Author shares about the CCC in northeast Iowa

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Author Linda McCann spoke about her latest book, “The Civilian Conservation Corps in Northeast Iowa,” at the McGregor Public Library on May 2. Featured in the discussion was McGregor’s connection to the CCC. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Author Linda McCann, best known for her “Lost Towns” book series that details communities that disappeared along the Cedar River, spoke at the McGregor Public Library on May 2, sharing details from her latest book, “The Civilian Conservation Corps in Northeast Iowa.”

“I started focusing on the counties along the Cedar River, but sometimes other things catch my attention,” said the author, who began writing after taking an interest in genealogy. “Every one of my off-topics came about because I realized young people didn’t know about these things.”

For example, McCann was in Waverly, promoting her book “Prohibition in Eastern Iowa,” when a young male journalist asked which topic she planned to tackle next. She offered two possibilities: Iowa’s POW camps or Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps.

“I could tell he didn’t have a clue,” said McCann.

She eventually picked the CCC, in order to go chronologically.

How does one go about researching such a vast topic? Although unusual for her, McCann said she went to the internet first.

“There’s a website called CCC Legacy, which lists all the camps in every state, so I pulled together where the camps had been in Iowa,” she detailed. 

“Along with that, I discovered there were still guys alive,” McCann added. “They can tell stories you can’t find in books.”

In all, McCann spoke with 12 men who were in the CCC. She also utilized interviews previously recorded by the DNR.

Newspapers were another key source of information. 

“They’re a primary source,” she said. “I go through a lot of old newspapers.”

That was especially interesting in regard to McGregor, in that Camp Coulee des Sioux, which operated in the community from 1933-1939, had its own paper.

In addition, McCann said she also contacted local libraries and museums, asking for sources.

“That’s where most of my leads come from,” she stated.

Researching and writing “The Civilian Conservation Corps in Northeast Iowa” took over two years, McCann said. 

“I never know where I’m going when I’m getting information,” she explained, noting that she originally planned to write two books—one on the eastern half of the state and another on the western portion. Now, a five-part series is planned, including one book for each corner of Iowa and another for the center. There was simply too much interesting information to share.

The CCC, McCann recounted, was a New Deal program created in 1933, during the heart of the Great Depression, meant to provide employment and renew the country’s natural resources.

“By the time FDR was sworn in, there was a generation of men who’d grown up without jobs or food,” she said. “FDR addressed Congress and laid out plans for young men to earn a living, help their families and get an education. Within five days, there was a bill on his desk.”

By the end of April 1933, Iowa had its first camps. Men ages 17 to 23, who were both unmarried and unemployed and living in a home with no other family member working, were eligible to enroll in the CCC. The family also had to be signed up for relief, but McCann said that qualification was soon removed. 

“The men who enrolled in the CCC were all doing it for someone else,” she remarked. “They were helping their families.”

Of the $30 men earned each month, around $25 of it was sent home, McCann added. 

In order for a camp to be established, McCann said there had to be a sponsoring organization, such as a Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club or a business group, that agreed to finance it. The organization had to lease 20 acres of land before applying, and also provide electricity, water and sewer.

“Not every place who wanted a camp got one,” she stated.

Another stipulation was that an area also had to have a project. Luckily for Iowa, the governor’s office had just commissioned a 25-year conservation plan, outlining potential improvements.

“They could get stuff going right away,” McCann said. “They found the soil was worn out and there was no forest. The group reported to the governor in 1933, with plans for 24 lakes to be built. The CCC built 18 of them. The CCC did 75 percent of the plan in seven years.”

McGregor’s CCC camp was established fairly early, by November 1933, McCann said. Company 1754, or Camp Coulee des Sioux, was located in what is now Peace Park, near the Catholic Church. Its barracks could hold nearly 300 workers.

“[CCC men] built detention dams to divert and control major flash flooding,” McCann shared of the camp’s projects. In 1934 alone, the men planted 124,000 black locust trees, helpful because their roots spread out and held the soil on the dams.

According to McCann, in Iowa, 75 percent of the CCC projects involved soil erosion control. A major part of that was tree planting.

“In 1930, there were no forests in Iowa. I had a hard time fathoming that,” she quipped. “The CCC planted millions of trees in Iowa, including 12,000 in Yellow River State Forest.” 

Among the other CCC projects in the area was trout stream maintenance. They also operated Swede Ridge Quarry, pulverizing lime rock to spread on fields, McCann mentioned.

“In 1939, the camp was closed, and another was built on the Carroll farm one mile from Pikes Peak, for development of the park and the Indian mounds,” she continued.

Although some communities were at first leery of the CCC workers, McCann said townfolk were soon won over. 

“They saw regular farm boys,” she said. “If there was flooding or a fire, the CCC was there. They were really useful.”

The experience was also helpful for the men, noted McCann. Many arrived at the camps illiterate, but were able to earn an education. Technical skills were also provided, and later radar, radio and gunsmithing, as WWII approached. Once the men were discharged, their skills paved the way for other jobs.

“In the late 1930s, it seems like somebody knew we were headed for war,” McCann stated. “The training changed and camps consolidated. Pearl Harbor changed everything. Guys left en masse, and the camps closed in 1942.”

In all, over 3 million men worked with the CCC in every state, completing projects that are still being felt in the communities today.

McCann still hopes to speak with more men who worked for the CCC, or to their families. She can be contacted at losttownsofiowa@gmail.com.

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