Phil Gouzie remembers the afternoon he came home from high school football practice and learned his father had lost his job. It was 1938, and Gouzie was 16 years old.
“I could hear my mother crying in the other room,” Gouzie, who is now 94 and lives in South Portland, recalled. “She was a really tough woman. She was raising eight children during the [Great] Depression. She never cried.”
Listening through the wall, he learned the reason for his mother’s distress. Gouzie’s father, whose job in the dye room at the Haskell Silk Mill in Westbrook kept his large, French-Catholic family fed and clothed during the earlier years of the Great Depression, had come home at midday with the bad news.
“The mill is closing. He’s lost his job. There’s no chance of getting another job. And there’s eight children in the house,” Gouzie said, counting off the points on his fingertips. Although he was the youngest of the eight, he knew he had to act.
“I had a friend who had gone into the Civilian Conservation Corps,” he said. “He told me, ‘They give you $5 a month to spend, they feed you, they give you clothes and they send $25 a month home to your family.’ So I left Westbrook High School in my sophomore year, and I joined the CCC.”
Countering poverty and shame
The CCC was a federal work-relief program launched in 1933, one of several programs known collectively as the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s farsighted response to the national shame and despair of the Great Depression.
From 1933 through 1942, the CCC provided government-paid public works jobs to about 3 million young men in all 50 states — including Hawaii and Alaska, which were U.S. territories at the time — as well as in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Most projects were aimed at developing and conserving the nation’s parks and forests. In addition to earning room, board, clothing and a solid monthly paycheck, the “CCC boys” were trained in practical trades such as construction, excavation, masonry, surveying and radio transmission. They were encouraged to finish their high school diplomas using onsite teachers and classrooms. They learned independence, teamwork and leadership skills that stood them in good stead throughout their adult lives.
In Maine, 28 CCC camps were established, primarily in the heavily forested northern and western counties. But the CCC was active in many other areas of the state as well, including two camps on Mount Desert Island. In addition to forestry projects, the CCC boys on MDI built the Blackwoods and Seawall campgrounds in Acadia National Park, the day-use picnic area at Pretty Marsh and miles and miles of the park’s iconic trails and footpaths.
About 16,700 young men from Maine worked at CCC camps in Maine, along with more than 1,600 supervisors and staff. An additional 1,136 enrollees from other states served in Maine camps. The families of these men received a total of about $4 million over the life of the program.
‘We ate very well’
The CCC was originally open to unemployed, unmarried young men ages 18 to 25. Later, it expanded to include men from ages 17 to 28. Phil Gouzie was 16 when he joined.
“I went down to City Hall to sign up,” he said. “They all knew I was only 16. But they knew me, and they knew my father. They knew we had eight children and that my dad had lost his job. They just waved me through.”
Many underage Maine boys entered the program under similar circumstances, he said.
Gouzie reported to Fort Williams in South Portland for his induction physical and basic training before being assigned to a CCC camp in Bridgton. It wasn’t far from his family’s home in Westbrook, but he didn’t have the time or transportation to see them often. Buried in deep woods, the camp consisted of four large barracks, a mess hall and some outbuildings. About 200 CCC boys lived and worked there, Gouzie said, along with supervisors from the Maine Forest Service, assigned to protect the valuable forest resource from insect damage.
“We were saving the trees from gypsy moths,” Gouzie said. “We would take a can of creosote and paint the egg casings. That would kill the moths.”
As a “spotter,” Gouzie stayed on the ground and directed a creosote-wielding coworker high up in the branches. The teams of boys and young men covered large parcels of forested land, marking the areas they already treated to make sure they didn’t miss any.
In the evenings, they returned to camp for a hot meal and a solid night’s sleep before beginning all over the next day. It was hard, dirty work, Gouzie said, but the food was good and plentiful. “We ate very well,” he said.
For many of the boys at the camp, the CCC provided the best meals they had ever eaten. One boy he became friends with weighed less than 100 pounds when they met, Gouzie said, but gained about 30 pounds over the months they worked together.
Gouzie lived and worked at the Bridgton camp for two years. By then, the national economy was emerging from its long crisis, and he was offered a job at a Portland meat-packing plant. From there, with World War II looming, he worked transporting troops to Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay for training.
Before the United States entered the war, Gouzie joined the U.S. Navy himself and was assigned to the submarine tender USS Proteus. He rose to the level of Mortar Machinist Mate, 2nd Class and served at Pearl Harbor, Midway and Guam during the war. He was on board and on deck in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered to the U.S. and its allies.
After WWII ended, Gouzie met and married his wife, Grace. He ran as a Democrat for the Maine House in 1948, losing the district to his Republican competitor but proudly carrying his home town of Westbrook. He and Grace bought the cozy bungalow where he still lives now and raised one daughter, who lives nearby. He took a job delivering bottled gas to homes and businesses in the Portland area, retiring in his late 60s. Grace died in 2012. Gouzie cared for her at home until the end.
But despite important life events and the passage of time, Gouzie has never lost touch with his CCC roots. Until quite recently, he met other former CCC boys in the Portland area monthly for breakfast. Now, he says, their ranks are fewer and most are getting too old to drive — though he still does.
He speaks about the CCC to Rotary and other local groups, trying to keep history alive for future generations. Participating in meetings via his iPad, he serves on the board of CCC Legacy, a national organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the program’s impact on American culture.
Back in 2013, Gouzie and two other CCC boys from Maine were honored at a celebration in recognition of the program’s 80th anniversary, receiving the President’s Call to Service Award and a congratulatory letter from the White House, signed by President Barack Obama.
But Phil Gouzie is most proud of a very tangible and enduring symbol of the program’s impact in Maine. In 1999, the Maine Legislature voted to establish a CCC memorial in Augusta, including a bronze statue on the grounds of the Capitol and a public repository for photographs, personal stories and other related information to be maintained at the State Archives. Gouzie worked closely with then-Rep. Robert Duplessis of Westbrook to draft the language of the bill, which included a $10,000 budget appropriation, and supported its unanimous passage at the State House. He also engaged in additional fundraising for a total of $18,000 to fully cover the cost of purchasing, installing and dedicating the statue, which stands on the Capitol grounds.
Gouzie said it’s important that the lessons of the Civilian Conservation Corps not be lost as the CCC generation ages. For him, those lessons are twofold: “If you don’t take care of your natural resources, you’ll lose them,” he said. “What the CCC did was vital to keeping the forests growing and the rivers running.”
Even more essential was President Roosevelt’s wisdom in establishing the program in the first place. “Congress had the money; they didn’t want to spend it because they thought the country would go bankrupt,” he said. “But FDR knew that if we didn’t give the people jobs, we wouldn’t have a country at all.”