By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN - “She was the first one to contact me after I won the award,” said award-winning author Barbara Sommer of Howard Lake Librarian Deb Cox-Johnson.
Sommer was invited by the library to present her recent award-winning book, titled “Hard Work and a Good Deal,” at the Howard Lake Community Room Wednesday evening.
The Minnesota Book Awards took place April 26, which is when Sommer was thrilled to learn that she had been declared a winner in the Minnesota category for her book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which recounts the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Minnesota.
Gavin Dalbec, 10, of Howard Lake is an avid reader and regular patron of the library, and volunteered to run the slide show for Sommer during her presentation.
Upon meeting Sommer, Dalbec told her, “I just had to meet an author.”
About 15 people came to meet the author and hear about her book. The slide show Sommer presented consisted of numerous pictures of all aspects of the CCC as it relates to Minnesota in her book.
Minnesota had 61 CCC camps. The closest camp to Howard Lake was in Maple Lake, Sommer said, where the crew worked on soil conservation efforts.
The CCC was a government program from 1933 to 1942 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated due to the Great Depression.
After the bill was signed, Roosevelt’s goal was to put to work 250,000 young, jobless men by July 1, 1933 on conservation projects in forestry, erosion and flood control, and parks, according to Sommer.
In the book, Sommer wrote, “Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen traces of the CCC’s work in Minnesota. The legacy lives in the warm stone used in the Lakeview Refectory at Gooseberry Falls State Park in northeastern Minnesota and in countless other buildings constructed by the CCC across the state. It stands in the red pine trees planted on state-owned lands by men and teenagers of various walks of life, of various ethnicities, who were part of the CCC. The legacy lives in southeastern Minnesota, where the CCC implemented contour farming techniques still in use today. And perhaps most importantly, the CCC remains a vivid and vital part of the memories of men and boys who took part in the program.”
Young men ages 18 to 25 were recruited to the CCC, and any job requesting CCC manpower had to prove that it could keep a camp of 200 men busy for at least six months, Sommer explained.
“During the CCC years, Minnesota’s forests increased dramatically in number and size, with thirteen new state forests established in 1933 and another thirteen established two years later,” Sommer wrote. “Existing state forests and the Superior and Chippewa national forests also grew in the CCC era. Enrollees planted millions of trees in these new and expanded forests, giving rise to a popular nickname: ‘Roosevelt’s Tree Army.’ Today, Walter Okstad, forest archeologist and historian at the Superior National Forest says, ‘Whenever you see a stand of red pine about 10-12 inches in diameter, it is almost certain to have been planted by the CCC.’”
Because of the Great Depression, it was common for families not to know where their next meal was coming from. The men who joined the CCC were often malnourished, and happy to have a job and eat well, Sommer continued.
They earned $30 per month, but were required to send $25 of their pay home per month.
“They kept the remaining $5 for spending money,” Sommer said.
“The CCC gave employment to a lot of people at that time, and we still benefit today as President Roosevelt said,” Sommer added.
In her book, Sommer describes how the CCC also hired local experienced men, referred to as LEMs, who taught the men of the CCC specialty trades.
For example, Sommer explains how Italian stone masons were hired for the beautiful stone craftsmanship that can be seen today at Gooseberry Falls State Park.
At that time, many kids had dropped out of school, which was recognized by Roosevelt. In response, he assigned camp education officers to the camps to work with the young men in their spare time.
Sommer is a founder of the Oral History Association of Minnesota.
“Within these pages, you’ll find countless quotations from oral histories. An oral history is a primary source document similar to a letter or diary that is the result of an interview with someone who witnessed or participated in a historical event. The oral history interview is conducted to preserve and collect information about the past,” Sommer wrote.
The book also describes how the men took pride in their camps, showed them off, and even had contests as to the best looking camp.
They also took pride in the food that the camp served, and many men bragged that their camp had the best cooks, Sommer explained.
Although, the CCC did wonders for its enrollees and the surrounding landscapes, the program isn’t without criticism, which is also explained in the book.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how it describes the way the enrollees of the CCC were physically, mentally, and forever personally changed for the better by the program.
The book is a comprehensive history of the CCC program and its impact on Minnesota, so much so that a newspaper article doesn’t do it justice.
Sommer mentioned that today, there is a Minnesota Conservation Corps for men and women ages 18 to 25, who do the same type of work that the CCC did. More information on the MCC can be found at www.conservationcorps.org.
“It’s a great summer job for kids,” Sommer said.
Sommer’s book can be found at major bookstores, or checked out at the Howard Lake Library.