SHADES OF GREEN: A renewed appreciation for construction workers

Greg Imbur

Have you hugged a construction worker lately? Have you yourself taken part in building or creating something?

Perhaps those seem odd as leading questions, but recent matters have renewed my appreciation for builders and their work. Our home is undergoing an expansion, so we see improvements almost daily. At the co-op, new check out lanes and sidewalks are hard to miss. Many roads around Goshen are improved, too. Somehow, though, my excitement for these projects is tempered by the work of Company 556 in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

You see, two Sundays ago we stopped at Pokagon State Park on our way home from a family reunion in Ohio. Every year, on the last Sunday in July, Pokagon SP officially celebrates its ties to the CCC. In fact, this is the longest running CCC reunion in the country for a particular CCC company, according to Nicky Ball, the lead interpretive naturalist there. Hats off to her and other staff who help us remember and honor CCC workers. From the main gatehouse to the toboggan slide, many CCC buildings, roads, trails, and forests remain central to Pokagon SP’s essence.

Affirming the CCC and its impact is not hard to do. At a time when unemployment ran high, single, unemployed men could sign up for six-month assignments, extending up to two years and earning money for themselves and their families while contributing to the greater good.

At a time when many were starving, young men ate well, worked hard and improved their health dramatically. At a time when the nation was suffering from economic malaise, the CCC became, in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “a means of creating future national wealth.” Most men and women directly living and working in CCC camps have passed away, and though they are no longer with us, many of their contributions remain.

From 1933 through 1942, the CCC directly benefitted about 300,000 men each year, totaling about 3 million men across the decade. In addition, another 9 to 12 million family members benefited, and today we still benefit from CCC work in the forests and parks across the nation. Tree planting is something that CCC folks did as part of soil conservation; they also built roads, fought wildfires, and generally improved the land. I find many CCC projects imbued with an appealing aesthetic and “built to last” durability, so it’s no wonder I’ve been appreciating durable construction lately.

In that same spirit of looking back and fondly remembering the past, Dana and his construction crew uncovered a June 8, 1927, Chicago Herald and Examiner under the floor boards upstairs, which got me wondering about whether that paper was there from a construction worker or if it found its way there after the house was built. Either way, it evokes curiosity and wonder.

Foxed, tattered and brittle, the newspaper pages were folded outward, revealing a section called “Finance Market,” with stocks, commodities, and the like. At a glance, the numbers look good: remember, this is about two years and two months ahead of Black Tuesday. (Only a month earlier, though, Berlin’s stock exchange had its own Black Friday.)

When I unfolded the paper and turned it over, one headline for the sports section reads “3 Yank Homers Beat Sox, 4-1.” On that day Babe Ruth hit his 18th homer of the season (Gehrig got his 14th); 1927 was the year the Bambino bested his own single-season record for home runs, a record that would stand for 34 years.

Our house is from the 1920s, and as its centennial jubilee approaches, we’ve certainly appreciated the craftsmanship and ways in which our home interacts with its surroundings. Looking back 100 years is a little more certain, perhaps, than looking ahead to 2119. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if government initiated a 21st century CCC, both sounding and answering a clarion call for conservation. At a time when destruction and division has become all too common, I’d argue we need more unifying narratives and projects like the ones created by the CCC.

With kids back in school again, summer may seem bittersweet, no longer front and center. But the sunny warmth and long days can be a time for projects, small and large, personal and public. At the very least, find a construction worker and thank them for their hard work and positive contribution.

Greg Imbur invites you to join him and his family for adventures in the field, and “stories in the land.” Send your observations about the place where you live to greg@maplecitymarket.com

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