Long before Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd US president on March 4, 1933, the administrative and ideological attitudes of FDR and Frances Perkins had intersected, melded and seemingly became one.
Architect of the Civilian Conservation Corps Frances Perkins
The professional partnership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Frances Perkins was strengthened during Roosevelt’s 1929 – 1932 term as governor of New York. Recognizing Perkins understanding and grasp of complex government policies he appointed her Commissioner of New York State Industrial Commission. In this position Perkins supervised the health and safety of state workers; an appointment she managed with little difficulty. As a seasoned social worker, activist for public works, child labor, unemployment insurance, and workers’ rights advocate Perkins was able to tutor the then governor on the concept of “social insurance”.
First Woman Secretary of Labor
When FDR became President he selected “Miss Perkins” to be Secretary of Labor; the first woman ever appointed to a US cabinet position. Her tenure, as one of his closest and trusted advisers, would span FDR’s entire four term administration. A unique position which allowed her to observe, assist and analyze “the most complicated human being I ever knew.”
Theirs was a remarkable collaboration; one which empowered Perkins to frame and develop several of FDR’s New Deal programs and policies, among them the first and most successful, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
This is a story of a young, New Deal artist with a romantic name, Reima Ratti. Born in Waukegan, Illinois in 1914, he was like so many young boys of his generation. Young men who came of age during the jobless years of the Great Depression. Ratti joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a regular enrollee to help himself and his family. As a trained, but untried artist, he brought along his sketchpad, pencils and brushes. What transpired, during his CCC artist days and beyond, would set him on a path to history.
“I have heard much about the CCC artists and the fine work they have done. I would very much like to be a CCC artist myself.” Reima Ratti 1936
Knowing a CCC enrollee had $5-8 spending cash each month Sears Roebuck wanted them to have easy access to a Sears catalog.
It didn’t take long for Sears Roebuck and Co. to recognize the business potential of a young CCC enrollee who possessed, possibly for the first time, $5 – $8 in cash each month. Money they were free to spend whenever and however they chose, especially if they had access to a Sears catalog.
Used wisely during those Great Depression years, these hard earned dollars had exciting purchasing powers. Thousands of would-be customers were isolated deep within the nations parks and forests, a group Sears recognized as:
“the finest thing in America . . . as fine American manhood as the world has ever seen is being made, right now, in the Civilian Conservation Corps.”
Revolutionary Idea – Same Day Processing
Capitalizing on their ability to move products quickly a special offer was made for those in the CCC . . . “we mean to fill such orders the same day they are received”! This was a revolutionary concept prior to the days of Amazon Prime, same day, and overnight shipments or the seemingly impossible reality of immediate delivery by an unmanned aerial vehicle, a Drone .
CCC New Deal Women
A facet of New Deal history, now being recognized, are the untold stories of New Deal women associated with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program. Woman who were actually enrolled, employed or linked to the CCC programs. The research has begun to identify the contributions of the administrators, educators, secretaries, stenographers, clerks, actors, artists, volunteers and enrollees.
These CCC New Deal women were the ones who got the job done, enhanced the program and kept the trains running on time.
New Deal “Working Girl”
A two page article titled “Washington’s Secretaries” by Loraina King Francis, was published January 6, 1936 in the Los Angeles Sunday Times Magazine. The premise for the reporting was explained as a survey of the “working girl” in the nation’s capital. The “survey” did not include all 41,608 woman who held a Government position, it narrowed down only a select few in elevated positions with important government officials.
This investigative reporting attempted to dispel a belief that “Washington was running over with snappily attired young women, who were not straightening neckties, and patting the lapels of male callers”.
The women profiled for the article were a receptive group. They were the “serious, capable women who have spent years plugging along at their jobs, or who, because of unfailing devotion to their office routine, have found themselves suddenly elevated to positions of importance”.
