Thursday, August 22, 2013

Algona, Iowa.

On Tuesday, my grandparents, mother, and I took a road trip down to Algona, Iowa. Our premise for going was that my mother, who is a quilter and therefore follows lots of quilting blogs, won a pack of fabric and also a gift certificate to a restaurant where they house the largest cheeto in the world. While we were down there, though, we decided to go to a museum and the Algona Nativity Scene. Here I must sidetrack a bit, and tell the history that we learned at the museum, before I go on and tell you about the Nativity Scene and the restaurant.

Nearly everyone is taught about the World Wars. While studying World War One, one learns about the trenches, and mustard gas, and the United States entering near the end. While studying World War Two, one learns about Hitler, and the gas chambers, the Jews, and V-Day. One learns about the Pacific Theater, and the awful battles between America and Japan; one learns about the Japanese Internment camps (where the United States took all of the Japanese or Japanese-American people and shut them up in camps during WW2 [one of those that was interned, was George Takei, who played Sulu in Original Star Trek]); and one learns about the awful treatment that American soldiers received in German Prisoner of War camps.
What does one not learn about? The Prisoner of War camp (P.O.W. camps) in the United States.
In 1943, Europe's P.O.W. camps were overflowing with German prisoners (with other nationalities, such as Italian, mixed in) and Great Britain asked the United States to take some of the prisoners. The United States people weren't happy about it, but in the end, they did take in the Prisoners of War. Over 450,000 P.O.W.'s, during the course of 1944-1945, stayed in 700 camps scattered throughout the United States. Here is a map - every dot is a P.O.W. camp:


So what happens now? 450,000 German prisoners are now in America! Well, unlike American prisoners in Germany, these German prisoners were treated very well, in accordance with the Geneva Convention (which says that prisoners will be treated as well as the army that watches over them).

This is where the museum that we visited, and the Nativity Scene, come in.

In Algona, Iowa, they had a P.O.W. camp. Though the camp is no longer standing, and is now an airport, they have a museum with lots of articles and bios about German prisoners from the camp.

The Algona camp (and, indeed, mostly all of the other camps), prisoners could be hired out to local farmers, as farm hands. They would be paid in slips of paper, that they could spend at the Canteen - the store inside the P.O.W. camp.
In camp, prisoners had a variety of things that they could do.... They had arts and crafts, and sports. Many beautiful pieces of art came out of the camp, as well as poetry and journal entries, talking about every day life. Prisoners were allowed to send and receive letters (though they were looked over very closely by both America and Germany before being allowed to get back to family or sweethearts). In the Algona camp, they had an acting troupe, a choir, a newspaper (the P.O.W.-WOW) and a 15 piece orchestra. They say that idleness is the tool of the devil - these prisoners were anything but idle! They had a million things to do and were treated very well by all. Several of them became great friends with their farmer employers. There is one story about a farmer who had lost his son to the war, and started calling his German farm hand his son, because they were on such good terms. Later, after the war was over, and the prisoners were sent back to Germany, that prisoner came back to the farm with his family, and was reunited with his employer. There are many, many stories like that.
In 1946, the German prisoners were sent back to Germany, because the war was over. But many of them didn't want to go! Several escaped and lived in the United States, falling in love and creating a family, until found out by the government. Most of the time, the government would let them stay, if they would consent to going back to Germany for x amount of time first.
One man, his named was George, I think, was an amazing carver. While still a P.O.W., he carved something that took the fancy of one of the officers. The officer asked for it and George wondered why. "To show my grandchildren," replied the officer. George asked for five dollars (and not in slips of paper to spend at the canteen). The officer wondered why George would want five dollars. "To show my grandchildren," George replied. So they traded. George ended up selling two more carvings for $5 each. He had $15 and escaped to New Mexico. He met and fell in love with a woman. They married and had at least one child. But George was always looking over his shoulder, sure that someone would find out that we was here illegally. He didn't want to go back to Germany! He had experienced freedom - and had a beautiful family.
He had also started a bookstore, and was a flourishing businessman.
Well, one day, the officer who had bought George's carving for $5, walked into the bookstore, and recognized him. After that encounter, and after 40 years of living in the United States, George turned himself in. Our government made him go back to Germany for 6 months, but then said he could return and become a citizen. George did so. Eventually, though, he ended back up in Germany, and ran a successful bookstore there.

In 1944, one P.O.W., named Eduard Kaib, made a Nativity Scene. It was relatively small... something like six or eight inches per figure; but the officers were so impressed, that they asked for a bigger Nativity Scene for next year's Christmas. Eduard Kaib, and six other people (only one of whom has been identified) set to work, and by Christmas 1945, they had a huge Nativity Scene, where the figures were half life-size, to show to the people. And the people did come! Every year since 1945, at Christmastime (or, if you live more than 100 miles away, like us), Algona opens up the Nativity Scene to show to people.
It was quite amazing. There is over 35 sheep, over 20 figures, four camels, one angel, one cow, and one donkey. All of them are original, from 1945. To make them, Eduard Kaib poured cement over a wire and wood frame, to get the basic shape. Then he covered it with plaster, and painted it in what colors he supposed to be prominent back at the birth of Christ.


Blue lights added to the atmosphere. They played a recording of the history of the Nativity, and even had Kaib talking about it! He returned to Algona in the '60's to see his Nativity again.


Look at all those sheep!


I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend these two museums (the Nativity Scene, and the P.O.W. Museum, in Algona, Iowa) which tell about a piece of lost history. It's really quite incredible. They are both run entirely by volunteer, by the Methodist's Men's Club. It will be a sad day when all of the old, Methodist gentleman, die and no one is left to take care of the museums. I hope that never happens, because this piece of history is an amazing story, and one not often told.

After these two museums, we went to Emeralds, a restaurant with the largest cheeto. Their food was very, very good (though a tad bit expensive, maybe) and their restaurant was cool - nautical themed! They had model ships and portholes and diving suit helmets.
And, of course, the largest cheeto in the world:


(That's my mom with the cheeto.)
Here's a picture of it that I found online, compared to a regular cheeto and a quarter.


So there was our day on Tuesday! It was a great trip.

Live long and prosper! And go visit those museums!


  1. That P.O.W. museum's got to be one of the few interesting things in Iowa. (I've been to Iowa before. Not terribly memorable.) There's a farm near where I live that some people claim was worked by German POWs during the second World War. Not sure if its true or not, though.

  2. I did not know that about the P.O.W camps. I'm going to make it a point to go to that museum someday.

    It looks like you all are having fun! And seeing lots of cool things! (I love it when you go on trips because I get to read all about them.)

  3. I will definitely go to those museums if I am ever near there. That nativity scene is cool! I would love to see it someday.
    I can't wait to hear about the other cool things that you are going to see!
    Love, ShiningHisLight97

  4. Yes, love reading about the P.O.W.'s and the internment camps! How interesting! Now, would you come home? We miss you! :)