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A Midwestern Runaway Remembers the CCC

During the Great Depression, many young people left home to search for economic opportunity (and sometimes adventure) on the open roads of America. Jim Mitchell was a sophomore in high school when his father lost his job, sending the family into desperate financial circumstances. Running away from rural Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the winter of 1933, Mitchell and his friend Peter Lijinski (Poke) eventually joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal government program for unemployed youth. In this interview, Mitchell recalls his reasons for joining the CCC and details the life it offered him.

Poke and I ran into an army officer in Lake City, Iowa. We told him we were on the road and had taken up with a carnival. "That's not life for kids," he said. "Why don't you join the CCC?" Poke was easily persuaded. I balked at the idea of having some army guys push me around. But I was sick to my guts of being footloose and went back to Kenosha with Poke. My grandfather talked me into joining the CCC.

Company 2616 was stationed at Camp Norwood on the banks of the Wisconsin River....Little did we realize that this stark encampment was the haven thousands of boys like ourselves needed....

On the road you lived for yourself and to hell with everyone else. In the CCC you not only learned to live with other guys, you had to go out with a crew and haul logs together. You learned to work as a team.

You worked alongside state foresters who took no nonsense from you. They wanted a day's work and they got it. We had a thousand and one different jobs, from climbing trees to surveying parks. You learned to do a job and do it well. It gave you confidence when you started to become accepted by your peers and to fit in with them.

You had three square meals a day with good food and a good place to sleep. On the road you spent all your time wondering about whether you were going to eat. If you worked it wasn't useful work but just for food. To this day I can go and see parks that we built in the CCC, I can see trees that we planted. It's a living legacy. You didn't have a living legacy on the road..

The CCC shaped my life, which had had no direction. Back home I'd had no role models to measure my life against. In the corps there were well-educated fellows whose goals had been interrupted. I wanted to be like them and knew I had to get an education to do so.

I stayed in the CCC for two years getting thirty dollars a month. At last I could bring some help to my family. My first letter gave me a big boost:

"Dear son, I want you to know how grateful we are to you and proud, too.   The $25 we get each month goes a long way in holding us together. It's good to look Dimitri in the eye and plunk down cash for groceries, and not be obliged to Merriweather for the rent."

For the first time I felt good about myself. 

Source | Errol Lincoln Uys, Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Interviewee | Jim Mitchell
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Midwestern Runaway Remembers the CCC,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 21, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1010.

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