Your Lake, Your Newspaper

FDR, the Boy Scouts and the New Deal

FDR, the Boy Scouts and the New Deal March 26, 2024
Franklin D. Roosevelt at a Boy Scout Jamboree at Bear Mountain, 1921.
Franklin D. Roosevelt at a Boy Scout Jamboree at Bear Mountain, 1921.

The first New Deal was the largest expansion of federal power since the Civil War and many of its programs had their origins in Albany, in the policies of Governors Franklin D. Roosevelt and Al Smith and their influential aide, Frances Perkins.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, arguably the most popular of the New Deal programs, also had its origins in New York State: in FDR’s lifelong engagement with the Boy Scouts.

In 1922, one year after Roosevelt contracted polio (in all likelihood, from swimming in a contaminated lake at a Boy Scout jamboree at Bear Mountain), the future president inaugurated the Franklin D. Roosevelt Conservation Camps for Boy Scouts at the Palisades Interstate Park on the west bank of the Hudson River.

Building upon the annual encampments, the Boy Scout Foundation, of which FDR was president, soon created permanent camps for urban youths throughout downstate New York.

The camps are commonly regarded as forerunners of the CCC camps and, like the CCC camps, were a vehicle for FDR’s belief that people’s life’s chances could be improved by exchanging an urban environment for a natural one.

These camps also reflected FDR’s interest in reforestation. Campers were taught to plant trees, cut firebreaks and control wildfires.

Fast forward a decade, to the Democratic Convention of 1932, where Roosevelt promised to establish a national conservation corps that would enhance and protect the nation’s natural resources while, at the same time, combating the mass unemployment of the Great Depression.

Within the first month of the new administration, Roosevelt assigned Frances Perkins the task of fulfilling that campaign promise.

At Perkins’ direction, the US Army organized and supervised the camps, many of which were established in the Adirondacks, throughout Hamilton and Essex Counties and in the Town of Bolton, among other places.

Marty Podskoch, author of “Adirondack Civilian Conservation Corps Camps: History, Memories and Legacy of the CCC,” writes that Bolton’s CCC Camp S-61 consisted of five barracks, a garage, a mess hall and an officers’ quarters.

According to Bolton’s official co-historian, Ted Caldwell, the former 1,000 acre Alma Farm, acquired by New York State in 1925 and located seven miles north of the hamlet of Bolton Landing, was an ideal site for  a CCC camp

“Every morning, the men would load up large trucks and travel,” says Caldwell. “They planted thousands of pine seedlings on the 200 acres of open land on the Alma Farm. Near the lake, stream banks were rip rapped to control erosion, and fish spawning habitats were improved.  The shores of the islands were also rip rapped to counteract the fluctuations in lake levels.  The men  constructed buildings on Glen Island, in Hearthstone Park, in Fort George Battleground Park and in Rogers Rock Park and built hiking trails on Tongue Mountain.  Keeping 200 men busy was a daunting task that required planning, supervision, and the cooperation of many, many people.”

FDR used the CCC camps to activate environmental conservation as a national policy – a policy which, until recently, has received less attention than his economic and social policies.

In fact, in one of his last speeches of the 1932 presidential campaign, delivered in the Hudson Valley, Roosevelt emphasized issues such as the protection of the Adirondacks rather than Herbert Hoover’s economic policies, the repeal of prohibition or agricultural relief.

New Yorkers were gathering at the polls that fall not only to fill national, state and local offices but to vote on a proposal to amend the state constitution to permit the construction of lodges and other facilities (the so-called closed cabins) on Forest Preserve lands.

“I am afraid that if we give this right to the localities, counties and towns…. the privilege will be abused and we will have Coney Islands and various other amusement resorts set up in these beautiful, natural surroundings that ought to be kept free for the campers, hikers and hunters who use them in millions,” Roosevelt said, urging his audience to reject the amendment.

“For fifty years,” he said, “We have had as part of the fundamental constitution of the state a clause that says under no circumstances, in no possible way, shall anything be done to destroy the wild, original, natural character of the Adirondack State Park. It was set aside by the people of this state to be a heritage not only of our generation but of generations to come.”

Roosevelt concluded, “So I hope we will preserve this great heritage of the people by not tampering with the constitution as it stands today. I hope with all my heart that Amendment Number One will be snowed under tomorrow by the votes of the people of this state.”

Roosevelt’s hopes were fulfilled. The amendment was defeated by a vote of two to one.

One of Roosevelt’s last speeches as New York’s governor, in other words, was a call for the permanent protection of the Adirondack Forest Preserve –an appropriate stance, to say the least,  for one of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s founding board members.

Support Local Journalism

We cover the Lake George watershed – the news, the people, the issues and, of course, the fun stuff. Please consider subscribing so that we can continue to bring you stories of Lake George – whether you're on the lake or just wishing you were.

Subscribe Today