Before he won an Oscar playing Don Corleone, before he hollered "Stella!" in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Marlon Brando was a recruit with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The public relief program instituted by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 sought to put thousands of jobless, young, unmarried men to work restoring the country's natural resources. Brando, like Walter Matthau, Robert Mitchum and Raymond Burr, fit all the criteria and was willing to sign on for the privilege of "three hots and a cot," medical care, an education and two pairs of shoes.
For many of the recruits, the CCC experience was the first time for all those things, not to mention often their initial foray outside their hometowns. Potential applicants were informed that if accepted, they were expected to join that very day, so they should bring a suitcase with toiletries and a civilian suit.
The story of how the CCC unfolded is laid out at the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum at Pocahontas State Park, in a compact building that was originally built as a place in which the men could do crafts such as pottery, leatherwork and basket weaving.
The museum is a treasure trove of uniforms, photographs, drawings, maps and other ephemera from the nine years of the program's existence in what is now Pocahontas State Park. A 1936 Thanksgiving menu includes the names of the six cooks who prepared the traditional feast for the recruits, while the menu's inclusion of cigarettes makes it clear this is a Virginia holiday.
Smoking aside, the average young man gained 10 to 15 pounds during his first year and was earning money regularly for the first time in his life. Because all applicants had to be from families who were on the welfare rolls, the men were required to send home to their family $25 of their monthly $30 pay. A photograph of recruits being inoculated shows faces so young they could be mistaken for middle school boys, although the minimum age was 17.
In a coordinated manner that's impossible to envision today, the museum's displays explain that the CCC was a joint effort of the Department of War, which fed, clothed, housed and transported the men, the Department of Labor, which recruited, and the Department of the Interior, which ran the program. "The CCC basically cultivated a generation of soldiers for World War II," explains Aaron-Paula Thompson, curator of the CCC Museum. "They slept in a barracks with 49 other guys, ate in a mess hall, woke to reveille and wore a uniform here."
The bigger lesson, she says, was learning to respect natural resources and get along with men from different states and of different religions. A photograph taken from the air shows a militarylike operation with four barracks of 50 men each, along with all the support buildings necessary to keep corps members fed, clean, occupied and educated. Surely one of the most unexpected is a boxing ring, used whenever men quarreled or started a fight. Recruits were required to settle the disagreement in the ring and shake hands when it was over.
When the recruits weren't doing the hard work of projects such as erosion control, flood control, road building, cabin construction and reforestation, they could play sports — baseball, football, boxing — or take academic classes or work skills training.
The museum provides a lesson in diversity, too, explaining that over the nine years between 1933 and 1942, over 200,000 young black men were enrolled in the CCC nationally, although black units were segregated from white units. They did, however, do the same work at the same pay rate, a rare instance of separate but equal, according to Thompson. Additionally, more than 7,500 young Native American men were hired to work on reservations restoring land that had been devastated by a severe drought.
In 1935, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service purchased the first 287-acre parcel to create Swift Creek Recreational Demonstration Area, going on to purchase approximately 7,200 acres of land by 1938 before opening in August that year. "Much of the land had been abandoned after being overfarmed and overworked growing tobacco," Thompson says. "They made fair deals with the local farmers to get the acreage to start the park."
During World War II, Swift Creek was used as a recreation area for soldiers at nearby Fort Lee. In 1946, the National Park Service donated Swift Creek, which later became Pocahontas State Park, to the state.
To celebrate the CCC legacy, Virginia's state parks hold a field day every June that allows visitors to try on a CCC work uniform, use a bit and brace to drill through wood like recruits did and check out what they got to eat.
For visitors to Pocahontas, that immersion is always available.
"We're the only museum dedicated to the CCC in the Virginia state park system," Thompson says proudly.
CCC Legacy: Virginia State Parks History and Cultural Day is held Saturday, June 15, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Pocahontas State Park, 10301 State Park Road.