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History + the Great Depression

In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to reduce unemployment, especially among young men; and to preserve the nation's natural resources. For example many CCC projects centered on forestry, flood control, prevention of soil erosion, and fighting forest fires. The impact of this New Deal program reached far beyond those specific goals however.

CCC logo

This 5 Lesson Depression Unit will view this difficult time through the focused lens of the Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC) These lessons will address the larger national themes of Relief, Recovery and Reform, New Deal Race Relations, Agricultural and Environmental Crisis, and American Culture during the Depression.

The CCC operated in cooperation with and under the technical supervision of the War Department, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Labor. Other agencies such as the Office of Education and the United States Veterans Administration also played a role. Nationwide camps were established primarily for young men, but were also established for U.S. Military Veterans, (in response to the Bonus Army march on Washington in 1932) as well as “Colored Camps” for African Americans. As the CCC continued to develop, one group was conspicuously absent from the ranks of most relief programs, namely women. The appreciation of the need for relief jobs for women was not very high on the “New Dealers” list, save one, Eleanor Roosevelt. “From the earliest discussions of the CCC, she championed the cause of adding the estimated 200,000 homeless women to the CCC to work in tree “nurseries,” perhaps shrewdly sexist, but well intentioned. She eventually met with Francis Perkins, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, but nothing came of it. Eventually, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) would establish relief programs for unemployed women referred to as “She-She-She” work camps, the CCC remained all male.

It is interesting to note that these camps had significant local economic impact as well. Whether it involved the purchase of needed supplies, the enrolling of local men, or the hiring of Local Experienced Men (LEM’s), primarily unemployed local woodsmen, the impact was both significant and long term. From 1933 through 1942, the CCC assigned nearly 165,000 men to 128 camps throughout Wisconsin, planting nearly three billion trees, some 265 million of them in Wisconsin.

Within four months after America entered World Was II, 90% of CCC men joined the Armed Services and continued their contribution to their country.

All necessary elements are included in this unit and are available through the Center for History Teaching and Learning Website so teachers are not required to do extra work in order to teach it. There are a variety of resources and exercises providing teachers with numerous options. This unit, though designed for a high school U.S. history class, is easily adaptable for a variety of grade levels simply by selecting the desired sources to analyze and by changing the amount of guidance for the activities.

Teaching Unit 2

Lesson 1: My Days in the Civilian Conservation Corps
Lesson Goal:

This lesson addresses the theme of Relief, Recovery and Reform. The major goal of this lesson is to introduce the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) by looking specifically at individuals who were in the camps in an effort to find out who they were, why they enrolled and what they did during their enrollment. The CCC is a classic example of government Relief in the form of a works project, more specifically hiring men to do jobs that would not get done due to the economic crisis. The CCC helped the country to Recover economically by employing millions of young men and pumping billions of dollars into state and local economies. The CCC also offered Reform in the areas of soil and water conservation, wildlife management and forestry.

Lesson Focus:

This lesson will focus initially on developing a general understanding of the specifics of the New Deal program know as the Civilian Conservation Corps. A review of the CCC PowerPoint on Camp Perkinstown will give the student an understanding of the how the1692nd was created, organized, and run. After a baseline of knowledge is established the focus will shift to the impact of the camp on the individuals who were there.

Lesson Resources:
  • In There Words, Minnesota’s Greatest Generation
  • R. John Buskowiak: I Just Loved It
  • DVD player
  • PowerPoint of Camp Perkinstown (On Center for History Teaching and Learning website)
  • CHTL; Good for general background on CCC camps.

This activity introduces students to the Civilian Conservation Corps through artifacts and memories shared by real veterans of the CCC, which was a work camp for young men in the 1930s. You’ll have a chance to learn about the CCC, and look at some of the things that young men brought with them when they enlisted.

This site lists the CCC Camp Project Company Number, Date the Camp was Established, Nearest Railroad, Nearest Post Office, and a Location Reference for every CCC camp in Wisconsin from 1933 – 1942.

