who were poor tenant farmers. In 1994, interviewer Kelli Pickard collected an oral account of Hendon’s experiences. His oral history was chosen for this PSA because of his vivid recollections of life during the Great Depression: “If it hadn’t been for that $24 that I sent home to my family, my sister in Saint Louis says sometimes in a nostalgic sort of way that I kept them from starving to death.”4
Oral histories supplement the written word historians have traditionally relied upon to reconstruct the past. The oral history preserves through oral interviews the memories of individuals who have been direct participants in or eye-witnesses to historical events. One advantage of oral history is that it records the experiences of ordinary people as well as those of “great individuals,” thereby providing a fuller view and enriching the historical narrative. However, oral history is not without its critics. A person’s memory of events may be very subjective and can change over time. As with other types of sources, the historian should verify and corroborate the information in an oral history interview to ensure its accuracy.
1Randolph B. Campbell, Gone To Texas. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 378.
2Lionel V. Patenaude, Texans, Politics and the New Deal. (NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983), 3.
3William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940. (NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), 174.
4Interviewer Kelli Pickard, Claude L. Hendon University of North Texas Oral History Collection Number 950 March 6, 1994.