Surviving the Great Depression with a New Deal

Dodd, now 98 years old, provides a wealth of knowledge to the several generations that have come after him and is one of an ever-shrinking pool of people with firsthand accounts from the Great Depression era.

“Well, we didn’t have nothin’. The banks wouldn’t loan…[my dad] no money. He already had borrowed money to make that crop and they wouldn’t loan him no more money.” 

This is how Joe Dodd, a 98-year-old Kaufman county local, describes his family’s plight in 1937 in the midst of the Great Depression.

Born December 9th, 1920, Dodd was 8 years old when the Great Depression started. The effects devastated his family of 13; his father had saved up $4,000, but he lost it all when the banks crashed. Dodd’s family started growing and harvesting cotton to make a living, but in 1937 disaster struck again when Fall “army worms” invaded the countryside. According to the University of Tennessee, fall army worms feed on the blooms and bolls of cotton plants. In Dodd’s case, these creatures destroyed his family’s cotton crop. 

“In 1937…we had 500 acres of cotton in Chisolm,” Dodd said. “The army worms, different things hit us… Even the roads got slick with army worms across the road. It was one heck of a mess.” 

Without the money from the cotton crop, the Dodd family was in trouble. They had taken out a loan to plant their crop, and now that the cotton was ruined, their collateral was gone. The bank could see that they had no collateral and no money, and they refused to let Dodd’s father take out another loan. Without the income they had been counting on, and unable to borrow enough to get them back on their feet, the Dodd’s situation was grim. 

While in these dire straits, a lady had a flat tire in front of the Dodd house. Sixteen-year-old Dodd and his older brother went out to help her change it. She was “the lady that wrote up the CC and was workin’ the government.” (Dodd refers to the Civilian Conservation Corps as the “CC”.) 

CCC Legacy, an organization committed to preserving the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), explains that the Civilian Conservation Corps was one of FDR’s New Deal programs, started in 1933 to give young men like Dodd a job. The lady told Dodd that if he was the right age, he could enroll in a CCC camp. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, during the early years of the CCC, a young man was required to be at least eighteen to enroll, but after 1935 the government changed the age requirement to seventeen. Dodd enrolled in the CCC on October 13th, 1937. He was actually a few months too young- his seventeenth birthday wasn’t until December. 

“I didn’t say nothin’,” Dodd said with a grin. “I lied. I went in the CC camp 13th of October, [19]37. I lacked that ‘til December the 9th bein’ old enough…”. 

After Dodd enrolled, he was assigned to a CCC camp. CCC Legacy explains that at the program’s peak, there were camps in all 48 states and in Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The CCC authorities were going to send Dodd to a camp in Arizona, but they changed their mind and assigned him to camp 869 in Kaufman, Texas instead. 

According to an article from The Texas Almanac website, there were a total of 96 CCC camps in Texas. The Texas Almanac explains that while 26 of the Texas camps worked on park development, the majority of them targeted soil conservation and erosion control. 

Dodd’s camp was one of the camps that helped preserve farmers’ soil. This was a very important endeavor in East Texas at 

the time, because, as Dodd explained: “cotton, cotton, cotton. And they run those rows up and down the hills, three foot apart, and ditches were washing everywheres…” 

Dodd’s first assignment was part of the solution to this problem: he helped survey for terraces. One of the men read the surveying instrument, and then told Dodd and some of the others where to put stakes. The stakes they drove told the man on the grader where to steer to pile the dirt for a terrace. Dodd described just how big a difference the terracing made. 

“The land quit washing [out]. First year to the second year, when they stopped it from washing away, where they were making a quarter of a bale an acre they were making a half a bale of cotton to the acre.” 

According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), the Texas camps that worked on erosion-control and soil-conservation eventually helped over 5,000 farmers. 

The U.S. Army ran the CCC camps. As Dodd put it: “Where we was at in the camp was just like [an] army base. You was under Army jurisdiction when you was in the camp but when you went out of there, you wasn’t. In other words, there was a captain, there was a lieutenant, and we were under ‘em. Under Army rules and regulations, we had to march, and dress, and do, when we was in the camp.” 

After working terraces for a while, Dodd’s next assignment was to cook and serve meals for the officers in his camp. In preparation for his new role, the CCC sent Dodd to the Adolphus hotel in Dallas. He stayed there for two weeks, learning how to cook and serve meals, and then returned to Kaufman.  The food for the officers was not much different than the food the enrollees ate, although Dodd explained that, “we’d give ‘em a little extra, or a little different sometimes”. After the food was cooked, it was Dodd’s job to properly serve it. 

“I set their plates and stuff, had to turn their plates over and their cups over, and then when they come in, I come around and turned ‘em up,” Dodd said.

During his time as officer’s cook, Dodd also ran the camp store, which they called the PX. Here, Dodd sold different things the men wanted (cigarettes and O’Henry bars, for example). He also collected the men’s laundry. When the Terrell laundry service came down once a week, Dodd sent the clothes with them.

As with many good things, the benefits of the CCC came with a price for Dodd. People didn’t always have the highest opinion of CCC workers. In order to sign up for the program, a young man was required to come from a family on welfare, or (in later years) be without regular education or work. Thus, some people looked down on the men of the CCC as being poor and uneducated. In Dodd’s case, this mindset “really hurt” him. 

“I was going with a girl, and I thought the world of her,” Dodd said. “She was the banker’s daughter. One day, me and her went up on a Saturday during the day, and we was at a restaurant, eatin’. And the banker and none of them knew I was in the CC camp. But, I was in there and eatin’, and one of the boys [that] was in the CC camp come in there, and slapped me on the back. [He said], ‘You city slicker, you don’t look like no CC boy!’ And that old banker was eatin’ over there, and he told his daughter she couldn’t go with me no more.” 

Despite this downside, the effect of the CCC in Dodd’s life was tremendous. According to the United States History website, men in the CCC were paid 30 dollars a month, but they were required to send twenty-two to twenty-five dollars home to their families. The twenty-two dollars Dodd sent home every month put his two younger sisters through school and bought groceries for the family. The remaining eight dollars were his to keep. He earned extra money by running the PX and doing various odd jobs around the camp. Before he was out of the CCC, Dodd had used the money he earned to buy himself a car and put down the first hundred dollars on his farm (which he still owns). 

Aside from providing Dodd with money, the CCC also made it possible for him to get an education. In fact, the CCC made it possible for many young men to get an education. CCC Legacy states that by the time the program shut down in 1942, over 40,000 enrollees had been taught to read and write. Dodd explained to me that getting an education was on a volunteer basis. 

“You didn’t have to if you didn’t want to,” Dodd said. 

In Dodd’s case, he learned more than reading and writing. 

“For a year and a half, I went to school three days a week at the high school,” Dodd said. “I studied arithmetic and adding and how to do business, how to run a cash register.” 

Dodd ran a store in Elmo for years, and the business education he received in the camp, along with his experience running the PX, prepared him well for that job. Before he left the CCC, they gave him exams, and he passed them as well as a person with two years of college education.

The TSHA estimates that two and a half to three million men were benefitted in the nine years that the CCC operated. In Dodd’s case, the program allowed him to help support his parents and siblings, while also laying the groundwork for success later in life. With the money he earned every month, Dodd invested in a farm where he raised his own family and still lives and works today. Aside from the financial help, the CCC also educated him in business and gave him experience in running a store. These skills gave him what he needed to run his own store in Elmo. 

As Dodd says, “The CCC really helped me a lot.”

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