“We Can Take It!”: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Creation of the Skokie Lagoons

Skokie Lagoons construction, c. 1935.

Originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2022 Gazette
by by Duff Peterson

To see a gallery of photos related to this article, click HERE.

On March 15, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a plan for the federal government to hire unemployed young men to do conservation work on the nation’s public lands. Known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the program would employ 2.5 million men across the country, leaving a lasting impact on the American landscape. The transformation of the Skokie marsh into the Skokie Lagoons was the CCC’s biggest project, lasting nine years and requiring thousands of laborers to move four million cubic yards of earth and plant 120,000 trees. The CCC men working on the project lived in temporary barracks known as Camp Skokie Valley, 115 buildings in all, along the west side of Harms Road in Glenview, present-day Blue Star Memorial Woods. The camp housed 2,000 men at its peak.

Camp Skokie Valley sign c. 1930s.

FDR had won a landslide victory in 1932 but inherited a country in desperate straits. Unemployment stood at 25%, the highest in American history. For those who had jobs, the average wage had fallen by 42%. At least 9,000 banks had failed, wiping out the life savings of untold Americans. During the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago, FDR had promised a “new deal for the American people,” and the phrase stuck. His array of measures aimed at ending the Depression, including payments to impoverished Americans, new government agencies providing jobs for millions, and tighter regulation of business and finance, would forever be known as the New Deal.

The 1932 election had also given the Democrats large majorities in Congress. Breaking with tradition, FDR called a special session immediately after taking office, and oversaw a whirlwind of legislation over the next three months. The CCC bill was one of his first initiatives, and it passed quickly after minimal debate. The only black member of Congress, Oscar De Priest, a Republican from Chicago, proposed an amendment banning racial discrimination in CCC employment, and it too quickly passed. Initially, opposition came from organized labor, whose leaders feared that CCC workers would compete with union members, but FDR talked them out of it, deftly appointing an official of the machinists’ union, Robert Fechner, to head the program.

By the time the CCC arrived, taming the Skokie had been debated in Winnetka for more than 50 years. As the Village grew, the marsh became more and more of a nuisance. A perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, it flooded after heavy rains, damaging nearby homes and sometimes making Willow and Hibbard Roads impassable. In dry seasons, its peaty soil erupted in slow-burning fires, causing acrid smoke to drift through town. For decades, various schemes to drain the swamp came and went.

Skokie Lagoons construction c. 1938.

The project finally gained traction with the coming of the New Deal. Winnetkan Harold Ickes, FDR’s crusty Secretary of the Interior, is credited with making it happen. He also spearheaded Winnetka’s other massive public works initiative, the railroad grade separation, which began while the Skokie project was still underway. Today, most Winnetkans would say that these two giant New Deal projects changed Winnetka for the better, yet at the time, a majority of Winnetkans opposed the New Deal. In each of the four elections in which FDR ran for president, New Trier Township voted for his Republican opponent by a margin of at least two to one. In the 1940 election, FDR got barely 20% of the vote here. Many Winnetkans saw the New Deal as wasteful and ineffectual, and CCC projects as little more than government make-work. The men on the Skokie project were said to spend all day “leaning on their shovels.”

For most of its existence, the CCC took only unmarried men aged 17 to 23 (men who served in the CCC were always called “enrollees”). Few CCC enrollees had finished high school, and many were illiterate. Most had never had any medical or dental care. A high percentage were found to be undernourished, and it became a matter of pride for CCC leaders to talk about how much weight their charges gained. Enrollees were required to serve a six-month term, but could re-up for additional terms. Each man was paid $30 per month, of which $25 went directly to his family.

Camp Skokie Valley barracks c. 1930s.

CCC enrollees lived in camps that sprang up all over the country. The Department of Labor managed the intake of enrollees, officers of the U.S. Army Reserve ran the camps, and the National Park Service or U.S. Forest Service supervised the work projects. Although the De Priest Amendment forbade discrimination, the amendment was understood to mean only that the CCC could not exclude black men from joining. “Separate but equal” was still the law of the land, and African American enrollees were housed in segregated barracks. Two all-black companies, 400 men, lived at Camp Skokie Valley and worked on the Skokie Lagoons.

CCC enrollees at work on the Skokie Lagoons, 1933.

Daily life at Camp Skokie Valley began with reveille at 5:45 AM, calisthenics and breakfast, followed by an inspection of the barracks. The enrollees then traveled to the worksite north of Willow Road in a convoy of 40 open trucks. Picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were their only tools at first, but after the first year, bulldozers, backhoes and dump trucks were brought in. The work was hard, seven hours per day, five days per week, and continued through Winnetka’s sticky-hot summers and frigid winters, but the men lived up to the motto of the CCC nationwide: “We Can Take It!”

Camp Skokie Valley offered enrollees a range of recreational activities during their limited downtime. Organized sports were popular, including baseball, volleyball, basketball and, above all, boxing. Starting in September 1934, the camp began offering an educational program nicknamed “Skokie Valley University.” Many enrollees learned skills from the program that would later help them find a job, everything from bookkeeping to auto mechanics. North Shore residents donated books, magazines, sports equipment and musical instruments, and local clergy conducted religious services. Impressed with the enrollees’ enthusiasm, the Winnetka Talk reported that “a splendid spirit prevails among the men.”

Camp Skokie Valley c. 1930s.

Camp Skokie Valley baseball team c. 1935.

Congress terminated the CCC effective July 1, 1942. By then, the United States had entered the Second World War, and CCC men went off to fight in and win it. The Army took over Camp Skokie Valley, turning it into a training facility for military police, and it later held German prisoners of war. In 1946, the Army transferred the camp to the Forest Preserve District, which sold off the buildings. All were eventually removed or demolished.

Even critics of big government acknowledge that the CCC did what it was supposed to do, ended when it outlived its mission, and did some good for America. Ruins of Camp Skokie Valley still can be seen, if you know where to look. Deep in a little-traveled part of the Forest Preserve, now overgrown with honeysuckle and buckthorn, foundation remnants and a long-disused fire hydrant stand silently, the only reminders of the vibrant community of 2,000 young men who lived here in the 1930s, and whose work had such a lasting impact on our Village. ■

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