Soil conservation was a New Deal for county

Posted 2/25/20

A Texas Historical Marker stands on the south side of Highway 21 at Madisonville’s western city limits, about a mile from the Courthouse. It was erected in 1988. The inscription reads:

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Soil conservation was a New Deal for county

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A Texas Historical Marker stands on the south side of Highway 21 at Madisonville’s western city limits, about a mile from the Courthouse. It was erected in 1988. The inscription reads:

A part of the national Civilian Conservation Corps program of the New Deal era, Camp Sam Houston in Madisonville was a soil conservation camp. Begun in July 1935 and occupied by workers one month later, the camp provided jobs for 196 men. Members of the camp worked with area farmers and ranchers, demonstrating techniques of soil erosion control and pasture management. Covering a radius of 21 miles, CCC improvement projects included all of Madison County, as well as portions of Grimes, Leon, and Walker Counties. The camp was closed in 1941.

How did the New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps come about? During the early part of the 1920s, much of our country was prosperous. The stock market crash of Oct. 29, 1929 dramatically ended that era of prosperity and marked the beginning of The Great Depression. Between 1930 and 1933, more than 9,000 U.S. banks closed, taking with them more than $2.5 billion in deposits. People lost that money, and businesses closed all over the country. Unemployed people struggled with basic needs.

Herbert Hoover was our president from 1929 to 1933. By the election of 1932, voters lost faith in his ability to lead the country out of the situation. That year’s Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), promised a “New Deal for the American people…which would use the power of the federal government to try to stop the economy’s downward spiral.” He won the presidency easily.

Roosevelt was sworn in as president on March 4, 1933. After many meetings and much planning in a short period of time, he signed an executive order creating the Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) program, which was more popularly known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

With a then-population of 1,294, Madisonville was a suffering farming community because the land had diminished in productivity, due to erosion (washing or blowing away of soil), neglect, and wasteful cultivation. Few farmers had knowledge or money to practice soil conservation or improvement. Good use of land was practically nonexistent around Madisonville and nearby counties. Folks kept doing things the same way they always had, with results diminishing constantly.

It took more than two years for Emergency Conservation Work Camp Soil Conservation Service 27-T (or T-27) to open in Madison County. Locals and corpsmen in the camp never called it anything but Camp Sam Houston. Camp operations extended over a 20-mile radius around Madisonville, with that circle comprising all of Madison County plus some adjoining portions of Leon, Walker, and Grimes Counties.

Camp Sam Houston occupied 15 sandy acres of an old field. Large sections of prefabricated buildings were hauled in and put together. Within a few weeks the facilities were ready to receive Company 2880 of the Eighth /Army Corps Area. Modeled after an army base, there were four barracks for housing, one building for toilets and showers, one mess hall and kitchen, a small infirmary, and a combination canteen and day room officially called the Welfare Building. The schoolhouse was a log structure, and other buildings served for storage and other needs. Barracks were lined with bunks and heated by a big wood-burning stove in the center. Wood was also used for cooking and heating water for showers. Electricity was only used for lighting. The canteen sold shaving needs, soap, candy, gum and such.

Technical staff arrived at Camp Sam Houston on August 7, 1935. Experienced men who had been raised on farms, held college degrees in agriculture and had considerable practical experience in agriculture activities were in charge of investigating farming conditions, laying out jobs, surveying and planning details for work. They quickly met with 24 local men selected by county agents and vocational agriculture teachers in the four counties to form the Madisonville Soil Conservation Association. Members elected a board of directors to act as liaisons between their neighbors and the camp.

On Aug. 10, a meeting was held at the Center community, with the public invited to be informed of the CCC’s purpose and value for the average farmer. Local farmers were suspicious, convinced that the camp’s objective was government relief for their boys. They assumed that the enrollees would be low class, sent to farms to simply have something to occupy their time. Some remarked they did not want “that bunch of roughnecks” on their farms.

Enrollees soon began gathering at Camp Sam Houston. They were tested for leadership and trained. Within a week, the enrollment was complete with 207 men, but some were transferred elsewhere. That left 196 farm boys, mostly between the ages of 18 and 28, mostly ragged, lean, lanky and underfed. Within a month of starting to receive regular meals, they began to fill out and show signs of improving health.

Enrollees without a grade school education were offered elementary courses. Those above elementary level were given business courses, including typing. Special classes taught good farming methods and auto mechanics.

In many ways, the camp resembled a military camp. Uniforms were furnished, consisting of jeans, fatigue hats, and brogans. Everyone was scheduled for K.P. duty. Bed check was 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on Sundays. Everyone was expected to keep clean. When a corpsman got careless about bathing, fellows in his barracks carried him to the barracks and applied cold water, soap and a stiff brush. Once boys in one barracks noticed that a member of their group never pulled of his jeans at bedtime. Thinking he wasn’t keeping clean, they gave him the shower treatment. Afterwards he shouted, “You whey-bellied hogs! I take a shower every night. The only reason I sleep in my jeans is that I don’t have any drawers!”

Next week, we’ll move past the dirt on the men and dig deeper into soil conservation efforts.

Madison County Museum, at 201 N. Madison St., is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Museum curators Sharon Foster and Karen Foster welcome your visits. Memorials or donations may be mailed to the Museum at P.O. Box 60, Madisonville, TX 77864. The telephone number is 936.348.5230.

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