Albion Recorder & Morning Star News

DNR official: How the CCC camps changed the face of Michigan

For a brief time, there was a CCC camp at Portage Lake in northwestern Jackson County. One of its main projects was development of the Waterloo Recreation Area.
This slide highlighted the Michigan CCC program and some of its accomplishments.
This slide summarizes President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, which included the CCC.

By Ken Wyatt

Hillary Pine was a long way from her home in St. Ignace. It likely was a disappointment that her talk last week on Michigan’s Civilian Conservation Corps was delivered to so small an audience at the Meijer branch of the Jackson District Library. Yet it was a talk that merits amplification here in southern Lower Michigan.

Jackson County hosted two CCC camps in the pre-WWII years. That is one locally historic aspect of the talk that Pine gave. The other is an indirect connection to Jackson. As the DNR’s Northern Lower Peninsula historian, Pine works out of Hartwick Pines State Park. That park is named for Major Edward Hardwick, who died during his service in France during World War I. For about eight years prior to the war, the Hardwicks operated a lumber business in Jackson.

Jackson links aside, Pine’s talk focused on the big picture of Michigan’s CCC camp. Using a series of slides, she began from the beginning – Michigan’s logging era. Most sources suggest that the logging era lasted from 1840 to 1900. From 1869 to 1900 Michigan was the leading lumber producer.

Most of our logging took place in northern Michigan. Over the decades, our northern forests were depleted, leaving vast tracts of land devoid of the trees that farmers would typically remove to till the land and grow crops. But when farmers tried to make use of that denuded land, they discovered it was poor soil. Many of them lost their land, which reverted to the government.

Then came the Great Depression of the ’30s. Hard times meant that thousands of working-age men were looking for jobs that weren’t there. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office as president in early March of 1933, he set about providing jobs. Within days, he managed to launch his New Deal – one of the key programs being the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Operated by the War Department, the program paid men $30 monthly. They were allowed to keep $5, the rest went into savings accounts or to their families. Enrollees had to be 17 to 23 years old, or veterans of WWI or the Spanish-American War.

In Michigan, Pine explained, there were eventually as many as 125 CCC camps. Most of them were concentrated in the northern counties where those tax-reverted lands were located.

Only men were in the program. Over the years they planted nearly 500 million trees and built 7,000 miles of roads and 500 bridges. They fought forest fires and built dozens of fire towers, along with state and national parks. Fish hatcheries were developed, and streams restored.

The men brought electricity and telephone service to rural areas. More than 220 buildings were erected. If you’ve visited the Seney National Wildlife Refuge or Isle Royale National Park – those were CCC projects.

Some of her talk focused on the demographics of CCC men. Most were white, but up to 10 percent were black. She said initially the program was integrated, but problems led to racially segregated camps. There were also CCC camps administered for native Americans by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

And, as it happens, Pine is a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She has a B.A. in Art History from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in Cultural Heritage & Museum Studies from the University of East Anglia.

In Jackson County, two camps were operative during at least part of those years – Camp Portage and Camp Waterloo. Much of the work those men did helped to create Portage Lake State Park and the Waterloo Recreation Area.

Price said her area of expertise is mainly in the northern CCC camps. But she did know that the DNR would love to have more photos than they have of those two Jackson County CCC camps.

One of the more interesting aspects of her talk was a slide highlighting some of the memories provided by CCC men. Here are a couple:

Robert Fyvie at Camp Germfask: “I remember one night we missed the truck back to camp and had to walk from Cooks Corners to camp, which was about 15 miles. It was a moonlight night, and the temperature was down to minus 20 degrees. This was the night I heard a wolf howl – not a coyote.”

Michigan Rataj: “Once you got into camp, you wanted to get home, but after receiving a letter from your family who received $25 and told you what they had been able to purchase with that money – a coat, food, and wood for the stove – you felt for the first time that you were helping your family and nothing could induce you to leave the CCC.”

Those who might have had family members in the CCC will find a helpful resource in Hillary Pine. She has information on how to search the government’s archives for records pertaining to those who served in the camps. Her contact information: Phone: 989-348-2537. Web:

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