Map of the Sparta District of the CCC, Sixth Corps Area

  1. Teacher introduces the topic by viewing and discussing the Camp Perkinstown PPT.
  2. Students read either the biography of John Buskowiak or Alfred Nelson and pair up to discuss what life must have been like in the CCC camps.
  3. CCC Trunk classroom activity. Ask students to imagine life in the CCC, and think back to the introductory class conversation. Direct students to the interactive CCC trunk. Students will need to click the mouse on the "Learn More" caption under the photograph of the trunk to launch the interactive flash movie. Show them that they can click on the trunk at any time during the audio to open it and explore its lid, drawer and base. Many of the items in each trunk section are also interactive. Encourage the students to listen to the audio, much of which is narration by John Buskowiak, the trunk’s owner.

Letter Writing Assessment:

Students will be assigned the task of writing a letter as though they were enrolled in a CCC camp. The letter should focus on their daily activities and items seen in the CCC trunk, as well as what they like or dislike about the camps.

Content Goal:

The student will interpret the historic and personal significance of historic artifacts from the CCC trunk and relate that importance in writing.

Skill Goal:

This letter writing assignment will develop student ability to express in written form

Teacher Notes:

This assessment is designed to get the students to inspect and evaluate the specific artifacts that may be found in a CCC enrollee’s trunk. Notice in particular, the style of uniforms, (different from the military) tools, documents and other items they may have had. What do these things tell us about the daily existence of these men?

Map Assessment:

Provide students with a list of the Camps around the state and have them place these camps on the map along with the type of camp that they were and when they were created. Analyzing the various roles of the camps depending on where they were located…

Content Goal:

Students will develop an understanding of which types of camps were located in what areas of the state.

Skill Goal:

Students will develop map reading skills by placing the CCC camps in the correct locations on the state map provided.

Teacher Notes:

This assessment is designed to get the student to appreciate the diversity of the camps and the vastness of the undertaking. It will also help them to identify camps in their proximity and establish a local connection. This can also be used to identify the different roles of these camps as established throughout the state.

Lesson 2: African-Americans and the CCC
Lesson Goal:

This lesson addresses Unit Theme #2, New Deal Race Relations, and African Americans in the CCC. The major goal of this lesson is to analyze the role FDR and CCC played in the struggle for equal rights and opportunities for African Americans. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided more than a quarter of a million young black men with jobs and was consequently another arena in which the black community waged the struggle for greater equality.

Lesson Focus:

This lesson explores that struggle and its implications for the New Deal's impact on American society; it examines a series of documents written by New Deal officials, including the President that concerned black CCC workers. It also considers documents that present the CCC from the perspective of black participants and observers. Drawing on other background readings and the diversity of views that these documents reflect, students will analyze the impact of this New Deal program on race relations in America and assess the role played by the New Deal in changing them. While Wisconsin had no “Colored” camps, Illinois, with a larger African American population had 11 “Colored” CCC camps that were directed by white officers.

Lesson Resources:

Web access and computer lab access or Computer Projector
or hard copies of the following documents...

In the early years of the CCC some camps were integrated, but prompted by local complaints and the views of the US Army and CCC administrators, integrated CCC camps were disbanded in July, 1935, when CCC Director Robert Fechner issued a directive ordering the "complete segregation of colored and white enrollees." While the law establishing the CCC contained a clause outlawing discrimination based upon race; the CCC held that "segregation is not discrimination" Although the CCC's Jim Crow policy prompted complaints from black and white civil rights activists, segregation remained the rule throughout the life of the CCC.

The following documents will be used in the class activity:

1. Civilian Conservation Corps Photographs of African American Enrollees
The photographs were digitally scanned from the records of the Civilian Conservation Corps, in the National Archives. The captions are those that accompanied the original photographs.

2. CCC Youth Refuses to Fan Flies Off Officer; Is Fired
The story is an interesting one, illustrating as it does some of the difficulties confronting young Negroes in the forestry service officered largely by white Southerners, as well as the Willingness of the administration to do justice when pressed for action.

3. A Negro in the CCC
The author is a New Yorker and gives here a first hand picture of CCC life.

4. Harold Ickes to Robert Fechner, 20 September 1935
Letter from the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to Fechner, head of CCC.

