Conservation Corps helped pull U.S. out of Depression, taught a generation

EVERETT — On a spring day in 1935, Edwin Rinne, then 17, made up his mind to join the Civilian Conservation Corps.

His mother didn’t want him to go. An immigrant from Finland, she was afraid people in their Lowell neighborhood would think her family was on the public dole.

Without a word, Rinne left behind his family and classmates at Everett High School and hopped an Army truck headed to Camp Quilcene on Hood Canal. There, he helped build roads and bridges on the Olympic Peninsula.

It’s been 80 years since the corps had its start during the height of the Great Depression. Commemorative programs to celebrate the anniversary are scheduled tonight and Saturday morning at the Civilian Conservation Corps Interpretive Center at Deception Pass State Park.

Rinne, now 94, is among the small number of still-living former CCC members. From 1933 to 1942, about 3 million young, single men from ages 17 to 25 served in work camps in rural areas across the country.

One of the CCC’s camp that operated in Snohomish County was in Darrington. From there, the young men planted trees and built forest fire lookouts, roads, bridges and the Forest Service headquarters. For that generation, the work of the corps also led to a greater public awareness of the country’s natural resources, forests and other public lands.

“The CCC really helped me,” Rinne said. “I learned a lot and I wouldn’t have had a job otherwise. We earned $30 a month and $25 of that was sent home to my mother and father. That left me $5 to buy tobacco and have some spending money.”

The civilian job corps was the most popular of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs designed to pull the country from the depths of economic collapse. Many of the CCC men went on to serve in the military during World War II.

Ervin Schmidt, 97, of Everett, was one of those. A Navy veteran, he survived the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which marked the U.S. entrance into World War II.

Before he joined the Navy, Schmidt spent nearly two years in the CCCs at Camp Sparta in northern Wisconsin working in soil erosion control.

“The CCC was the best program Roosevelt and Congress ever put together,” Schmidt said. “It helped us out of the Depression and did a lot of good for our generation. It was the best thing for America at the time, and if we could do it again, it’d be the best thing for our country now. We need to renew our industries, give young people skills and give them hope and motivation. The CCC certainly motivated me.”

Art Unruh, 90, a World War II Air Force veteran who lives in Arlington, was 17 when he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He and his fellow corpsmen helped build a dam on Bluff Creek near Kingsdown, Kan.

“Those were the Depression years and my family was broke. We put cardboard in our shoes because the soles were worn out,” Unruh said. “But in the 3Cs, I got new shoes, new clothes, three meals a day, a high school diploma, guidance and job skills.”

And a sense of responsibility.

“We had a lot on our shoulders. For example, I was only 17 and I drove one of our camp trucks nearly 500 miles to Omaha, Neb., to pick up a water pump,” Unruh said. “Because they trusted us, we did the best job we could.”

Like Schmidt, Unruh believes a similar program today would help the United States.

“I wish to heck we had it today. We have big problems. Our country and our infrastructure are falling apart,” Unruh said. “A lot of kids today have no jobs and no sense of purpose. Think what we could accomplish if we could put them to work.”

After his service in the CCC on Hood Canal, Rinne joined the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.

“After my time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, I felt I owed something to my country,” Rinne said. “It was good training and it made me grow up.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Events

Ren and Helen Davis, authors of “Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks,” plan to present a program at 7:30 tonight at the CCC Interpretive Center on Bowman Bay at Deception Pass State Park. At 10 a.m. Saturday, park rangers plan a tour of the CCC historic sites and structures at the park.

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