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Learning something new each day

By Staff | Aug 18, 2013

Just when I thought I knew it all, I learned something new.

A couple of weeks ago I heard someone talking about having had German prisoners of war working on their farm when they were growing up.

On their family farm in Faribault County.

Say what? German prisoners of war? As in Nazi soldiers from World War II? In Faribault County, Minnesota?

I had never heard of such a thing. And, to be honest, I had my doubts as to the validity of this statement. I was thinking maybe this was a case of someone with old-age dementia.

Turns out, it is true.

A little research reveals that 425,000 German and Italian POWs were kept in camps in the U.S. during World War II. And, about 8,000 of those were in camps in Minnesota.

There were a lot of camps in both northern and southern Minnesota. There was one in Fairmont, Owatonna, Montgomery and Faribault, for instance.

Plus, there was one in Faribault County, located in Wells. It was one of the last ones built in the state.

In 1943, there were only a couple of counties with POW camps in Minnesota. In 1944, there were seven.

Then, in 1945, 24 counties had them across the state.

All of them had to do with getting enough workers for available jobs. With so many young people serving in the war in Europe and the Pacific, companies were crying for people to come work. A story in the May 18, 1944 Blue Earth Post says 10,000 seasonal workers were going to be needed that summer in Faribault and Martin counties. Most of this labor force was needed for the many canning factories in southern Minnesota, and logging companies in northern Minnesota.

Many of the prisoners in Minnesota came from a very large POW camp in Algona, Iowa. They were moved around the country to temporary camps as needed, in order to have a labor force for local industries.

In June of 1944. the Minnesota Valley Canning Company in Blue Earth returned their government certificate that would have allowed them to have 500 prisoners housed here and working in the local plant.

The reason they turned down the opportunity for employing prisoners of war? The company officials determined the cost to prepare housing quarters and a POW camp was prohibitive, compared to hiring Mexican laborers as they had in the past.

But, a year later, in July of 1945, a POW camp was built near Wells and about 250 German prisoners were housed in the camp, located in the former hemp factory building there. The Germans worked in the canning plants in Wells and Fairmont.

After the pea and corn packs were over, the area farmers could use the POWs as cheap farm laborers, and many did. Thus the validity of the local stories of having a German prisoner of war working on a Faribault County family farm.

The Wells camp was short-lived and by fall of 1945, it was closed.

According to information in newspapers at the time, the German soldiers were fairly well received into the area and accepted in the community.

Yes, there was some protest from folks who had lost loved ones in the war, killed by German forces. But it seems many people thought of these German soldiers as almost victims of the Nazi regime. They were not considered the “Nazi devils,” but rather German citizens forced to fight in the army.

One group who protested using the soldiers as workers was organized union labor. They prevented the use of the POWs in factories in Mankato and Rochester, unless the company was unable to hire union workers.

The POWs were paid for their work in the factories at the normal rate. It was reported that rate was around 50 cents per hour.

The prisoner of war “camps” were often former Civilian Conservation Corps barracks, 4-H buildings at the fairgrounds, cannery housing or empty buildings in the town.

Sometimes it was just a group of tents surrounded by barbed wire.

Sometimes barracks buildings were built for the prisoners. The ones that had been constructed in Fairmont were torn down in the mid-1970s. The ones built at Camp New Ulm are still located in Flandreau State Park and are available for rent as a group center.

By 1946, the practice was ended. Most of the POWs were returned to Europe, where they were forced to do much harder labor for the next two years before finally being released.

By the time the prisoners left the U.S. in the late 1940s, every state in the nation except three Nevada, North Dakota and Vermont had at least one POW camp.

It was a chapter of our history that isn’t much noted even by those who were alive at the time.

However, the Minnesota Historical Society has available a book titled “Behind Barbed Wire German Prisoner of War Camps in Minnesota,” by Anita Albrecht Buck, of Stillwater.

Some of the information for this column came from that book.

And now perhaps you, too, have learned something new.