5. Robert Fechner to Thomas L. Griffith, 21 September 1935
Letter from Fechner to Mr. Thomas L. Griffith, Jr. President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

6. FDR to Robert Fechner, 27 September 1935
Describes FDR’s attitude toward integration in the CCC.

7. Robert Fechner to Robert J. Buckley, 4 June 1936
Letter to two Senators defending the CCC and its racial policies.

Official report of the CCC from the Government Printing Office.


In Class: The teacher should lead the students in a discussion of these documents. The discussion can start with separate consideration of each document and the accompanying questions, or it can consider all documents together.

In either case, the teacher should encourage students to evaluate not only the role of the federal government in general, but also the role of different government officials and thus the different approaches that existed within the Roosevelt Administration. The teacher should also encourage students to discuss other questions or issues that the documents may raise. Examples include:

  • To what extent can the federal government as a whole be held responsible for the racist behavior and attitudes of locally hired government officials?
  • How should a federal policy be implemented when federal officials differ in their understanding of that policy especially when applied to as in this case racial integration?
  • Do you think that some blacks employed by the CCC preferred to work in segregated units? Why? Why not?

Content Goal:
This lesson will provide students with and in-depth look at the racism that existed at all levels of American society in the 1930’s by focusing on the segregation found within the CCC.

Skills Goal:
Students will work on improving their written communication skills within this exercise.

Students will be assigned the following essay question:
To what extent did the treatment of African Americans in the CCC represent a growing commitment on the part of the federal government to combat racial discrimination and empower the black community?

Teacher Notes:

It is vitally important to address these questions from both the context of the day, and comparing that context with today’s reality. What was the reality of the larger society toward racial integration during the 1930’s?? Jim Crow was still alive and well! What about the military? That wouldn’t be integrated until post- WWII.

Lesson 3: The Environmental Crisis of the Great Depression
Lesson Goals:

This lesson will address Unit Theme #3, Agricultural and Environmental Crisis.
This lesson will analyze the attempts made by the CCC and the newly created Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to battle against nature to prevent wind and water erosion as well as a restoration and preservation of the environment.

Lesson Focus:

Wisconsin led the way in establishing a new vision for soil conservation during the Depression. The Coon Valley project, characterized by the narrow, steep valleys of southwestern Wisconsin's Driftless area, illustrated how the CCC broadened the scope of soil conservation activities. An analysis of what they did and how they did it will help students to understand the long term impact the soil conservation policies still impact the region today. A comparative analysis can be made with the multitude of information on the more widely studied Dust Bowl. The following websites may be useful for this purpose.

Teacher Resources:

Early History of the CCC and Soil Erosion Service

In September of 1933, a soil scientist in the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils Hugh Hammond Bennett was selected to direct a new agency -- the Soil Erosion Service (SES) in the Department of the Interior. Bennett had been supervising a group of soil conservation experiment stations in soil erosion problem areas. He proposed to establish watershed-based demonstration projects near the research stations where the new agency could utilize the information from the stations to demonstrate the practicability of using soil and water conservation methods. He knew that the work of CCC enrollees could be invaluable in convincing the cash-strapped farmers during the Depression to try new methods that required some labor to install. The CCC allotted 22 camps, far fewer than had been requested, to the Soil Erosion Service for the third camp period, April 1-September 30, 1934, and then extended them for the fourth enrollment period October 1, 1934 – March 31, 1935. Another 17 camps were assigned, making a total of 51 camps for the fourth period. Practically all of these camps were located on the demonstration project work areas. As the drought deepened, another 18 camps were assigned to SES specifically for drought relief work.

Soil Conservation Service

The successful demonstration during the period September 1933 to April 1935 increased the support for a national soil conservation policy and program. When the act of April 27, 1935, created the Soil Conservation Service in the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Congress provided more funds and the new Service expanded its operations nationwide. In fiscal year 1937, SCS supervised the work of an average 70,000 enrollees occupying 440 camps. Ninety percent of the camps worked not on a watershed-based demonstration project but in a 25,000 acre work area.

