It’s all part of our history

October 21, 2009

I read today that the average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars has improved by three miles since the Model T Ford. In other words, according to the study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, in the last 101 years, American cars are only getting an average of three more miles to the gallon.

In the same publication, I also read that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit restored protections of more than 40 million acres of public land. This overturned what the last President did to make what the preceding President had done valid once again.

I think we can learn a lot from history. I gather American car manufacturers have had other things on their minds and American Presidents don’t share a consistent vision for public lands.

Actors Patrick and Samuel Porter in "Camp We-Kan-Tak-It" at the Boerner Botanical Garderns. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

Actors Patrick and Samuel Porter in "Camp We-Kan-Tak-It" at the Boerner Botanical Garderns. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

One historical and notably American act I’ve always thought seemed sensible is the Civilian Conservation Corps. After a performance by the Milwaukee Public Theatre called “Camp We-Kan-Tak-It” about life in a CCC camp I attended last week, the audience was asked “Would this work today?”

Seventy four years ago, the Emergency Conservation Work Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt. The largest peacetime army in history, the Civilian Conservation Corps was mobilized to improve domestic infrastructure.

I’ve romanticized the whole thing, smiling proudly when reading a memorial at a state park commemorating the work of the CCC and lately rooting for our current President’s talk of creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and restoring National Parks with a modern Conservation Corps.

The performance only encouraged my hopefulness. The script and musical lyrics were written by a small team of historians and enthusiasts to convey the concerns of the day, the reasons men had for enlisting, and what life was like living in the camps. I learned that the men made $30 a week for 40 hours of work, but kept only $5. The rest was sent home to their families. There were also classes offered at night, such as a journalism class that produced a camp newspaper.

“The Humdinger,” a resource guide produced by Voices Theater and the Milwaukee Public Theatre to resemble a CCC camp paper, explains: “From 1933 to 1942, the CCC gave jobs to three million unemployed young men, brought relief to their families, and helped conserve America’s natural resources.”

The rates of unemployment in Wisconsin cities have pretty much doubled in the past 12 months. Milwaukee’s stats have risen from 5.5% to over 10%. This is nothing close to the national average during the Depression, which soared as high as 75%. Thank goodness! But why wait until we’re in utter crisis to take a lesson from history?

Clearly, there is much of American history to be proud of. I say use the wisdom of experience to shape a positive future.  As for auto engineering, I hope there are many good ideas yet to be had.

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.