Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the U.S. presidency in 1933 at the depth of the Great Depression. National unemployment stood at a staggering 25%. FDR’s landslide election was a plea for help from a desperate and demoralized nation.
Upon being sworn into office on March 4, 1933, FDR launched what became known as “The Hundred Days,” a whirlwind of New Deal legislation aimed at alleviating the misery caused by the Depression. The Emergency Conservation Work Act (ECW) was one of the first pieces of legislation FDR submitted to Congress. It would recruit hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men into a peacetime army and put them to work on conservation and other land improvement projects around the nation.
CCC or Roosevelt’s Tree Army
The ECW bill was sent to Congress on March 27. It was passed and signed into law by FDR only four days later on March 31. The act created the Civilian Conservation Corps, better known as the CCC.
Considered one of FDR’s pet projects and sometimes called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC was mandated to recruit 500,000 men by July 1933. Enrollees were to be 17 to 21; unmarried; unemployed members of families on relief or eligible for public assistance; not enrolled in school; in good physical condition; and “of good character.” They would be paid $30 a month or $1 per day. Of that, $25 was to be sent home to their families and $5 kept for spending money. The U.S. Army was tasked with recruiting and processing recruits as well as running the CCC camps.
Four CCC Camps in Rabun County
Within a week of the CCC’s creation, Rabun County sent a delegation to Washington requesting a camp for the county. The delegates must have had political clout, because they returned with news that Rabun County would be home to not one but four CCC camps.
On Tuesday, May 16, 1933, the first men arrived at Camp Warwoman (F-6), located near the site of the check-in station of the Warwoman Wildlife Management Area in eastern Rabun County. Forty-three recruits and several army officers pitched tents on property purchased from the Green family and set about building the camp. It was ready in two weeks.
Joining Camp Warwoman within several weeks were Camp Tree (F-5) located at the confluence of the Coleman and Tallulah rivers in the Persimmon area; Camp Lake Rabun (F-9) situated in Lakemont; and Camp Gafton (F-10) built on Lake Burton near Moccasin Creek.
Each camp housed approximately 200 men. An enlistment was for six months but could be renewed three times for a total service period of two years. Many men did exactly that.
Spartan Living Conditions
Like most CCC camps, living conditions in the Rabun County camps were spartan. The men slept in tents before open bay barracks were built. The barracks were heated by a potbellied stove. The camps also included a large mess hall, motor pool, infirmary and recreation hall. Clothing and all necessary gear were furnished by the government.
The Rabun County camps also had classroom buildings. According to a November 1933 Clayton Tribune article, “…the boys can secure the essential rudiments of a beneficial education. Of course, reading, writing and arithmetic will be taught, but there also will be courses in economics, history and civics.” There also was vocational instruction in such areas as auto mechanics, cabinet making and radio technology.
Giving Hope to the Unemployed
A July 13, 1933 Clayton Tribune article wrote poignantly about the men in the county’s CCC camps: “Out of Cities and Towns they have come. Men and boys from Main Street, men and boys out of work, struck down by the depression, who for two years and more looked in vain “just around the corner,” who sought without success to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. At last a little hope dawned. A faint star appeared on the horizon.”
Another July 1933 Tribune article stated: “We think that President Roosevelt will be proud of us and our camps and we want the residents of Rabun County to know that our boys do not come under the quoted remarks of Governor (Eugene) Talmadge as Bums and Hoodlums.” Talmadge was opposed not only to the CCC in general, but to African-American recruits, in particular.
Racism Affected African-American Enrollment
Under Talmadge’s direction, the state of Georgia quickly found a way to prevent African-Americans from participating in the CCC. Although black unemployment was twice the rate for whites, Georgia listed all blacks as employed, disqualifying them from CCC enrollment. As the director of the Georgia CCC stated, “It is vitally important that negros remain in the counties for chopping cotton and for planting other produce.”
In May, Roosevelt threatened to withhold the CCC money that would pour into Georgia. Governor Talmadge relented and agreed to let African-Americans enter the program but only if they served in separate camps. FDR went along with this segregated arrangement. Of the 116 CCC camps eventually established in Georgia, 19 were designated SCS, the “C” standing for colored.
Reforestation and Building Roads
Rabun County’s forests had been decimated by decades of clear-cut logging, causing widespread soil erosion and stream siltation. The county’s four CCC camps were heavily focused on reforestation to eliminate these problems. In addition, 6,000 acres of existing timber stands were improved, and hundreds of acres of white pines were pruned to protect what had become an endangered species due to over-harvesting.
Prior to the CCC, most of Rabun County’s roads were passable only during dry weather. Even moderate rain turned roads into muddy quagmires. The CCC improved and graveled more than 1,100 miles of roads in the county. In addition, 150 miles of new roads were built, including: Warwoman Road from Clayton to Pine Mountain (near the intersection of Walhalla Road); Plum Orchard Road in Persimmon; Patterson Gap Road in Rabun Gap; Bridge Creek Road in Tiger; Wolf Creek Road in Lakemont; and Hale Ridge Road from Warwoman Road to Scaly Mountain and Rabun Bald.
Stringing Telephone Lines from Trees
To facilitate the fighting of forest fires, 40 miles of telephone lines were strung from trees, enabling men in fire lookout towers to quickly alert ranger stations. The CCC carved the trail to the summit of Rabun Bald, where it built the fire tower that still stands. Miles of other trails also were built and maintained. In addition, the CCC built the Warwoman Dell Picnic Area and fish hatchery.
The CCC camps also benefited Rabun County by purchasing milk, butter, vegetables and fruit from local farmers. Food purchases were spread across many farms, increasing the value of the camps to the entire county.
A Rollicking Dance at Camp Rabun
Camp recreation included baseball, basketball and boxing. The men were allowed to attend Sunday church services in Clayton. Parties at the camps with townspeople were not uncommon. A Clayton Tribune article from November 1933 reported that “Camp Rabun, F-9 of the C.C.C. at Lakemont, was host to many Friday night at a hilarious and toothsome barbecue and shuffling dance. Some three hundred attended and the copious appetites and lingering departure spoke well of a romping and rollicking success.”
Virtually every CCC camp, including Rabun County’s, was closed within two months of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Manpower and government spending were redirected completely to the war effort in Europe and the Pacific.
The CCC had a profound and enduring impact on Rabun County. The land was reforested and managed. Soil erosion was largely eliminated. Roads were built and improved. Telephone lines were strung. Forest fires were fought. But most important of all, unemployed young men were given hope for a better future. That was, after all, the greatest contribution of the New Deal.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in June 2021.