In 1831, Abraham Lincoln arrived in New Salem as a penniless young laborer who took on a variety of odd jobs, including manual labor, to support himself. His experience in the village gave him the confidence, social connections, and work experience necessary to climb out of poverty and become a successful, professional gentleman. Just over a century later, during the depths of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps gave another group of poor, single young men the opportunity for a better life through manual labor at New Salem.
The town had already started to wane by the time Lincoln left for Springfield in 1837. In 1839, nearby Petersburg was named the seat of Menard County, and within a year New Salem was all but abandoned. By 1866, a single log cabin was all that remained of the once-thriving town; a few years later, that too was gone.
The legend of Lincoln’s time in the town persisted, however, and the site, though abandoned, was never forgotten. With a few decades after Lincoln’s death, people were making “pilgrimages” to the town’s site to connect with Lincoln’s spirit. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was so taken by Lincoln’s connection to the site that he purchased it in 1906 and donated it to the Old Salem Chatauqua Association.
Interest in New Salem grew with the Illinois Centennial celebration of 1918, and that year the village site was donated to the state of Illinois with the goal of one day reconstructing the village. In 1932, work began on rebuilding the village’s original buildings, using research into plats, biographies, letters and reminiscences, as well as archaeological excavations of the foundations to inform their work. Taking place as it did during the Great Depression, the reconstruction of New Salem was a source of local pride. Residents of Menard County looked to their pioneer heritage as an example of how their ancestors had worked hard and succeeded at overcoming economic hardships.
Certainly Americans of the 1930s were familiar with economic hardships. By 1933, 25 percent of the American workforce was unemployed. Those who did have work saw their wages cut. Foreclosures, bread lines, garbage picking and begging became common facts of life.
In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to give work to unemployed men while at the same time improving the country’s infrastructure and natural resources. During its nine-year run, more than 2.6 million young American men lived in CCC work camps, where they were paid a dollar a day for their unskilled labor. Of those, more than 92,000 served in Illinois at one of the 50-plus camps that operated within the state. Illinois CCC workers planted trees, worked with farmers on soil erosion control, restored river banks, cleaned out ditches, constructed roads and bridges and brought electricity to rural areas. The CCC also built state parks, including Giant City, Fox Ridge, Kickapoo, White Pine, Mississippi Palisades, Illini and Matthiessen.
By the summer of 1934, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings, Robert Kingery, announced his intention to locate a CCC camp at New Salem to finish the reconstruction of historic buildings and do other work to improve the park. The camp opened at the end of August with 216 enrollees, mostly men from northern Illinois. Over the next seven years, the “dollar-a-day boys” reconstructed seven log houses, a carding mill and a sawmill/gristmill. They also built fences, hiking trails, shelters, a sewage treatment plant, an open-air theater and a restaurant. Indeed, the New Salem that visitors experience today is largely the result of CCC labor, right down to the hundreds of trees planted in and around the historic village. Ironically, in Lincoln’s day the village site was likely barren of trees, as they would have been felled to provide fuel and building material.
In celebration of its lasting CCC legacy, New Salem State Historic Site will welcome Michigan-based author/songwriter Bill Jamerson to its visitors’ center on Thursday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. to present “The CCC Boys of Lincoln’s New Salem: A Musical Tribute to the Civilian Conservation Corps.” This hour-long program will include excerpts from his historical novel Big Shoulders, about a teenager who joins the CCC; clips from his documentary Camp Forgotten - The Civilian Conservation Corps in Michigan, and live performances of original songs from his CD Dollar-a-Day Boys: Songs of the CCC. Some of the songs performed in the program include Chowtime, a fun look at the camp food, City Slicker, which tells of the mischief the young men get into in the woods, and Wood Tick, about the nicknames the locals gave the enrollees.
Erika Holst is a local writer and historian. Her grandfather, Alois Rozinek, leased his team of horses to the CCC to create Lake MacBride in Johnson County, Iowa, during the Great Depression.