As local communities began organizing soil conservation districts and signing cooperative agreements with USDA in 1937, SCS began supplying a CCC camp to further each district's conservation program. During the life of CCC, SCS supervised the work of more than 800 of the 4,500 camps. African-American enrollees worked in more than 100 of those camps.

Wisconsin’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS) Camps

Wisconsin’s Soil Conservation Service Camps were located in the following counties…Vernon WI-SCS-1 Crawford WI-SCS-2 Pierce WI-SCS-3 Lafayette WI-SCS-4 Pepin WI-SCS-5 Vernon WI-SCS-6 La Crosse WI-SCS-7 Trempealeau WI-SCS-8 Sauk WI-SCS-9 Grant WI-SCS-10 Dane WI-SCS-11 Richland WI-SCS-12 Jackson WI-SCS-13 Trempealeau WI-SCS-14 Buffalo WI-SCS-15 Grant WI-SCS-16 La Crosse WI-SCS-17 Dunn WI-SCS-18 Buffalo WI-SCS-19 Vernon WI-SCS-20 Iowa WI-SCS-21 Trempealeau WI-SCS-22 Jackson WI-SCS-23

Map of SCS – CCC Camps 

The Soil Conservation Service became part of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, in 440 camps nationwide.

Accomplishments of the SCS – CCC 1934-1941 

This website provides s summary of major work accomplishments of SCS-CCC Program 1934-1941.

Wisconsin’s Example

The Coon Valley project, characterized by the narrow, steep valleys of southwestern Wisconsin's Drift-less area, illustrated how Bennett and the CCC broadened the scope of soil conservation activities.

The Civilian Conservation Corps: Demonstrating the Value of Soil Conservation

Coon Valley Leads the Way!!
In May 1934, Fred Morrell, in charge of CCC work for the Forest Service, visited Coon Valley, Wisconsin, which was destined to become one of the most successful demonstration projects. There he found Ray Davis, director of the project, ready to use the "camps to further any and all parts of their demonstrate proper farm management to control sheet erosion." What Bennett and Davis had in mind for Coon Valley and other areas went far beyond simply plugging gullies, planting trees, and building terrace outlets.

The Coon Valley project, characterized by the narrow, steep valleys of southwestern Wisconsin's Drift-less area, illustrated how Bennett and the CCC broadened the scope of soil conservation activities. Through the winter of 1933-1934, erosion specialists on Davis' staff contacted farmers to arrange five-year cooperative agreements. Many of the agreements obligated SES to supply CCC labor as well as fertilizer, lime, and seed. Farmers agreed to follow recommendations for strip-cropping, crop rotations, rearrangement of fields, and conversion of steep cropland to pasture or woodland. Alfalfa was a major element in the strip-cropping. Farmers were interested in alfalfa, but the cost of seed, fertilizer, and lime to establish plantings had been a problem during the Depression (13).

Another key erosion-reducing strategy was increasing the soil's water-absorbing capacity by lengthening the crop rotation and keeping the hay in strip-cropping in place longer. A typical three-year rotation had been corn, small grain, then hay (timothy and red clover). Conservationists advised farmers to follow a four- to six-year rotation of corn, small grain, and hay (alfalfa mixed with clover or timothy) for two to four years.

Grazing of woodlands had contributed to increased cropland erosion. Trampling soil and stripping groundcover reduced the forest's capacity to hold rainfall and increased erosion on fields down-slope. Moreover, grazing slowed the growth of trees while providing little feed for cows. Most of the cooperative agreements provided that the woodlands would not be grazed if CCC crews fenced them off and planted seedlings where needed.

SES also tried to control gullying, especially when gullies hindered farming operations.

Stream-bank erosion presented another problem. While the conservation measures on cropland would ultimately reduce sediment flowing into Coon Creek, stream-bank erosion was still a problem. The young CCC'ers built wing dams, laid willow matting, and planted willows.

In the area of wildlife enhancement, workers established some feeding stations to carry birds through winter. But generally the schemes to increase wildlife populations were of a more enduring nature. Gullies and out-of-the-way places that could not be farmed conveniently served as prime wildlife planting areas. Some farmers agreed to plant hedges for wildlife that also served as permanent guides to contour strip-cropping. Insofar as possible, trees selected for reforested areas were also ones that provided good wildlife habitat (13).

