Some Australian friends recently sent me some photographs they’d taken while vacationing in the USA. Among other places they visited Colorado, sending me photos of Mesa Verde, where the the Ancestral Pueblo peoples built their cliff dwellings and farms; and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where you can watch the moon rising over Denver as you listen to your favourite performer.
What both sites have in common was that during the 1930s, they housed work camps for unemployed young men. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal; it opened in 1933, placing over a quarter of a million single men in 1,300 camps, employing them on public works that were chosen partly for their public value. In contrast to Britain, the programme became so popular that politicians lobbied to have the CCC open camps in their electoral districts. I’ve met elderly American socialists who will brook no contradiction with their view that the CCC was a force for good.
This enduring popularity might seem inexplicable, particularly as the camps were segregated, women were excluded, and the men wore uniforms and came under military control. But the USA had no welfare system, in contrast to the unemployment benefit available in Britain and elsewhere, and the CCC made it possible for the federal government to pay unemployed single men. It also benefited from its association with the wider New Deal programme.
And Roosevelt was not shy of mobilising public opinion. On the contrary, he was one of the first major democratic politicians to make use of new mass media (wireless in his case) to publicise his administration’s work, and the CCC was equally adept at promoting a positive image, helped by the nature of the work it undertook. While the British Government reached an agreement with the trade unions limiting the work to be done in its work camps, the CCC proudly presented itself as building the modern facilities needed for a nation of pioneers.
Hence my interest in Tony and Janet Brown’s photos. I find it fascinating to see how the memory of the CCC is kept alive and celebrated today, and while I love Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut sculpture in North Yorkshire, it is understated and rather remote. If not exactly secret, most of the British work camps are largely forgotten, along with the unemployed young men who laid the basis for so many of our great forests.
Check out my book if you want to find out more about the British experience of labour camps..