Reforestation in the eastern United States during the Great Depression was a multifaceted process with the involvement of many different government agencies and private groups. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) managed land purchases, plantation projects, fire suppression, and forest management in the national forests. Each state had a department that provided similar operations for state and local forests. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) furnished significant labor to each of these agencies while being directed by the military. Labor also came from other work relief agencies of the New Deal. Local residents provided quarters, provisions, supplies, or skilled labor for numerous temporary aspects of the field work. Amidst all of this complexity, successful silviculture developed at the direction of a proportionally small number of trained men. Chittenden Nursery in Wellston, Michigan demonstrates the logistical, scientific, and social challenges and benefits of this approach to reforestation work.
The logic behind the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt can be summarized as relief, recovery, and restructuring. Relief took the form of emergency handouts, work on public projects, and bank holidays. Recovery was returning men to work in the private sector amidst functioning industries and banks. Restructuring involved changing the ways industry, finance, and infrastructure functioned to avoid another collapse of the economy. Roosevelt understood that all of the primary problems of the economic sector manifested themselves in the land. Soil exhaustion and erosion, denuded forests prone to fires, declines in fish and game, the ravages of pests and diseases on the landscape, and the exploitive use of natural resources exhibited the need for relief from present circumstances, recovery to a useable state, and restructuring of how Americans used resources. The CCC was Roosevelt’s favorite remedy for the troubles of the 1930s because it provided relief, recovery, and restructuring that conserved both natural and human resources (Phillips 2005, 2007).
While vast public lands were common in the West, federal and state public lands east of the Rockies were small and difficult to manage. However, denuded, burned, eroded, and depleted lands coupled with urban unemployment made this region well suited for the work that Roosevelt envisioned. Therefore, he dedicated twenty million dollars for the purchase of new national forest lands. This money provided the means for starting the Manistee National Forest in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Once purchases began, the USFS established Chittenden Nursery, named for a forestry professor at Michigan Agricultural College, to supply seedlings and transplants for reforestation plantings throughout the region. On March 1, 1934, CCC workers began to clear eighty-seven acres just east of Wellston for the nursery. Built on the site were a pump house, a warehouse, oil storage, and a residence/office. Buildings for cone storage, seed extraction, and a greenhouse were later added. In addition to the buildings, the grounds had thirty-five acres of seed beds. The first planting of sixty-five million seeds took place in October of that year. The plantings at the nursery were primarily white, red, and jack pine as well as some spruce, cedar, and hardwoods. Originally, it was expected that the nursery’s capacity would be over one hundred million seedlings, but decisions to keep seedlings in the seed beds longer, reduced that number to between twenty-five and fifty million (Jones 2007).
Once the nursery was functioning, logistical challenges were evident. While the Wellston CCC camp was only a short walk from the nursery, there was a clear divide between operations of the two sites. The USFS employees operated the nursery, while military officers ran the camp. The Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) paid for local laborers to work on construction in the camp. Thus, the coordination of labor required tracking and directing 200 CCC enrollees and 25 local ERA men, none of whom had forestry or nursery training. Additionally, the standard term of enrollment in the CCC was six months, so new enrollees needed to be trained constantly. The supervision, training, and direction of the nursery operations fell to four men in the early years of Chittenden. When enrollees packed seedlings to be shipped for planting, coordination needed to be made not only with CCC and ERA labor but with forest rangers and the thirteen other CCC camps to maximize the success of planting. Given that an individual planter could set 1,500 to 3,000 seedlings in a day, such coordination over such a broad operation required careful planning, foresight, and a little luck. In addition to these logistical problems, there were operational issues with constructing buildings, maintaining equipment, and irrigating seedbeds effectively. During a hot summer drought in 1936 when lake levels dropped to the point that muck was being pulled into the water intake, several employees would have to work through the nights to keep the irrigation lines unplugged. All of these challenges amidst the demands for seedlings kept USFS employees busy on a wide array of tasks throughout most of the year (Crosby 2009).