Between the fall of 1933 and June 1935, 418 of the valley's 800 farmers signed cooperative agreements. Aerial photo-graphs revealed that long after the demonstration project closed, additional farmers began strip-cropping. From Coon Valley, this practice spread during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s into adjacent valleys of the Drift-less area (15). To James G. Lindley, head of CCC operations for Bennett, this dissemination was the "sincerest form of flattery."


In retrospect, the material accomplishments of CCC activities, while important, seem less important than the educational experience for conservation. The work of the CCC crews was valuable to Bennett in proving the validity of his ideas about the benefits of concentrated conservation treatment of an entire watershed. The large-scale approach also permitted experimentation. Few of the conservationists' techniques were new, but the process of fitting them together was. The work led to the refinement and improvement of conservation measures still used today.

This experience, among both SCS staff and the enrollees, provided a trained, technical core of workers for SCS for years to come. Former enrollees joined the staff and during the early years, CCC funds provided for nearly half of the agency's workforce. In addition to contributing to the passage of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, the CCC also was instrumental in helping the soil conservation district movement off to a healthy start. When the states began enacting soil conservation district laws in 1937, it came as no surprise to the SCS field force that the first districts were organized near CCC camp work areas.

CCC's real contribution, however, lay in proving the feasibility of conservation. The positive public attitude associated with CCC work, including soil conservation, helped to create an atmosphere in which soil conservation was regarded, at least in part, as a public responsibility.

Lesson Resources:

Web access and computer lab access or Computer Projector
or hard copies of the following documents...

YouTube Clips:

President Visits Foresters at CCC Camp 1933/08/14 (1933)
FDR dines with enrollees at Mountain Retreat.

The Great Depression, Displaced Mountaineers, and the C.C.C.
Video of photos and the CCC fight to save the environment.

The CCC Boys, part 1
Video of actual CCC work and interviews of enrollees.

The CCC Boys, part 2
Continuation of the CCC work video and interviews

Hugh Hammond Bennett Quotes

Hugh Hammond Bennett led the soil conservation movement in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, urged the nation to address the "national menace" of soil erosion, and created a new federal agency and served as its first chief — the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is considered today to be the father of soil conservation.


In Class: The teacher should lead the students in a discussion of these topics beginning with viewing the YouTube clips or other media showing the impact of the Dust Bowl and the need for environmental protection and agricultural change.

A review of the early history of the CCC and its connection to conservation and the eventual development of the SCS is important to understanding the environmental movement in Wisconsin.

After showing the map of SCS-CCC camps in Wisconsin, a discussion should follow as to the location of these camps in the “Driftless” region of Wisconsin and why this would be an extremely sensitive environmental area and in need of soil conservation.

The Upper Midwest "Driftless Zone" (Also known as "Driftless Area" or "Un-glaciated Area") (Map)

A review of the accomplishments of the SCS-CCC camps will highlight the impact of this program on the nation’s environment. See teacher resources above.

  • Content Goal:

Students will develop a deeper understanding of the work of one of the most influential leaders in the conservation movement in the 1930’s.

  • Skill Goal:

Student analysis of quotes and subsequent written interpretations of those quotes will help to improve both analytical and written skills.

Students will be given a copy of Hugh Hammond Bennet Quotes (see teacher resources) from which they are to select 3 of these quotes to analyze in paragraph format. This analysis is to include:

  • Date of the Quote?
  • Title of the Speech?
  • For what audience was the speech written?
  • What was the Bennet’s goal in using this quote?
  • How did this quote reflect the larger conservation picture?

Teacher Notes:
It is important that the teacher emphasize that the Dust Bowl, while an extremely important part of the environmental crisis facing the country was not the only one. The problems facing the “Cut-Over” region of Northern Wisconsin, namely forest fires, and the erosion problems of the “Driftless” region of South Western Wisconsin posed a much more immediate threat to the environment here.

