Millions of Americans tuned their radios to listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” on May 7, 1933. The president was describing a new program that he and the farsighted 73rd U.S. Congress had created during their first 100 days.
“We are giving the opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, to go into forestry and flood prevention work,” Roosevelt said. “In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.”
Three years later, the scoured hills and mud-strewn fields of Arroyo Grande Valley resembled a moonscape. It was the damaged environment that the CCC was intended to address.
The program lasted nine years, enrolling more than 3 million men building recreational facilities, especially trails, trail shelters, campgrounds and scenic vistas. The CCC’s work can be seen today in national parks and national forests and in the thousands of culverts they installed to prevent land erosion.
You can see the culverts along O’Connor Way near San Luis Obispo, Highway 58 from Santa Margarita to the Kern County line, and on the rural roads of Arroyo Grande Valley.
Decades of reckless farming practices had resulted in the loss of rich topsoil and the creation of “dust bowls” beginning in the early 1930s.
Farmers along Old Oak Park Road and in Carpenter Canyon (Highway 227) made big profits growing small beans and peas year after year. Crops weren’t rotated. A severe decline in productivity followed the loss of alluvial soils. In 1910, they harvested 500 crates per acre. By 1930, they were lucky to harvest 100 crates per acre.
Local agronomist Clark Moore called it “a form of agricultural suicide (which soon) led to decreased soil fertility, poor crops and small profits. (There was) no thought of erosion control … The light textured, shallow surface soils (were washed away).”
The winter rainfall in 1934-35 caused massive flooding throughout Southern California. San Luis Obispo County’s average was about 8 inches above normal. Six inches of rain fell on the steeply sloping, clean cultivated fields of Arroyo Grande on Jan. 4-5, 1935. The rain washed the lightly textured shallow soils down the arroyo along with newly planted crops, roads, equipment, fences and parts of homes and barns.
Dorothea Lange, the best-known photographer of rural America during the Depression, is forever linked to our region through her photographs of Florence Owens Thompson taken in a Nipomo pea field in March 1936. On the same trip, Lange photographed stark landscapes along the hillsides of Arroyo Grande.
While few lives were lost, it was a miniature version of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on a rural scale. The erosion damage and the loss of precious agricultural land were what Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” was intended to deal with.
As soon as the spring rains ended in 1936, the CCC moved into Arroyo Grande Valley, alongside the heavy construction crews of the federal Works Progress Administration. Together, they cleared the rubble-filled creeks and built terraces and culverts to prevent further erosion. A Soils Conservation Service District was created.
It transformed the mud-strewn Arroyo Grande Valley into a stable agricultural zone that many visitors regard as some of the most beautiful farmland in the world.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.