Trunk used by Werner Brunner while he worked on Civilian Conservation Corps projects in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, 1934-1935.
(Museum object #1990.165.26,A)
During the Depression of the 1930s, many young, unmarried, and unemployed men jumped at the opportunity to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). President Franklin Roosevelt created this New Deal agency in March 1933 to combat the destruction and erosion of the country's national resources and to put men to work. One such man, Werner Brunner of Monticello, Wisconsin, joined the CCC the very next year. The agency gave him this trunk, which he had stenciled with "Werner F. Brunner/Monticello, Wis./D.R." The trunk was made in Stanley (Chippewa Co.), Wisconsin by the Tronck-McKenzie Company, which specialized at the time in "CCC and Army Lockers."
Born in Green County, Wisconsin in 1915, Brunner was the son of Swiss immigrants. In 1914 his parents Arnold and Ida Brunner and their five children had moved to Green County to farm, living first in Sylvester and then Washington Township. Monticello, the town name mentioned on his trunk, is also located in Green County.
Brunner joined the CCC during August 1934, a few months after graduating high school, when he realized "a kid out of high school had no chance of getting a job." The agency sent Brunner to Fort Sheridan, Illinois for training. Once trained, the CCC assigned him to Company #601, a racially integrated unit, and dispatched him to West Salem in La Crosse County during May 1934 to work on drought relief (the "D.R." on his trunk refers to "Drought Relief"). His company worked on project PE-96, which focused on preventing erosion on private land. In retrospect Brunner has called the members of his company "nature's surgeons." They "helped nature heal gashes in the landscape [i.e. deep gullies], the result of poor stewardship of the land and torrential rain." Their job was to build an earthen dam made of trucked-in soil at the deepest end of each gully.
Brunner has written about his experience with these words, "The loose soil…needed to be tamped into a hard and stable surface. This is where we came into the picture. Dozens of us were the tampers. The tamping tool…was a 10" diameter piece of tree trunk about 18" long, to which two boards were nailed for handles. You picked it up and dropped it hundreds of times to pack the soil. If you diligently worked at the job and didn't do a lot of "gold bricking" (loafing), you would be promoted to a more interesting job." Brunner was quickly promoted and spent the rest of his time planting trees "up the walls of the gully." His company planted nut trees, primarily hickory and walnut, and what Brunner calls "weed trees," "anything that would grow fast, establish roots, and stabilize the soil."
Brunner remembers the government paying him $30 a month of which he received $5. The other $25 was sent home. In the description of his CCC adventures, Brunner recalled making extra money on the side, "With one of my $5 I bought an ironing board and an electric iron. I pressed shirts and pants for 25 cents. The shirts had to have a sharp crease down the middle of the pocket. After accumulating enough money, I paid someone to letter [stencil] my footlocker."
Many consider the Civilian Conservation Corps President Roosevelt's most successful initiative. A Chicago judge praised the agency by noting that crimes committed by young men in his city had dropped 55 percent by the CCC putting idle men to work. Most people, however, were more impressed with the CCC's tangible accomplishments. During its nine year existence the Corps built 3470 fire towers, 97,000 miles of fire roads, devoted over 4 million man-days to fighting fires, performed erosion control, developed recreational facilities in national, state, county, and metropolitan parks, and planted more than three billion trees. Not surprisingly, some affectionately referred to the CCC as "Roosevelt's Tree Army."
Beginning in 1940, however, the Corps began to suffer. In many ways the agency remained as popular as ever, but the possibility of the United States entering World War II and the election of anti-New Deal congressmen threatened the CCC's existence. By late summer 1941, the Corps was in serious trouble. With a general economic upturn and its associated increase in jobs, the CCC no longer filled one of its main purposes. Once America entered the war, Congress declared the CCC a non-essential agency and recommended it be abolished on July 1, 1942 (technically the CCC was never formally abolished, but Congress eliminated its funding).
Brunner left the CCC late in the spring of 1935 when a neighboring farmer of his sister offered him a position as a hired hand. Several decades later Brunner returned with his wife to the dam site he worked on. He found the area "truly beautiful." In his words, "I saw several acres of level land and again experienced the sweet smell of a newly mown hay field."
[Sources: Interview with Werner Brunner by curator Leslie Bellais, July 23, 2007; "History of the Civilian Conservation Corps" online at www.cccalumni.org/history1.html.]
Posted on May 10, 2007
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