KENT—Few people alive today remember the horrors of the Great Depression, the disaster that popped the economic bubble of the Roaring ‘20s like froth fizzing atop champagne. Suddenly, the gaiety was gone, and grim poverty replaced it.
For three years, from October 1929 until the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, misery gripped the country. Homes and farms were lost, and displaced people took to the road in search of work. Some lived in shanty towns in city parks, others became migrants. Businesses closed and up to 25 percent of the of the populace was unemployed.
In a day before Social Security, people literally starved.
“There was something called relief, but people were lucky if they got one meal a day,” said author Marty Podskosch, who came to Kent last Sunday to speak at the annual meeting of the Kent Historical Society.
Republican President Herbert Hoover, who ironically had been so effective bringing relief to starving Belgians in World War I, seemed unable to combat his nation’s distress. And then Roosevelt arrived, with his “alphabet soup” New Deal programs such as the WPA, TVA, SSA, FDIC and—most importantly for Podskosch—the CCC—the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Podskosch has studied the CCC and its many camps for decades and has written several books about them.
“There were camps all over—White camps, Black camps and Indian camps, because we were still a segregated country,” he said, adding that New England camps were integrated, not because we were more tolerant but “because they couldn’t find 200 African-Americans in Connecticut to create a Black camp.”
In the Northwest Corner, camps were located in Kent and nearby Housatonic Meadows in Sharon. Others still were in Torrington and Barkhamsted. In Kent, the boys worked building roads, walls and the like in Macedonia and Kent Falls state parks.
Enrollees had to be single, from impoverished families, had to weigh at least 107 pounds and have at least three teeth, upper and lower jaw. They were shipped to the camps by trains and trucks, were given uniforms and put in barracks where they were controlled by a supervisory staff.
“At Kent Falls, 200 young boys out of New York got off the train and crossed the street and they were at their camp,” Podskoch said.
The young men had known hardship. Seventy percent of enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed. Very few had finished high school or had work experience beyond occasional odd jobs. “Some of them were tough hoodlums,” said Podskoch. “Since most of the boys quit school after eighth grade to help their families, the Army organized evening classes for those who wanted to get a GED, learn vocational skills or just hobbies like photography.”
They signed up for six months to work a 40-hour week for $30 a month. All but $5 was sent home to help the boys’ families, but the rest of the money jingled in their pockets and could be used to buy incidentals or for entertainment on the weekends.
The work was hard—building roads, planting trees, creating fire towers, fighting blight and more—but the young men were fed, housed, given medical care and were clothed in World War I uniforms. “In those days people wanted to work, “Podskoch said. “Now, people sit on their doopa and wait for someone to help them, but these kids wanted to work.”
Podskoch said the uniforms set many a female heart aflutter when the young men came to town on the weekends. “These were 18- to 25-year-old kids,” he said. “The boys would come to town with these uniforms on; the girls saw those uniforms and ended up marrying these guys they met at a dance.”
Local historian Marge Smith reported that the late Elmer Trombley met his wife Beatrice while at the Kent CCC camp and ended up becoming a lifelong Kent resident.
At first, the boys lived in tents; later they moved into wooden buildings. The Kent camp was located across the road from Kent Falls State Park and one can still see a fireplace and chimney from one of the buildings.
Podskoch noted that construction of the camps provided business for families in neighboring towns as they provided food and services. “If you had a CCC camp in town, it was bringing in money. The boys had to be fed three times a day. They even hired local carpenters to provide work.”
The great experiment launched some of the young men on careers they never imagined, but the majority were swept up by World War II and entered the Armed Services. The CCC disbanded in 1942 due to the need for men to go to war.
Podskoch has interviewed hundreds of former CCC boys, but now they are in their late 90s or more than 100 years old. “It’s up to their kids, grandkids and people like me to preserve the memory,” he concluded. He said one town had a bronze statute crafted to honor the young men and urged Kent to consider one to place on the site of the former camp.