JUST BLOCKS FROM THE VACATED SITE of the former Faribault Canning Company, a group packed a Rice County Historical Society Museum meeting room Thursday evening for a lesson in World War II-related regional history. Specifically, we learned about German Prisoner of War camps in Minnesota and Wisconsin from Matt Carter, executive director of the Dakota County Historical Society. He offered an overview of those camps, which included 15 in Minnesota, one at the canning company in Faribault. Carter is a native of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, home to a POW camp. Growing up, he never learned about the camp in school. That prompted him to later research, write about and present on POW camps in the US.
WORKING AG-RELATED JOBS
I’ve always held an awareness of Camp Faribault and the prisoners who worked at the canning factory and on area farms. I also knew of the low-slung buildings housing the POWs who arrived here in June 1944. Those barracks were torn down in 1990 during an expansion of Faribault Foods, as the canning company came to be called. The business still exists today, in a sprawling manufacturing and distribution complex opened in 2017 in northwest Faribault’s industrial park.
Back during WWII, with millions of Americans off to serve in the military, POWs like those in Faribault offset the local labor shortage. Faribault Canning requested 200 prisoners to assist during the summer months with pea and sweet corn processing. The company paid the government 55 cents an hour for each POW laborer. That covered food and other living expenses. Prisoners received 80 cents a day for their work. Carter noted that the Faribault-based POWs worked within a 25-mile radius, some also laboring on farms, others installing power poles for Dakota Electric Association and 60 contracted to work for the local Andrews Nursery Company.
SETTLING IN AT CAMP FARIBAULT & BEYOND
POW camps were scattered throughout Minnesota with other nearby branch camps, as they were termed, in Owatonna, Montgomery and St. Charles. Camps farther north focused mostly on logging. All were offshoots of barbed wire-secured base camps (where prisoners initially arrived and were processed) in Algona and Clarinda, Iowa. Once prisoners settled in community camps like Faribault, they still remained under guard, although much more loosely watched. An estimated 450,000 – 600,000* prisoners arrived in the US on Liberty Ships during WWII to live in repurposed Civilian Conservation Corps camps, on fairgrounds, even in tents, Carter said. In Faribault, the POWS moved into barracks built by the canning company.
WEDDINGS, PROPAGANDA & “CODDLING”
Within the confines of his just-over-an-hour-long presentation, Carter presented an excellent overview of POW camps, adding some details that I found notably interesting. For example, proxy weddings were performed by local clergy. Under Geneva Convention rules, German prisoners could legally marry women back in Germany. Prisoners would gather flowers for the missing-brides prison camp weddings. Across the ocean their brides perhaps did the same while marrying absent grooms not seen in years.
Carter also shared that prisoners watched newsreels of German war atrocities as part of a reorientation program in the camps. Viewed as propaganda by some POWs, they responded by distributing handwritten propaganda while traveling on secured trains. Baffled by how these leaflets were dropped, officials determined that the papers were dropped down toilets and then onto the rails.
The third bit of shared information that struck me involves food. Newspapers reported how well prisoners ate, how they were being “coddled,” Carter noted. He showed a list of menus, which confirms the generous meals. The reaction was an outcry from an American public living on rationed foods and upset about the treatment of German-held US soldiers. In 1945, POWs were no longer allowed to buy beer, soda or cigarettes. And some of their food choices became less desirable (like hearts and liver).
Once the war ended, prisoners were repatriated, a process that took time. Many later returned to the US because of how well they were treated here, according to Carter. That was encouraging to hear. Even in war-time, kindness existed.
Today all that remains of the Faribault POW Camp is a marker by the former canning company. If there are stories and photos, I am unaware. But I’m inspired now to dig deeper. I’ve already checked out Prudence by David Treuer from my local library. The novel focuses on a German soldier who escaped from a Minnesota POW camp. I also intend to read Anita Albrecht Buck’s Behind Barbed Wire: German Prisoners of War in Minnesota during World War II.
And maybe some day I’ll travel to Algona, Iowa, to visit the Camp Algona POW Museum and learn more about this place which housed prisoners sent to Minnesota, including to Faribault.
*Because of differences and discrepancies in record-keeping, the number of prisoners housed in US POW camps is uncertain. Some sources claim 600,000-plus, while Carter estimates closer to 500,000 prisoners based on his research.
© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling