During the Great Depression persistence and talent earned Frank Cassara a young, untried artist his place among the greats in New Deal art history.
The last of the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) artists, Frank (Francesco) Cassara, born March 13, 1913 in Partinico, Sicily died January 13, 2017, in Ann Arbor, Michigan – two months shy of his 104th birthday.
In the fall of 2010, Frank Cassara and his daughter, Francisca, graciously welcomed me into his Michigan home and studio. While giving me directions they voiced concerns with traffic I might encounter en-route; a football game was scheduled at the University of Michigan. If there was traffic I never noticed, but do recall the Spartans were not the only winners that weekend.
Frank was then 97 years old, in a wheelchair, soft spoken and was quietly reflective as I questioned him about his time and special circumstances as an Artist/Enrollee with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Illinois during the Great Depression years.
Initially we sat in the living room of his home. Frank watched as I arranged my papers, camera equipment and hooked up the audio recorder all while explaining the who and whys of our New Deal research, extensive travels and how we search for CCC art, artists and stories.
Frank apologized for what he believed would be unproductive time and wasted travel for me; explaining it had been years (authors note – 75+ years) since his assignment to a CCC camp and he really couldn’t remember much.
Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect as I handed Frank copies of CCC camp photographs and letters. The documents were dated 1934 – 1935, years when Frank was 21 years of age, living in Detroit, Michigan and desperate for work. He was writing or approaching anyone or any agency he thought might be of assistance, repeatedly.
In 1939 the Federal Art Program Poster Division utilized a revolutionary printing process to produce a historic calendar. 78 years later the calendar dates are the same. Presenting a timely opportunity to enjoy a years worth of New Deal American art once again.
1939 Federal Art Project Calendar
At times New Deal research will go off in unexpected directions such as the Federal Art Project (FAP) administered by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Because several CCC artists would later find employment with other government art programs searching selected records from these federal agencies can provide a better understanding of an artists journey.
On a recent trip to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland multiple boxes were requested from WPA Record Group 69. Midway through a container labeled FAP State Offices New York was a folder marked 1939 FAP. Inside this archival envelope were original poster prints from a FAP calendar for 1939; considering their age the paper stock was still firm and the images remained bold and impressive.
A revolutionary new silk screened process, designed by a WPA artist, was used for these poster prints. Enabling mass production with results considered, in the 1930’s, to be technically superior and artistically pleasing.
A quick check revealed that the calendar dates for 1939 are the same for 2017. How fortunate to find these vintage 78 year-old federal art prints and how fitting to revitalize these images for another years use.
As a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) researcher and author I am excited to be associated with the NNDPA, an organization whose goal is: to promote the identification, documentation, preservation and education of the Great Depression New Deal visual and performing arts, literature, crafts, structures and environmental projects and programs.
The New Deal – What and When?
It was the Great Depression – America was in the midst of an economic and environmental cataclysm previously unknown in its history. During the 1932 presidential campaign Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) addressed the grinding despair by promising “a new deal for the American people.”
It wasn’t until after his March 1934 inauguration that the true depth of the unemployment, hunger, homelessness and poverty was truly documented. President Roosevelt was facing an unprecedented national emergency; massive in size and scope.
These were uncharted waters, the programs and ideas FDR would authorize in an effort to address this crisis were experimental and untested. Boldly stating “Above All Try Something” best describes the New Deal and what he could offer a struggling nation.
Lasting from 1933 – 1943, the numerous and varied New Deal programs, policies and work projects forever changed and bolstered a struggling nation. Over eighty years later we continue to benefit from these remarkable accomplishments.
Between 1934-1937 the CCC art program encompassed the lower forty-eight states. Researching this quiet part of American art history requires extensive travel and investigation. Using a vintage motor home allows the best access to sleuthing within the parks, repositories and other collections that house this New Deal history. Often crucial information is found by going to the source; clues that lead to the art, artists and stories of the CCC.
We are appreciative for this article which draws attention to a quiet part of America art history and our efforts in researching the Civilian Conservation Corps and the New Deal CCC art program.
It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. The unemployment spiral continued downwards, millions were jobless. There was a feeling of hopelessness; especially among a young and untried generation. Something needed to be done . . . and quickly.
By the 5th day of his first term, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), 32nd US President was setting in motion what is now recognized as the “single greatest conservation program in American history”. The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC . It would become the first and most successful of the New Deal work programs.
By the 1oth day FDR signed four memos with a simple directive – “coordinate the plans”. The memos were addressed to members of his cabinet. George H. Dern, Secretary of War, Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of Interior 1933-1946, Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor 1933-1945.
This historic memo gave the four cabinets members powerful authority and a daunting task . . . they were to investigate and draft legislation which would allow the immediately implementation the first of the New Deal work programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Requests for Civilian Conservation Corps records should include:
Full name used at the time of service (provide exact spelling and include the middle name if known); nicknames (if known); also include spelling variations.
Social Security Number (if known)
Date of birth
Place of birth
Home address (city and state) at time of service (this would be where they enrolled)
Parents’ name. If the enrollee was an orphan or a war veteran list the closest relative or dependent.
Dates of service
CCC Company numbers
Location of CCC camp(s) (city and state)
Title(s) of position(s) held – What is meant by position or title is their status. Were they a regular- junior enrollee, war veteran, native american, artist. Some CCC enrollees advanced to the position of Leader, Assistant Leader, Company Clerk, Canteen Steward and various titles that were considered part of the technical staff.
Send your written request to:
National Archives & Records Administration
ATTN: Archival Programs
P.O. Box 38757
St. Louis, MO 63138
General information and questions- 314-801-0800 firstname.lastname@example.org
Allow several weeks for a response. NARA will do a free search. If a record is located you will be contacted with invoice/payment/delivery instructions. Fee information can be found here: NARA CCC records.
If you plan on visiting the archives in St. Louis it is suggested you submit your request prior. Directions may be found on their website – NARA St. Louis. When visiting the archives there is no fee to photograph or scan the records, but there is a charge for use of their onsite copy machines.
“CCC ART – Artists of the Civilian Conservation Corps – Marshall Davis”
Marshall Davis was a young, untried and struggling artist caught up in a dramatic and timely turn of events. It was the Great Depression, his only option for a job was to enroll in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a laborer. Davis wisely brought along his sketchpad and pencils and embarked on a artistic journey that would change his life and our understanding of the three C’s. Through the discovery of his masterful and whimsical illustrations, letters and records we are provided with a true visual of the real CCC. The CCC was the first and most successful of the New Deal work programs; a massive movement that is recognized as the greatest conservation effort in US history.
“I have a pile of picture material – and thanks to those managing the Art Project and Mr. Hoyt of Happy Days – the time is drawing near when I will have nothing to do but sleep – eat – and draw . . . I assure you I will do my best with every opportunity.” (Clarence) Marshall Davis
One can easily sense the excitement felt by junior Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollee Marshall Davis on March 24, 1934 as he put pen to paper and wrote those words to Edward Rowan in the Treasury Department Washington, D.C. Marshall Davis was about to join the first of the government art programs, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP).
his assignment was to make a pictorial record of the CCC, a program his knew well.