In addition to these logistical and operational challenges, nursery workers faced scientific challenges as well. Work at the Beal Nursery in the Huron National Forest provided knowledge on the seeding of pines. However, the germination of other species, especially basswood, proved harder to standardize. Similarly, nurserymen had to track the success of plantations with forest rangers to test the efficacy of different bed and transplant durations. Swarms of grasshoppers threatened seedlings in plantations and the nursery especially in the hot, dry summer of 1936. CCC enrollees mixed poisonous bait in camp and then spread it in new growth forests to attract the insects. The work was considered successful since surveys completed afterward found up to sixty dead grasshoppers per square yard. Additionally, weather conditions from severe heat and drought, dust storms from the Dust Bowl, and deep snows in the winter had to be monitored, managed, and to a degree endured (Crosby 2009; Jones 2007).
Social challenges and opportunities existed both with CCC enrollees and local residents. Idle urban youth comprised the bulk of the CCC’s enrollees. Not only were they unfamiliar with much of the work that they needed to do, but they were also unfamiliar with the rural life in and around the camps. Camp supervisors had to organize outlets for their youthful exuberance and passions, which at times clashed with the perspectives and values of local residents. Given periodic altercations involving CCC enrollees, USFS and nursery employees assumed responsibility for numerous activities to encourage positive public relations. Generally, local residents supported the national forest because it made denuded and burned land productive, infused the local economy with capital from provision purchases and jobs, and provided property tax support for local services like schools and roads. Nursery personnel did not rest on this good will but actively courted positive public sentiment through nursery tours to locals, tourists, and sportsmen. They also built floats for all the community parades, particularly the Manistee National Forest Festival held in nearby Manistee over the Independence Day weekend. The result of this work was a good relationship with most local people since their livelihoods during the Great Depression were tied to the success of the national forest (Crosby 2009; Jones 2007).
Despite being closed in 1973 because of the decreased demand for seedling stock, Chittenden Nursery and the work done by the USFS, CCC, and ERA had a lasting legacy environmentally, economically, and socially in Michigan. The USFS with the help of the CCC planted 101,154 acres from 1934-1942 in the Manistee National Forest. In a few short years, particularly with the rapid rate of pine tree growth, the cutover was converted from a denuded district to an area with many healthy stands of pines. The change was so swift that the national director of the CCC, Robert Fechner, isolated the reforestation work in western Michigan as a sign of renewed productivity on lands that had long been idle. This renewed forest has provided a place of recreation and economic opportunity for numerous tourists and locals since World War II (Jones 2007). Yet more broadly, the experience in the scientific management of forest resources for young men previously untrained in such work generated a dedication to the conservation of natural resources that proved to be a good seedbed for the post-World War II environmental movement. Roosevelt’s vision of restoring both the land and the men became regenerative in its own right. It made the men not only self-sufficient but dedicated them to the protection of land and resources to prevent another decimation of the landscapes they had rebuilt (Maher 2005, 2008).
Joseph Jones is an interdisciplinary scholar who holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. His forthcoming book, Land of Poor
Character: Creating National Forests in the Eastern United States, explores the social, political, and environmental elements of logging, farming, and reforesting the Great Lakes region in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Crosby, John S. 2009. Interview by Joseph Jones. Video recording. Sept. 3. Chittenden Nursery, Wellston, Mich. Available through the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C.
Jones, J. J. 2007. The making of a national forest: The contest over the west Michigan cutover. Ph.D. diss., Michigan State Univ.
Maher, N. M. 2005. A conflux of desire and need. In FDR and the environment, ed. H. L. Henderson and D. B. Woolner, 49-83. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
-----. 2008. Nature’s new deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the roots of the American environmental movement. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Phillips, S. T. 2005. FDR, Hoover, and the new rural conservation, 1920-1932. In FDR and the environment, ed. H. L. Henderson and D. B. Woolner, 107-152. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
-----. 2007. This nation, this land: Conservation, rural America, and the New Deal. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.