Lesson 4: American Culture during the Depression
Lesson Goal:

This lesson will address the fourth Unit Theme American Culture During the Depression. Through the analysis of CCC newspapers and the creation of student generated papers insight will be gained as to the topics of interest to American culture during the Depression through the eyes of these young men in the CCC Camps.

Lesson Focus:

This lesson will focus on American culture as it was seen through the writers of the CCC camp newspapers. By analyzing these newspaper documents from around the country the students will get a first hand look into the issues of importance to the men of the CCC not only locally, but nationally as well. They will also then be able to compare and contrast those “cultural themes” to those of today.

Teacher Resources:

Camp newspapers offered another form of entertainment. Among the leisure activities pursued by some men was the publication of camp newspapers.   Sometimes undertaken by a Journalism class, the camp newspaper became an outlet for “journalistic” urges as well as a cheap and relatively clean form of camp entertainment. The officially sanctioned newspaper of the CCC was entitled “Happy Days.” “Though a private venture, the paper was officially authorized and effectively served as the semi-official voice of the CCC. It was widely circulated in all the camps. It was launched on May 20, 1933, when Volume 1, Number 1 appeared with twelve pages in a five-column printed format, about a month following the creation of the CCC.”2 Camp Perkinstown had its own “rag” entitled “The Chequamegon Forester.” This newspaper appears pretty typical of the CCC papers I’ve seen. The front page is devoted to “real” camp news, and in this first volume the new Company Commander is introduced. Other sections include an editorial on sportsmanship, Words of Wisdom, Infamous Quotes from camp officials, Athletic results and reports (which made up the largest section), and an introspective article entitled ”How Can I Earn My Living? “What Shall I Be? What Is There To Be? 3 The camp newspapers have given use a unique look at camp life, one writt"

Full List of Resources for Lessons
Lesson 1: My Days in the Civilian Conservation Corps
  • In Their Words, Minnesota’s Greatest Generation
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience
  • Camp Perkinstown PowerPoint

This PPT provides general information about Camp Perkinstown, Company 1692 Wisconsin CCC Camp

  • R. John Buskowiak: I Just Loved It
  • Minnesotan veterans of the CCC
  • Map of the Sparta District of the CCC, Sixth Corps Area - Lesson URL
  • History Kit Inventory

Lesson 2: African-Americans and the CCC

Teacher Resources and Websites:

    • The New Deal Network
    • African Americans in the CCC
    • This lesson is a modified version of the lesson linked here

The following documents will be used in the class activity:

  1. Civilian Conservation Corps Photographs of African American Enrollees
  2. CCC Youth Refuses to Fan Flies Off Officer; Is Fired
  3. A Negro in the CCC
  4. Harold Ickes to Robert Fechner, 20 September 1935
  5. Robert Fechner to Thomas L. Griffith, 21 September 1935
  6. FDR to Robert Fechner, 27 September 1935
  7. Robert Fechner to Robert J. Buckley, 4 June 1936
  8. CCC and Colored Youth
  9. History Kit Inventory

Lesson 3: The Environmental Crisis of the Great Depression

Teacher Resources and Websites:

1. Wisconsin’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS) Camps

2. Map of SCS – CCC Camps

3. Accomplishments of the SCS – CCC 1934-1941

4. Wisconsin’s Example

5. YouTube Clips: (General Information Resources)

6. Hugh Hammond Bennett Quotes

7. The Upper Midwest "Driftless Zone" (Also known as "Driftless Area" or "Un-glaciated Area") (Map)

8. History Kit Inventory

Lesson 4: American Culture during the Depression
Teacher Resources and Websites:

1. The Voice of 1610, Camp Connors Lake, Phillips Wisconsin

2. CCC Newspapers Outside Wisconsin

3. Additional CCC Cultural Websites:

4. Document analysis worksheet

5. History Kit Inventory

Lesson 5: The CCC and New Deal Recovery and Reform
Teacher Resources and Websites:
  1. The CCC and The National Park Service, 1933-1942: An Administrative History
  2. Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy
  3. Civilian Conservation Corps Facts
  4. Civilian Conservation Corps History
  5. Civilian Conservation Corps Modern Service
  6. Uncle Sam and Civilian Conservation Crops
  7. History Kit Inventory
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