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CCC ‘call to arms' against the Great Depression
Building T-316 at Fort Missoula served as the Civilian Conservation Corps district headquarters from approximately 1937 to 1942. Today, it houses the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

It was quite a deal.

Montana limped out of its devastating droughts of the 1920s and ran smack into the Great Depression.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932, he said: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. Š It is a call to arms."

That's truly what it became. In March of 1933 Roosevelt, fresh off a general election victory over incumbent Herbert Hoover, just two days after his inauguration, called together high government officials.

Thus was launched the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first work relief program of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Within three months, the landscape of Montana was crawling with the first of what would eventually be 25,000 recruits to the CCC in Montana - unemployed men, ages 18-25, serving six-month hitches and earning $30 a month. All but $5 went home to their families.

Most of the "C's" that first summer came from either Montana or New York. They were processed at Fort Missoula, organized into squads, platoons and companies and sent out to two dozen camps in western and central Montana, where a military regimen awaited.

"What amazes me is how Roosevelt was able to mobilize the CCC on a national scale so quickly," said Milo McLeod, an archaeologist for the Lolo National Forest.

"He mobilized the Army. He gave the Army a mission, and it was a very small regular standing army. It was volunteer for the reservists, but they could go on active duty and draw a military paycheck and essentially administer the CCC camps."

Before it was mothballed in July 1942, the CCC and other relief programs had made an impact on the mountains, valleys and roadways of western Montana, the likes of which we may never see again.

On the 75th anniversary of the New Deal and the CCC, reminders of their handiwork still dot the landscape.

Some, like Camp Paxson on Seeley Lake, the Ninemile Ranger Station and Savenac Nursery in Haugen, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Missoula, another district on the National Register, was the processing hub for a broad area of the state's camps, including dozens of "spike camps."

The Fort still boasts roughly a dozen buildings constructed or used by the CCC, many of them warehouses used for clothing, food and other supplies.

One on the west end served as the administration building for the massive program in Montana. It's now home to the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History, which includes an extensive exhibit on the Civilian Conservation Corps.

"There's a ton of CCC stuff out here, and amazingly enough it's all in really good shape," said Dan Hall, whose Western Cultural Inc. office is at Fort Missoula. The buildings were assessed in the 1980s during the nomination process for the National Register. Hall just finished with a follow-up evaluation.

"You would expect to see a lot of changes to those buildings in 25 years," he said, "But the reality is, they got an incredibly good report card."

Fort Missoula was a natural place from which to operate a regional CCC program, according to the late Bill Sharp, who compiled the most extensive body of research on the CCC in Montana,

"Montana was lucky to have an active Army fort and the regional office of the U.S. Forest Service in one city. This CCC district also had Glacier National Park to help set up the summer work camps for the several thousand boys sent west, plus the 1,200 or more from Montana," Sharp wrote, in papers at the Historic Museum at Fort Missoula.

The "C's" immediately went to work in 1933. They were placed under the command of "local experienced men" (LEMs), usually those with woodworking or forestry skills.

"They were the ones doing the quality work, and the CCC boys were the laborers," said Kirby Matthew, an exhibits specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. "If there were rocks to be picked and stacked, they'd send 15 to 20 boys out there to do it. Most of them had the opinion that boys should be working hard, and they made sure they did."

And, by and large, they did good work.

"I think it's real remarkable after that many years, they still use quite a few of the CCC structures," said Missoula publisher and historian Stan Cohen.

At the Taft camp in Haugen, the CCC built most of the infrastructure at the Forest Service's Savenac Nursery, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. After the C's finished up in the 1930s, Savenac became the largest tree nursery in the Pacific Northwest. Ten buildings remain from that era, and each year the Forest Service welcomes ex-CCCers to an annual reunion at the immaculate grounds. This year's will be held July 18.

At Ninemile, some 600 men went to work at one of the largest CCC camps in the nation. They built roads, fences and buildings to help transform what had been a rundown ranch three years before into the Ninemile Remount Depot, which supplied horses and mules for firefighting efforts and backcountry work projects.

The next year they built the present ranger station, and the Frenchtown Ranger Station was relocated to Ninemile.

Some of the more extensive tree-planting programs were also launched from the Ninemile CCC camp, which was three miles north of the ranger station at Camp Menard. Today there remain signs of the camp, but no structures.

Twenty cabins and buildings at Camp Paxson stand intact on the west shore of Seeley Lake, where the C's turned a Boy Scout tent camp into what has become one of the most enduring and endearing group camps in Montana.

The Birch Creek center northwest of Dillon is perhaps the best example of what a CCC camp looked like.

"It's missing a few buildings, but the majority of the buildings are still there," said Matthew, who'll be doing some preservation work at Birch Creek prior to a 75th anniversary celebration on Aug. 2.

The buildings at a typical CCC camp were temporary, Mathew said.

"When you get in an environment that was wet, with heavy snow and rain, they pretty well went away. But it's very dry there at Birch Creek. That's what made them last."

