By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – A Washington State University student who delved into the local history of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s has earned a national award, one of 16 in the country.
Senior John Menard of Yakima, Wash., will travel to New York City on June 3 to accept the Gilder Lehrman History Scholar Award. The honor recognizes outstanding college juniors and seniors who have demonstrated academic and extracurricular excellence in American history or American studies, as well as a commitment to public service and community involvement, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website.
Award winners spend a weekend participating in special presentations, meetings with eminent scholars, and behind-the-scenes tours of historic archives.
“I’m very proud to be among such select company, and I’m also very proud to represent the Cougars,” said Menard, who noted he is one of two WSU students to have received the award since 2003. “I’m excited for this experience. It opens the door to so much more.”
National relief program seen from the local level
The CCC opened doors for young men during the Great Depression. The public work relief program operated 1933-42 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men ages 17-23. It provided jobs to 3 million while conserving and developing natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments.
For his senior history seminar on research and writing (History 469), Menard explored the interactions between CCC camps and local communities, with direction from history professor emeritus David Stratton and using extensive records at the WSU and University of Idaho Libraries. His seminar paper served as the basis for the Lehrman award application, which Menard put together with history instructor Lee Ann Powell.
WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections holds the collected documents of George T. Spinning, education adviser for Camp F-188 located a few miles southwest of Emida, Idaho. MASC also has the collection of Jay Mark Gleason, chaplain for the CCC’s Fort George Wright District, of which Camp F-188 was a part.
At its height, the district housed some 260 CCC companies and 42,000 members in Idaho, Washington and Montana, Menard wrote in his paper. Projects included blister rust control for a type of spore that attacks white pine trees, soil conservation, fire hazard reduction, flood control, bridge and road building and construction of campsites and campgrounds for recreational public use.
Poor and a long way from home
Most of the men of Camp F-188 came from the eastern part of the country, specifically Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia and were extremely poor, Menard wrote. One such worker was George W. Rairden, the oldest of nine children who left school after eighth grade. He enrolled in the CCC two weeks after his 17th birthday and spent four months in Kentucky before transferring to the Idaho camp in the winter of 1936.
The CCC men worked hard, eight-hour days with a lunch break on projects Monday-Saturday. Those taking advantage of educational opportunities after work had longer days.
But Spinning and Gleason encouraged their workers to reach high. Gleason in particular most likely kept one young man out of jail by advocating for him.
“Michael Hudanish…had been charged in January of 1936 with the alleged theft of farming property in September of 1934 in his home state of New Jersey,” Menard wrote. “Gleason wrote the prosecuting attorney, asking that the case be dismissed based upon the amount of time between the alleged theft and the filing of charges, the minimal monetary worth of the alleged equipment ($50) and due to Hudanish’s good work within his CCC camp.”
‘The country’s biggest night school’
Local personnel records Menard found also showed that the majority of CCC enrollees had never completed their primary education or attended college.
“Due to the deficiency of formal schooling experienced by most enrollees, education was one of the highest priorities of CCC leadership,” he wrote. “The education program was so robust that the CCC earned the moniker of ‘the country’s biggest night school.’”
As education adviser for Camp F-188, Spinning was committed to the success of the camp’s education initiatives. He interviewed men upon admission to the camp to learn what should be taught. In addition to literacy classes, CCC members also studied algebra, history or sociology and such vocational skills as drafting and truck driving.
Washington State College and University of Idaho were instrumental in the men’s education. Camp members took various correspondence and evening courses, allowing them to complete their high school degrees and even begin to earn college credit.
“Despite the tight budgets inherent to the times, (Camp) F-188 put every effort into educating its young charges and, as a result, provided these young men with skills that served them well upon exit from the CCC,” Menard wrote.
Trevor Bond, head of WSU MASC, followed Menard’s progress as he conducted research on the CCC in the Inland Northwest and knew of his work ethic from early on. Menard had taken five classes and completed an independent study from Bond, starting in Menard’s freshmen year.
“One of the things I admired about John’s research was that he dug in,” Bond said. “He located several extremely rare, ephemeral CCC camp publications in an older section of the library, which we transferred from the circulating collection to special collections.
“John uncovered further sources at the University of Idaho,” Bond added. “He moved up to graduate-level work when he took the step to check out other repositories.
“John and his father also visited the physical site of Camp F-188, which was not easy to do,” Bond said. “They eventually located the camp at the end of an abandoned logging road.”
Menard called working on the CCC project “a growing experience.”
“It absolutely confirmed that I was in the right field,” he said. “I had a lot of empathy for the CCC guys; most of them lived a hard life. I think we often lose that empathy in our study of history.”
John Menard, WSU history student, firstname.lastname@example.org
Trevor Bond, WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections head, 509-335-6693, email@example.com
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744, firstname.lastname@example.org