Generally recognized as the most popular of all New Deal work programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put hundreds of thousands of young men to work during the dark days of the Great Depression.
Established in 1933, the CCC was initially open to unmarried, unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25.
A key component of the program was that “junior enrollees” (as new recruits or volunteers were known) had to send $22 to $25 of their $30 monthly allowance back to their families.
CCC volunteers were divided into companies typically numbering 150 to 200 men.
These companies were posted to camps across the nation where they worked on projects relating to natural resource conservation and preservation.
There were two camps close to Bloomington — the first in LeRoy and the second near Congerville (though the latter was called Camp Eureka) — both of which were charged with improving soil erosion control on overworked Cornbelt farms.
The organization of the CCC camps, including uniforms and room and board, fell under the supervision of the U.S. Army (camps were headed by reserve officers, though enrollees were given no military training).
The soil conservation work, on the other hand, was directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in cooperation with federal, state and local officials.
There were other camps in Central Illinois, including those in or near Charleston, Decatur, Havana, Manito and Pekin. The CCC in Illinois undertook major projects at numerous state parks, including, most famously, the construction of the magnificent (and still-standing) lodges
at Pere Marquette, Giant City and Starved Rock.
For the most part, enrollees assigned to the LeRoy and Congerville camps came from outside Illinois, while local men were sent to camps located in Wisconsin and Oregon.
For instance, Karl Blakney was one of nearly 200 McLean County residents comprising Company 1652 assigned to Gold Beach, Ore., some 30 miles north of the California border. For Blakney, the “three Cs was one of the best ideas that ever happened in this country.”
Camp LeRoy was situated on a five-acre tract about one-half mile from the business district, on the site of the city’s old fairgrounds.
Company 1657 got the camp up and running in May 1934, though its recruits had to sleep in six-man tents until the completion of the wood frame barracks.
This CCC camp eventually consisted of five barracks (each 120 feet long and outfitted with three coal-burning stoves for cold weather), mess hall, canteen/recreation center (with pool and pingpong tables), infirmary, headquarters, truck shed and classroom building, as well as reveille grounds and a baseball diamond. Company 1657 manned Camp LeRoy for 3 1/2 years, followed by briefer stays of at least three other companies.
Much of the work at Camp LeRoy revolved around the construction of erosion-control “dams,” which were placed in gullies to slow the loss of washed-out soil.
These dams were made of all types of materials, including brush, wire, sod bags, wood and concrete.
Tree planting was another priority — Company 1657 alone planted a grove’s worth of trees, including thousands upon thousands of black walnuts, cottonwoods, white oaks and soft maples.
Camp Eureka, located east of the Mackinaw River on the north side of what is now U.S. 150, served northwestern McLean County and parts of Woodford and Tazewell counties.
It closed in the fall of 1938, and Camp LeRoy followed a year later.
Today, LeRoy’s old CCC camp is part of the city’s Sunnyside subdivision.
At the Camp Eureka site, two pillars of native stone mark the former entrance (though they’re situated on private property).
Back in July 1936, The Pantagraph looked into life at Camp Eureka, where most recruits were no older than 20.
The young men were rousted from slumber at 6 a.m., and one half-hour later in the mess hall they sat down for breakfast, which typically included “prunes, cooked cereal, a pint of milk each, fried mush, syrup, coffee and butter.”
Many Camp Eureka volunteers gained 10 to 15 pounds during the first two months of camp life, testament to the widespread malnutrition and hunger average Americans faced during the Great Depression.
The CCC, though, was not all work and no play. Twice a week, Camp Eureka CCC’ers loaded onto trucks to spend the evening “on the town” — Wednesdays in Bloomington and Saturdays in Peoria.
Not surprisingly, CCC volunteers often found themselves romantically entangled with local girls, and in LeRoy, more than a few of these relationships blossomed into something more serious — marriage!