Archive for August 11, 2010
Big Government In A Small Iowa Town
permission from The Prairie Progressive
From the August 2010 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa's oldest
newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. to PP, Box 1945,
of The Prairie Progressive are
Jeff Cox and Dave Leshtz.
Keosauqua, Iowa, lies in the center of Van Buren County, about fifteen minutes from the Missouri border. The Des Moines River winds between the town and the 1600-acre Lacey-Keosauqua State Park.
Keosauqua is not known for its progressive politics, but on July 31 it was the scene of a remarkable event. 300 people gathered at the state park for the dedication of the first statue in Iowa to honor Civilian Conservation Corps workers, the young men who drove the single greatest conservation effort in American history.
With unemployment today near 10% and taking a tremendous toll on families across the country, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of suffering when 25% of Americans were jobless in the early 1930s. It’s equally hard to imagine a government stimulus program like the CCC being enacted in today’s political climate, when every effort to aid the unemployed and stimulate the economy is maligned as wasteful, socialist, or jammed-down-our-throats. (Somehow, most unimaginably of all, the first CCC worker was inducted only 37 days after FDR’s inauguration).
Similar anti-government sentiments were voiced when the first CCC camp in Iowa was established in Keosauqua in 1933. Iowa had wisely created a long-range conservation plan earlier that year, so it was near the front of the line for approval of a CCC program. Anti-government griping gradually diminished as two major goals were achieved: conservation of natural resources, and jobs for young American men in their early twenties, many of whom today would be called homeless). Hundreds of thousands of “CCC boys” built lodges, created trails, planted trees, and maintained parks endangered by erosion. By the time the program ended in 1941, 46,000 young men in Iowa alone had worked in communities like Keosauqua.
So perhaps it was not that remarkable for so many local residents to celebrate the legacy of one of the jewels of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Speaker after speaker extolled the beautiful park and its new statue of a symbolic CCC boy. Stories were told of the boys themselves, who were embraced by the town as their own. And several CCC workers, now in their late eighties and early nineties, spoke of their pride in doing meaningful work when no other prospects existed.
In Van Buren County, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1. Barack Obama finished third there in the 2008 caucuses. In the general election, it was the worst county in the 2nd Congressional District for both Obama and Dave Loebsack. But at the dedication of the CCC statue in Keosauqua, not a word was uttered against Big Government.
The concept of Roosevelt’s “peace-time army” lives on as AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), a full-time, team-based residential program for men and women of ages 18–24. Vinton, Iowa, is home to one of five national campuses, maintaining the state’s tradition of supporting national service programs in partnership with local communities.
One program modeled on the CCC was not so successful. In 1984, Congress created the American Conservation Corps, but President Reagan vetoed the bill. Ironically, Reagan’s father had been the head of a similar federal agency, the Work Projects Administration, in Dixon, Illinois, in the 1930s. “A lot of people remember it as a boondoggle,” said Reagan, “but I can take you to our town and show you things, like a riverfront that I used to hike through once that was swamp and is now a beautiful park-like place built by WPA.”
Want more irony? The property owners around Lake Delhi on the Maquoketa River voted years ago to keep their lakeside private, thereby avoiding government regulations and taxes. The Delaware County Board of Supervisors declined to enroll in the national flood insurance program, presumably to avoid the heavy hand of government. Now the private association that opposed incorporation as a municipality is seeking taxpayer money to restore the lake. The claim that restoration is in the public interest provoked Iowa State University economist David Swenson to ask, “Lake what?”