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Category: History  Date: 2015-07-30

Pierre woman shares her link to Civilian Conservation Corps

This article originally posted: Friday, November 1, 2013 by Justin Joiner is a reprint courtesy The Capital Journal, Pierre, SD.

Hazel-BaumbergerHazel Baumberger

It's dance night.

Up at Okobojo, north of Pierre, men and women are clumping and swishing their way across the boards when two men enter the hall, right in front of a girl named Hazel.

She looks one of them in the face and sees a part of her life story waiting to be written - with a young man from the Farm Island Civilian Conservation Corps regiment from down the river by Pierre.

"My cousin and I were sitting on a bench and I just thought I would never see anybody I would want to live with and I said to Eva, 'I see the guy I'm going to marry,'" she said. "I knew right then. I didn't know his name. I didn't know where in the devil he was from. I didn't know nothing."

Except maybe the future.

But after that encounter she didn't see him again for months.

"I even forgot his name," she said.

Then after moving to Pierre, she saw him across the street one day - a tall man with dark hair and a strong face. That was Art Baumberger from McIntosh. That was the start of a long good chapter together. That was how it all began 78 years ago with a young man from the CCC camp.

"He didn't get away from me," she said.

History of the Corps

America was facing a crisis on multiple fronts in the 1930s.

George Rawick, an academic of the time, figured that in 1932, about 25 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 24 were unemployed and an additional 29 percent worked part-time only.

"Bewildered, sometimes angry, but more often hopeless and apathetic, they were a generation already deeply scarred," a history of the CCC on the National Park Service website says. "The government could no longer afford to ignore their plight."

But employment wasn't the nation's only challenge. The country struggled with issues such as dwindling forests that pushed conservation to the forefront.

"Moreover, wanton forest destruction had compounded the crucial problem of soil erosion. Each year water washed three billion tons of the best soil away from American fields and pastures, and wind accounted for a like amount," the NPS history says. "Indeed, by 1934, more than 300,000,000 acres - a sixth of the continent – had gone, or was going. Deserts of dust were replacing the grasslands of the Great Plains, the once verdant Texas hills had become stunted tufts, as erosion galloped through the land."

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his move for a nationwide work relief program.

That's not to say FDR was the first one to have the idea for a work-relief program.

Relief work in forests had already started on a small scale in various parts of the United States before Roosevelt was elected.

"In both California and Washington, for example, the Forest Service co-operated with state and county officials in running subsistence camps for the unemployed in forest areas," the NPS history says. "The local authorities clothed and fed the men, while the Forest Service sheltered them and directed the work. Similar schemes were being operated or at least planned in other parts of the country, and Roosevelt was aware of most of them."

And there were similar programs operated overseas.

After a battle in Congress, the president signed the measure into law on March 31. The plan called for creation of a work relief program that would put hundreds of thousands of men ages 18-25 to work across America planting trees, building roadways and working on soil conservation.

The men would be paid $30 a month with $25 sent home to their families.

The enrollees were single men with no jobs and no opportunities for work. In the CCC camps they received food, clothing, medical and dental care. Typical camps included a mess hall, recreation center, library, infirmary, repair shop, bakery, church and more.

"Art said they had plenty to eat and a good place to sleep," Hazel said.

Peggy Sanders, a South Dakota author who has focused heavily on the CCC's involvement in the state, said the average CCC member gained 10 to 15 pounds during his tenure due to gains in muscle mass because of the work and food.

The workers were taught trades such as welding, wood working or auto mechanics. They stayed at the CCC camps for six months, with chances to re-enlist.

There was also an opportunity for the men to take educational classes in the evenings.

"The educational advisor's job was to ascertain the enrollee's interests then try to match them with challenges to improve," Sanders said.

Depending on the camp, classes included typing, auto mechanics, first aid, agriculture and chorus.

The camps also offered a variety of recreational activities, such as basketball, boxing, volleyball and baseball, with some camps even challenging town teams or individuals to a match.

The Farm Island CCC camp was one of 70-80 in the state, according to the goDakota map of the CCC sites in the state.

The first camp in South Dakota, F-3, Este, near Nemo, started on May 18, 1933.

"It is the only South Dakota camp that was open during the entire nine-year period," Sanders said in an email.

Many camps were established in the Black Hills, but as drought continued, more camps sprang up in the eastern part of the state.

"The majority of men were from South Dakota," Sanders said. "Generally when men came from other states they filled a camp (200 men) and came as a group. States that sent men to South Dakota included North Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas."

At the start of the program, people in South Dakota were skeptical of the CCC men, but after they got to know the men, or "boys" as they were called, relationships formed, Sanders said.

"As with any group there were outsiders who never did fit in but most were welcomed into the communities," she said.

The camp at Farm Island opened in June 1933. Robert Hipple, a former publisher of the Capital Journal, said in 1990 in a Capital Journal article that it was his suggestion that prompted the CCC to develop the island into a park.

The first company of men to arrive at Farm Island included more than 200 African Americans.

Workers began by clearing brush and dead trees. Then they turned to creation of the causeway, which was completed in October 1934.

As companies came and went from Farm Island, Art's turn at the area arrived on April 18, 1935.

He served as a truck driver during a time when the CCC worked on improving the road east of Pierre and building the American Legion Cabin at the base of Pierre Street, according to notes provided by Hazel.

Pierre was one of the stops Roosevelt made during his tour of the Midwest CCC camps. A 20-car motorcade drove through streets packed with cheering people to visit the Governor's Mansion and the CCC camp at Farm Island.

More than 31,000 South Dakotans served in the state's CCC camps.

Life after the Corps

Hazel was right. Art never did get away from her again. After dating for about two years, the couple was married on New Year's Eve of 1938.

The need for the Corps indicated how tough times were then. The two lived in a one-room home, but they managed to piece together a living.

Family helped. Hazel's father gave them a sow and Art's mother gave them a cow.

Art initially worked for a neighbor farmer for $1 a day for some years. With a little trucking on the side, they eventually started buying the land that Hazel still owns today.

Thanks to the kindness of a judge Art was able to farm some land with equipment given to him.

Life was good in Sully County. Hazel said she always had enough to eat, was able to travel and had friends.

But their life together wasn't to last. In 1967, Art had a heart attack.

Hazel never remarried.

"I never got over him," she said.

But that wasn't the end of her happy life, she said. She still had a tight-knit family and even into her 90s is still traveling. A year ago, she was given a motorcycle ride by her nephew Thad Smith up and down Main Street during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Hazel will be 98 on Jan. 29 and is still very active. She now lives in Pierre and has for the past 27 years.

More on the CCC: The Civilian Conservation Corps Museum of South Dakota is located inside the Hill City Visitors Center which is open the same hours as the Hill City Chamber of Commerce. "The Civilian Conservation Corps In and Around the Black Hills," a vintage photo history book was written by South Dakota author Peggy Sanders is for sale through the museum store or online.

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That was Art Baumberger from McIntosh. That was the start of a long good chapter together.