Media Life: New Deal a big deal again in Placer County

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The Great Depression is getting a whole lot more respect these days. Stuffed into the back of the closet for decades like a musty pair of work boots that had long worn out their welcome as shiny new shoes came and went, its lore and lessons are getting dusted off during a new economic downturn that is forcing many in this community and around the nation to rethink their finances and value systems. Timely is the only word to describe the work the Placer County Museums Division and some local historians are doing to fill in some local blanks on what happened here during the 1930s and what kind of impact events from 75 or so years ago have today. One of those chapters has to do with the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps that the museums division’s Ralph Gibson has given some perspective to. The conservation corps, not to be confused with the unaffiliated California Conservation Corps that carries on the spirit of the original, was the catch-all for a generation of jobless young men bouncing around the nation, many times riding the rails, and looking for something, anything, to earn a wage and feel their worth. Gibson has discovered several CCC camps in the high forests of Placer County, including four near Foresthill. Much of the work was on the land, helping fight fires or restore wildland where fire had passed through. AUBURN ASSISTED Auburn was also affected financially in a big way by the presence of the camps. Its major employer – the Auburn Lumber Company – was awarded the federal contract in 1933 to supply construction materials for 11 camps in the region. For Wendell Robie and his Auburn Lumber Company – as well as its dozens of employees – it provided a critical cash infusion and the promise of keeping workers on during an economic reversal of fortunes that dwarfs today’s. Gibson quotes a CCC official saying that “one man in every 10 single men aged between 18 and 25 spent some time in the CCC” between 1934 and 1935. Works projects administered by the federal government during the 1930s left their presence in Auburn. Michael Otten, president of the Placer County Historical Society, researched some of those “alphabet soup” programs in the most recent issue of the museums division’s The Placer newsletter. “Start with the restored Cooper Amphitheater in the newly opened Auburn Park Preserve behind Auburn City Hall,” Otten writes. “A short distance away is the Earl Crabbe Gym and much of the wall work around Placer High School.” Otten goes on to mention not only New Deal-era city halls built in Auburn and Roseville, but tennis courts to Dutch Flat, the Colfax Elementary School and much of the Gold Country Fairgrounds. The gym, an art deco classic like nearby city hall in Auburn, was constructed as a public works project in 1937 along with the original cinder track at what is now the track at Ralph LeFebvre Stadium. It was named after educator and basketball coach Crabbe in 1951. “It’s amazing how much was done,” Otten said. “It kept a lot of families clothed, fed and sheltered during the hard times of the Depression.” Which brings us around to efforts around the state now taking place to remember and document all that work in the context of both those times 70 or more years ago and the present. STATEWIDE EFFORT Otten attended a workshop at the University of California, Berkeley late last year on California’s Living New Deal project. Developed by both academics and members of the California Historical Society, it has become a collaborative that promises to bring broader understanding of the 1930s New Deal, while pinpointing where the work took place. For Auburn, with New Deal examples ranging from buildings to sidewalks to bridges, the project is an important facilitator in not only identifying but preserving a rich legacy. Otten said he was surprised to see that while urban areas, particularly in Southern California, are well-documented in the early going, communities like Auburn are behind the curve. The project is looking for personal stories, photos and even the rare film footage, Otten said. Auburn Living New Deal project efforts will get a boost March 7 when Bay Area New Deal historian Harvey Smith provides an overview of the modern-day work and its attempt to identify and document everything from art works to power stations. Part of the museums division’s community education program, the presentation is free and starts at 1 p.m. in the Bernhard Museum Winter, 291 Auburn Folsom Road in Auburn. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at