First in a Series – Mrs. Clara Bechtol Holbrook (1879 – 1939)
Clara Bechtol Holbrook (1879-1939), was secretary to Robert E. Fechner (1876 – 1939), director of the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW), later called the CCC. Clara was 57 years old when interviewed for the article. The reporter found her to be “a dignified, elderly woman with snow-white hair, the mother of two grown children, who had been associated with Fechner for the previous fifteen years. Their association was strictly a professional relationship which began in the Washington D.C. offices of the International Machinists’ Association, of which Fechner was vice-president.
In the spring of 1933, when Mrs. Clara B. Holbrook as she was called, learned of Fechner’s ECW appointment “she called him up to congratulate him. He promptly offered her a secretary’s job.”
Clara would be connected, at the highest levels, with the ECW/CCC beginning in 1933, first as an executive secretary, confidential assistant and as traveling representative of the CCC until the year prior to her death in 1939.
In September 1936, Director Fechner was scheduled to visit numerous CCC camps in the southwest, but was called back by the president to visit flood control areas in New York and Pennsylvania. Clara quickly stepped in to represent him in visits to camps in Dallas, Yosemite Park and the demonstration CCC camp, Camp San Diego, at the California Pacific Exposition.
A report of her visit was covered in the September 9, 1936 edition of the San Diego Union “U.S. Women Officials Here to Inspect CCC, Expo Display. The reporter discovered “In five minutes it was evident Mrs. Holbrook is entirely in sympathy with the CCC. Noting that it is the new deal agency least criticized” he quoted her as saying…
“Thousands of young men have been given new hope and better fitted for the battle of life with practical education through terms in the CCC camps…the CCC is President Roosevelt’s personal hobby. He speaks frequently to Mr. Fechner of CCC projects and problems.”
Two years later, in the late spring of 1938, Clara accompanied Director and Mrs. Fechner along with Conrad Worth, assistant director of the national parks service on a 19 day inspection tour of the Hawaiian “territorial CCC camps.” During that visit Clara fell ill with a heart ailment, she was hospitalized for three weeks, but recovered enough to rejoin the group on the last day. She returned with them to Washington, D.C., via stops in Santa Fe, NM and the Grand Canyon.
Clara died March 29, 1939, just nine months prior to the death of CCC Director Robert Fechner.
Clara Bechtol Holbrook was as indispensable part of the CCC program, a women who worked hard and embraced the CCC program and the spirit of the New Deal.
In an effort to recognize and research the vast numbers and many contributions of woman in the New Deal your help is needed.
Who were these CCC New Deal Women?
To become more familiar with and acknowledge the stories of New Deal women an event, “Women and the Spirit of the New Deal”is scheduled for October 5 & 6th, 2018 at the Berkeley Berkeley Faculty Club, Berkeley, CA 94720.
“The Living New Deal, in collaboration with the Frances Perkins Center and the National New Deal Preservation Association, is hosting a conference, “Women and the Spirit of the New Deal,” bringing together authors, scholars, historians, activists and those in public life to fill in a significant gap in our understanding and appreciation of the women who led the New Deal and provide an inspiring model for today.”
Solving the mystery of CCC Art and its origins sometimes happens when you least expect it.
It is an exciting research day when one of the mysteries surrounding CCC Art can be solved, especially if you weren’t looking for it.
A component of the first federal government sponsored fine art programs, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) included depictions of the government work programs, the most popular being the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Artists, who were considered roving artists, were briefly sent into camps to make a pictorial record of the life and work.
Leland Roger Gustavson (1899-1966) was one of these roving and prolific PWAP artists. Gustavson was sent to several CCC camps during the harsh winter months of January and February 1934.
In its March 24, 1934 edition, HAPPY DAYS the unofficial national newspaper of the CCC included a front page report and photograph on the PWAP CCC art projects.
Until recently the identity of the CCC boy and the camps where Gustavson’s CCC art was created was long ago lost to history.
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).