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CCC and WPA are an important part of local history


Fri, Sep 19th, 2003
Posted in Features

Beginning in 1933 and continuing until 1941, approximately 3,000,000 young men served in the Civilian Conservation Corp. Camps were established in Chatfield and Lanesboro. Pictured above are photos from the Lanesboro camp, which was located west of town. The bottom photo shows CCC workers arriving by train into Lanesboro. Photos courtesy of Don Ward and Fillmore County History Center

On October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed and the United States was sent into a great depression that lasted for over ten years. In just a short period of time, millions of Americans lost their life savings. Over half a million were unemployed and this number doubled in just one year. Businesses and banks closed, while farm prices fell to an unthinkable low.

In order to help the now destitute country, newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt started a relief program to give people jobs. Former President Herbert Hoover had already started the Public Works Administration (PWA). Roosevelt implemented many new organizations to help give jobs, two of which were the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in 1933 and the Works Progress Administration later called the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in 1935.

The CCC and WPA became one and the same, hiring around 3,000,000 young men to build roads, public buildings and telephone lines. They also built or improved parks, and forestry. It is said that CCC workers planted nearly three billion trees in just ten years of service. Though the US Government employed mostly young men, they also employed around 25,000 older men called Local Experienced Men (LEM) who trained the younger workers on how to properly use axes and shovels. These skills may seem simple but they would be an essential part of the new enrollees’ work. Things were finally looking up for desperate, poverty stricken Americans.

Fillmore County was not immune to the depression but was lucky enough to have CCC and WPA camps nearby. Two of the most well-known and documented in the area were those in Chatfield and Lanesboro. In a June, 1933 issue of the Chatfield News, a journalist reported on the first CCC camp settled in Fillmore County.

Chatfield Camp

"A tented city was established in short order last Friday upon arrival of Company 1755 of the Civilian Conservation Corp. The men, numbering 170, arrived here by special train from Des Moines at 7:30 with Major Leroy Watson, commanding officer."

Because the CCC was a government organization, military officers and enlisted men ran the camps somewhat like the military and also made sure that everything ran smoothly for the workers. The Chatfield camp included twenty tents, using eleven for sleeping and the rest for officers, supplies, hospitals, various mess halls, recreation, etc. A small "city" of tents was erected in only half a day. The camp even had electricity and telephones.

The men were paid $30 per month but could get anywhere from $36-$45 if they showed special skills in different areas, such as leadership. During the time in which the CCC camp resided in Chatfield, they worked on water mains, dams and a swimming pool on the river, improvement to farm property, and highways.

Their work wasn’t strictly in Fillmore County, however; they also worked in parts of Olmsted, Winona and Mower Counties. Most of the camps in Minnesota worked even through the winter months, but Chatfield was an exception in November of 1933. Because a large majority of the work they did at that time was soil work, the government decided that the winter would make operating difficult so it decided to transfer the camp to Eldora, IA during the winter despite the wishes of local businessmen and the camp’s commanding officers. The local people liked the camp workers and looked forward to their return the following spring.

CCC workers were transferred to and from camps in the local area and state at any time. Men from the southern part of the state were sometimes sent up North when additional help was needed to fight forest fires. The majority of the first camp workers in Minnesota camps were from the southern part of the United States but were later replaced by mostly Minnesota workers. In a memory book of the late Cyrus Shaw who did field work at the Chatfield CCC camp in 1937, there were signatures of workers from as close as Preston, Fountain and Spring Valley to as far away as Hackensack and Pierz, Minnesota.

Lanesboro Camp

Eldor Rahn of Lanesboro came to the area in 1939 from North Dakota, where he had worked on several projects for the CCC, including the International Peace Garden and Menora, where Teddy Roosevelt had his ranch.

“I lived in three different camps in North Dakota,” Rahn, a Hazen, North Dakota native said. “We arrived in Lanesboro by train at 3:00 in the morning. There was a full moon and after the plains of North Dakota, I thought I had arrived in the mountains.”

Rahn, who drove a truck and a bull dozer, recalls working on a lot of retaining walls and spill ways in the area.

“We quarried all of the rock and all of the cement was mixed by hand,” Rahn recalled. “Many of those are still in good shape today.”

The CCC camp in Lanesboro was located west of town, on property now part of the Taylor Dairy Farm.

“The barracks were on the left side as you came out of town,” Rahn said. “The garages and offices were on the other side of the road.”

According to Rahn, there was a hierarchy in the camps.

“There were some workers we called “Dog Robbers”, who took care of the officers, waiting on tables and the like. They were treated a little better than the rest of us.”

“We got $30 a month and $25 of that was sent back home,” Rahn said, revealing how tough times were. “I lived on $5 a month.”

Though the men usually worked five to six days per week they did have some time for fun as well as educational programs. Activities and programs available varied with each camp but the workers benefited significantly from what was available. Throughout the country more than 40,000 men were taught how to read and write. Some even took classes in order to receive their high school diploma.

In the 1930’s the Lanesboro Leader had a special section called CCC Camp News Company 706. This reported the different goings on in the camp such as who was being transferred, who was on leave, and also the various activities that were available. The camp offered photography and wood carving classes and also had an orchestra. They were excited about a new pool table and thought about starting a hockey team to add to their already very active basketball team that competed in the southeastern Minnesota CCC district.

In the Chatfield camp, the men had baseball, and kittenball teams, a choral club, and an orchestra. A traveling library provided welcome reading material to all southeastern Minnesota camps as well.

The WPA/CCC work continued until the threat of war hit home in 1941. The job market increased, and many young men were now needed in the Armed Forces. The government decided the WPA/CCC was no longer useful and camps disbanded. Though the WPA/CCC is gone their impact on this region is tremendous.

To this day, evidence of their work can still be seen at local dams, roads, wayside rests, forest areas and even some buildings at the Lanesboro Fish Hatchery.

John Torgrimson contributed to this article.

Jeanette Dragvold can be contacted at news@fillmorecountyjournal.com

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