Henningsen: Vt’s one-man stimulus plan

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(HOST) Watching the development of the stimulus plan, teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen, was reminded that Vermont did very well as a result of an earlier plan – because of the vision of one man.

(HENNINGSEN) In the spring of 1933 one-third of America’s workforce was unemployed and 20,000 farms failed every month. On the morning of Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, both the New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade shut their doors. Roosevelt closed every bank in the country and for four days Americans conducted financial affairs by means of barter and handwritten IOU’s. If ever the country needed an economic stimulus, this was the time.
FDR pushed a massive stimulus package through Congress to address the crisis.  From repealing Prohibition to resolving the banking crisis; from restructuring American agriculture and industry to allocating billions for unemployment relief, Roosevelt’s first hundred days remains the most radical flurry of federal action ever.  And central to his agenda was the most extensive public works program in American history. Part of it was an ingenious plan to put young men to work in the nation’s wild lands, developing irrigation and flood control projects, and creating and improving parks and forests – in what came to be called the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Time was short; states were invited to submit proposals for projects that were, to use the current term, "shovel ready."

The last place Administration officials anticipated hearing from was rock-ribbed, Republican Vermont. But they hadn’t reckoned on a true genius and one of the Green Mountain State’s real unsung heroes:  Perry Merrill, commissioner of the Vermont Forest Service.  A trained scientific forester, Merrill spent his spare time dreaming up environmental improvement projects that ordinarily wouldn’t have seen the light of day.  But, as Louis Pasteur observed, "Chance favors the prepared mind" and Merrill was nothing if not prepared.  Catching the first train to Washington, he laid his plans in front of delighted federal officials and, within a week, had authorization for the first of what would grow to thirty Vermont CCC camps. 

Over the next decade, Merrill oversaw projects involving over 40,000 men, almost 12,000 of them Vermonters. They opened the mountains to fire protection, scientific management and recreation; they cleared miles of hiking trails,  they built shelters, cut the trails that began Vermont’s ski industry, and developed almost half of today’s state park system.  The country’s biggest CCC district ran the length of the Winooski Valley, where over 5300 men worked on flood control projects, including the Waterbury Reservoir.

The CCC was hands down the New Deal’s most popular program – particularly so in Vermont, which benefited well out of proportion to its population because of Perry Merrill’s foresight and energy.

He served forty-seven years as state forester and commissioner of forests and parks, and, in retirement, put in two terms in the Vermont House before dying in 1993 at age 99.

Written on the tomb of London architect Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral is the epitaph: "If you seek his monument, look around." Standing anywhere in Vermont’s mountains, we may say the same for Perry Merrill.

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