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Camp Cochrane and the Civilian Conservation Corps

Camp Cochrane Welcome Sign

            When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, more than 25 percent of the population was unemployed. FDR’s New Deal programs were bold changes whose effectiveness can be debated in many ways, but the Civilian Conservation Corps was one program that achieved its goals without much argument. The two main goals of the CCC were to battle the destruction and erosion of natural resources as well as to give young men work they could do to help support their families.

            Due to the economic hardships of the time, FDR felt the passage of the CCC legislation was worthy of calling an emergency session of Congress only five days after he was sworn in to office. The Emergency Conservation Work Act passed on March 31, 1933, and the first enrollee was inducted into the CCC on April 7, 1933. Approval of the act was nearly universal with 67% of Republicans and 95% of Californians supporting the actions.

            By 1935, the drafty tents, poor fitting uniforms and hazardous working conditions were a thing of the past. As politicians saw the benefits of the program to their residents as participants and the communities who hosted the camps, they began petitioning to have camps in their districts. By the end of 1935, over 2,650 camps were operating throughout all 48 states with 505,782 enrollees working. Including officers, supervisors, education advisors, and administrators, this number exceeded 600,000 Americans employed by the CCC.

            A formal program to educate enrollees began in 1934 despite no official inclusion in the Act until 1937. Various educational programs ranging from helping enrollees attain their high school diplomas to vocational training were offered, but the work always came first before the education.

            The CCC came to a close in 1942 when Congress voted to liquidate the agency. The success of the CCC was never an issue, rather the economic improvements had reduced enrollment in the program due to the reduction in unemployment as well as the United States’ entry into World War II. At that point, many of the enrollees who had completed their time with the CCC decided to enroll in the military to help fight the war.

            Camp Cochrane began in the summer of 1935 when about 30 enrollees from Independence worked on a small number of conservation projects in Buffalo County. The CCC leased land from the Adolf Suhr family near Anchorage. Mainly in the summer, Camp Independence kept a small group of men at the camp with limited housing and facilities. In 1938, the camp expanded with the construction of newer facilities and more barracks. By January 21, 1939, approximately 200 enrollees had moved into the camp and begun work on conservation projects around the area.

Camp Cochrane Aerial View            While CCC camps tended to bring about $5,000 a month into their local communities through the spending of the members and supplies purchased by the camp, there were some troubling parts of having a couple hundred extra men there. The May 31, 1939 Winona Republican-Herald ran a story about a CCC man that was found lying in a pool of his own blood on Highway 35 between the Gingerbread Tavern and Highway 88. Upon further investigation, it was found that the man was lying in the road when another car pulled alongside him to check on him. Before the driver could see whether the boy had passed out or had been hit by a car already, another car came the other direction and while watching the stopped car, missed seeing the CCC youth, running him over in the process.

            Despite the fact that CCC camp enrollees were very busy working on conservation projects from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, they still managed to find time to have fun in many ways. The camp often had a basketball or baseball team willing to travel to local communities as well as other camps in the area. While the Cochrane Camp was not known for its basketball abilities, they did seem to continually be successful in baseball, winning the local league championship at least once during the camp’s existence. The men also volunteered their personal time for such community causes as the search for a missing girl in the fall of 1939.

            The work done by the CCC was, for the most part, helpful as far as soil conservation was concerned. In regards to the technology and knowledge available in the CCC era, it was state of the art. In Cochrane, one project highlighted was the building of a box inlet type head flume east of Cochrane. This project was the largest project undertaken in its region (including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois). It also ranked as one of the largest projects in the national CCC’s soil conservation division. The entire project took about five months to complete, from July to December of 1940.Flume Construction Photo from Article When the project was completed, it used 190 cubic yards of concrete and resulted in excavating over 10,000 cubic yards of earth. The flume had a waterway surface of 132 feet and a 12-foot drop from the weir to the lowest point of the sloping structure. The structure served the entire watershed of the valley, about 3,000 acres and 15 farms at the time. The total cost for local residents was $1,500 from Buffalo County and the Town of Belvidere, while the CCC provided another $1,000 in materials and all the labor at no direct cost to the residents. In 2015, this would be equivalent to about $67,000 in materials based on inflation alone!

 Rolled truck after the accident           On May 6, 1941, another tragedy struck the camp when LeRoy Prohs, one of a tree planting crew of 14, died after the truck they were riding in rolled. The truck had hit a soft spot in the gravel road causing the driver to lose control, run off the left side of the road and roll the truck once. No other boys were seriously hurt, but about one month later another car, operated by a private citizen, met the same fate in the same spot. That accident resulted in three deaths.

   Buffalo City Bell Tower         When Camp Cochrane’s time came to a close, in May of 1942, it had worked on hundreds of projects in just a few years. By 1940, the camp had already contracted projects on 85 farms in Buffalo County to provide conservation practices otherwise unattainable by the average farmer. Many of these projects still stand today, yet the most visible memories of the camp are the chimney we see at the old campsite on Highway 88 and the Buffalo City bell tower built in 1937 by the CCC men. What is not seen so readily by residents and visitors alike is the fact that farms still thrive thanks to some of these projects. While they may not have always been the perfect solution to conservation problems, they often staved off further destruction until better practices arrived. Farms in Buffalo County and throughout the entire United States owe many thanks to the hard work of these young men.


Further Reading

Buffalo County Historical Society. “CCC Files.” Buffalo County Historical Society Archives. Alma, Wisconsin.

 Buffalo County Journal. 1935-1942. Buffalo County Historical Society, Alma, WI.

 Cochrane Recorder. 1935-1942. Buffalo County Historical Society, Alma, WI.

Johnson, Leonard C. Soil Conservation in Wisconsin: Birth to Rebirth. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Soil Science, 1991.

 Risjord, Norman K.. Wisconsin: The Story of the Badger State. Madison: Wisconsin Trails, 1995.

 Salmond, John A. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1967.

 Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State- Federal Writers Project. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941.

 Winona Newspaper Project. “Winona Republican-Herald.” Available online at http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Default/Skins/WinonaA/Client.asp?skin=WinonaA&AW, 1935-1942.


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