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How FDR's Federal Relief Program Helped Rebuild Nevada

Workers pick up rocks near Fallon, Nevada.
Courtesy of Armando DeCarlo.
Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees gather boulders to line the sides of irrigation canals and dam outlets near Fallon.

In the 1930's, the effects of the Great Depression reached nearly every community in the United States. In this segment of Time & Place, Historian Alicia Barber describes one federal relief program that helped rebuild Nevada while putting thousands of Americans back on their feet.

More than 20 percent of the American labor force was unemployed in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for President. To a country suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression, he promised “a New Deal for the American people,” and in his first hundred days in office, he followed through, introducing dozens of new projects and programs to help restore American prosperity.

One of those programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC had two primary goals: to create jobs, and to rehabilitate and improve public lands. Eligibility was at first confined to young, single men between the ages of 18 and 25, and they signed up in droves. Camps run by U.S. Army reserve officers were established across the country, including 59 in the state of Nevada. Of the 31,000 young men they employed, about 24,000 were brought in from other states.

A native of Iowa, Ralph Hash was just 18 when he enrolled in the CCC. In 1936, his unit was sent to Camp Newlands in Fallon, Nev. to work on the area’s irrigation systems. Interviewed in the year 2000, Hash remembered feeling a bit anxious as he and his fellow Midwesterners stopped at the small railroad junction of Hazen, about 25 miles northwest of Fallon.

“We came by rail to Hazen in the middle of the afternoon, and we looked out there at nothing but old white, alkali flats and the scrubby brush,” Hash said. “Well, I’ll tell you, my heart almost sank: ‘Are we going to be stationed here? What in the world...?’ Well, everybody was about to panic.”

They finally made their way to the much greener farming community of Fallon, where their barracks were located next to the train tracks. Their days were organized with military precision, with bugle calls at sunrise and sundown, and hours of physical labor in between.

“The pay was the same as Army pay at that time, a dollar a day, so I got $30 a month,” Hash said. “The enrollee got $5, and $25 went home to his folks every month. Well, things were so bad that, for a year and a half, my parents lived on my $25.”

In addition to their wages and room and board, the young men received professional medical attention, and many attended classes or joined one of the camp’s athletic teams. Communities like Fallon got an additional boost when local men were hired as foremen. CCC workers in Nevada helped construct windmills near Battle Mountain and cattle guards in Smith Valley. They graded roads near Hawthorne and built campgrounds at Lake Mead.

For Hash, the benefits were immeasurable:

“It was the greatest thing in the world for a bunch of young kids who just left home. They got a little discipline, they were making some money, and they got a job. It was just great. It was the greatest thing in the world.”

By the time federal funding for the CCC ended in 1942, nearly three million young men had served in the program, building up their families, physical strength, and spirits as they helped rebuild the country.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app, Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. For more information, check out The Civilian Conservation Corps in Nevada

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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