Building buildings was just a small part of the CCC's work in western Montana. Cohen, who in 1980 published a pictorial history of the Civilian Conservation Corps called "The Tree Army," said the program planted a mind-boggling 3 billion trees nationwide.

There's no known record of where those trees were planted.

Matthew did quite a bit of tree planting in past years, mostly in the Superior and Plains area.

"I know I'd never be able to go back and find them," he said. "You know, you think you can at the time, but even talking to any of the CCCs, they might know they were up some drainage, but you'd never be able to say, that was the spot."

The CCC worked hand in hand with the Forest Service, and put a lot of emphasis on firefighting and prevention.

Trails, roads and lookouts were built with that in mind. The Northern Region had some 800 manned lookouts by the end of the 1930s. Many of them, and the trails to them, were the handiwork of the CCC.

Roosevelt initiated his second New Deal in 1935. It included another program that had lasting effects on western Montana - the Works Progress Administration, later changed to the Work Projects Administration.

It provided federal funds for state- and county-selected projects, and paid what was supposed to be the going wage at the time. The WPA's crowning achievement in Montana was Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River.

Missoula's new airport on West Broadway was initiated with WPA funds, which also constructed the maintenance building on the east side of the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Nearly 80 miles of city streets in Missoula were oiled as well.

Buffalo Hill Golf Course in Kalispell, the back nine of the Polson Country Club and the first nine holes of Whitefish Lake Golf Club were WPA projects. The Whitefish Lake Restaurant is in a historic log building built at the time.

Nearly all the schools in Sanders County got a makeover and a three-story school in Plains was built by the WPA. The recreation area at Blue Bay on Flathead Lake was improved.

In Ravalli County, the WPA paid for the West Fork irrigation project, including construction of the Painted Rock Dam.

Reporter Kim Briggeman at can be reached 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com

CCC's legacy left behind at Camp Paxson

By KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian

If you've been to Camp Paxson, you know what a summer camp should feel like.

But you might not know whom to thank.

The 20 rustic log buildings on the west shore of Seeley Lake were built in 1939 and 1940 by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established 75 years ago by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Originally a Boy Scout tent camp, Camp Paxson was transformed by the CCC into a haven that in the nearly 70 years since has provided indelible smells, sights, sounds and memories that only campfires, a mountain lake, screen doors, morning coffee, sizzling burgers, giant tamaracks and summer can provide.

"It's a special place," said Tim Love, the U.S. Forest Service's district ranger at Seeley Lake.

"You walk through it and go inside those buildings and, in a very positive way, they smell like a summer camp," said John Torma of the Missoula Children's Theater, which has leased Camp Paxson from the Forest Service the past 13 years.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Camp Paxson is the only CCC-built group camp in Montana, which is why it has such historical significance, Torma said.

"The Forest Service is really proud of that facility, because they recognize it's a real jewel that they're entrusted with," he said.

Love lauds the restoration work Torma and MCT have performed on the log cabins.

"I think they're in excellent shape," Torma said. "They're obviously 70-year-old buildings, but they're in much better shape than they were in 15 years ago. They're a great example of log-building technology, too."

Countless groups have camped out over the years at Camp Paxson, which is named for Western artist Edgar Paxson. He died in 1919, one year after scoutmaster K.D. Swan started the rustic Boy Scout camp.

Scouts, both boys and girls, once used Camp Paxson. Service groups, wedding parties, athletes in training and many, many more have experienced a Seeley Lake summer there.

One of its earliest uses was for conscientious objectors in World War II who were enlisted by the Forest Service as smokejumpers. They trained at an air base south of Seeley Lake and stayed at Camp Paxson. For many years, the jumpers returned for annual reunions.

Today, MCT occupies the cabins for two or three weeks for its performing arts camps. Other groups lease it throughout the summer for reunions, weddings, workshops and church camps.

The initial campers each May are young men and women with the Montana Conservation Corps, which for the past eight years has used Camp Paxson for spring training. The Corps is an incarnation of the CCC and is based on many of the same principles.

"That was way cool when they started doing that," said Torma. "We've just developed a wonderful symbiotic relationship with them."

MCC pays no rent.

"Part of their training is getting their crews to work together as crews, so we give them projects to do," said Torma.

It's a win-win arrangement, said Bobby Grillo, who is regional supervisor of the Montana Conservation Corps' Western Wildlands office in Missoula.

This year's Camp Paxson experience included a commemoration of the CCC's 75th anniversary. Now Grillo's got crews "all over the place" - in the Bob Marshall and Frank Church wildernesses, and four national forests in Idaho and Montana.

MCC is geared for those 18 to 25 years of age who work in crews of six or seven people for little pay. They perform a variety of conservation and community projects, meanwhile honing their work, outdoor and leadership skills.

If that sounds much like the Civilian Conservation Corps of old, it's no mistake.

"That's our legacy, for sure," said Grillo.

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