Friday, April 14, 2017

Eaten Any Rabbit Lately? Rabbit Hunts and Rabbit Suppers in Early Grinnell

In early March I was browsing that day's edition of the New York Times when I ran across an article about rabbit, and how rarely Americans, compared to the French, eat rabbit. The recipes outlined by the author sounded tempting, but my mind focused upon something else: the frequency with which I had found announcements about "rabbit suppers" in newspapers of the early twentieth century. Many fraternal organizations—for example, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, Eagles—and many churches and other organizations throughout the Midwest sponsored rabbit suppers, often at holidays or special organization anniversaries. In other words, despite current disinterest in putting rabbit on the menu, apparently there was a time when rabbit was often served at dinner—in early Grinnell no less than elsewhere in mid-America. What was up with that? I decided to look into it, and what I found is the subject of today's story—a kind of anti-Easter bunny story.
Unattributed photograph of a rabbit hunt in Hoxie, Kansas (undated but thought to be from 1905-1915)
(Photo from Kansas Historical Society:
Most suburban Americans today hold fairly tolerant views of rabbits—unless, like Beatrix Potter's Mr. McGregor, they are trying to protect their gardens from rabbits' own dining preferences. However, out on the plains of the Midwest where small towns like Grinnell had grown up in the last half of the nineteenth century, rabbits were less loved; indeed, rabbit populations—protected by and feeding on the prairie's bounty—were huge, making them an inviting target for sport. To many early Iowans, rabbits seemed to be everywhere, and, following the same attitudes that led them to hunt down wolves and other wild animals, settlers on the plains organized rabbit hunts whose sometimes tremendous yields decorated many early twentieth-century photographs (like the Hoxie, Kansas photograph above).

So long as the prairie offered cover, rabbits remained plentiful, explaining at least in part how rabbit hunts became part of Grinnell's social life. As early as 1890 Grinnell College President George Gates went rabbit-hunting with friends, and succeeded in taking down eighteen rabbits.
The Unit, vol. 1 (1890):99
College students also found time to catch and cook rabbit. An article in the December, 1922 Scarlet & Black reported that several students had caught fifteen rabbits that they served at a dinner for the men of Dibble Hall. But collegians might also encounter rabbit on the menu while traveling, as happened in 1924 when the College Glee Club visited Huron, South Dakota. According to an S&B report, the local alumni invited the singers to join in a "real Dakota rabbit hunt," whose yield was then made the central dish of a banquet in the Glee Club's honor.
Scarlet & Black, December 17, 1924
For reasons I don't understand, rabbit seems to have been especially important to the Knights of Pythias, not only in Grinnell but all across the country. One of many announcements of a rabbit supper came in a January, 1919 issue of the Grinnell Herald. According to this report, several Knights had bagged 57 rabbits who were served up to some 250 guests. Unlike most writings about rabbit suppers, this one detailed the preparation to which the bunnies were put. "The main article on the menu," the newspaper said, "was broiled or roasted rabbit altho[ugh] veal loaf was served to those who couldn't eat rabbit meat without being reminded of the fuzz on the outside. The rare rabbit steaks were served hot and juicy, cooked to a turn with plenty of rabbit gravy for the thoroughly mashed potatoes."
Grinnell Herald January 21, 1919
The Pythian Knights made their rabbit feed in Grinnell an annual event, for the most part without stimulating any commentary. But news of the January, 1925 rabbit supper provoked some wonder from editors at the Davenport Democrat and Leader:
We are wondering what kind of taste Grinnell folks have that they will deliberately and without compulsion eat rabbits?...Rabbits were not made to eat. They were made for the fur to be used by hat makers.
Grinnell Register January 8, 1925
Complaints like this were few, however, and were not enough to alter practice. A 1930 announcement for yet another Knights of Pythias dinner declared that hunters had killed three times as many rabbits as had fed the 1919 banquet. Perhaps each diner received a bigger plate, since the newspaper said that about the same number of guests—250—had joined in the gastronomical fun.
Grinnell Herald, January 17, 1930
The Pythians elsewhere—in Columbus and Fort Wayne, Indiana, as well as in Marion, Mansfield, and Wauseon, Ohio, as a Google search confirms—regularly held rabbit suppers which were often opened to the community. In many places it was the Eagles who served rabbit, and in other places it was the Odd Fellows; in Gilbert, Iowa it was the local gun club; in Webster City, even the Boy Scouts got into the act.
Webster City Freeman February 2, 1920
Churches also hosted rabbit suppers. For example, in January 1923 the United Brethren church in Greene, Iowa organized a rabbit banquet. In Des Moines in 1909, Rev. J. W. Abel of Wesley Methodist organized what became an annual rabbit hunt for parishioners. The Iowa Humane society protested that "the plan would foster inhumane tendencies in church members," but Abel carried on. African American churches also sponsored rabbit hunts. Davenport's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church sponsored a rabbit hunt as early as 1901, and an October, 14, 1920 issue of the Iowa Bystander confirmed that churchmen were still hunting rabbits.

However, rabbit suppers did not require a church or any other sort of organization. For example, an Iowa City newspaper told of Mr. W. R. Griffith who ran the local yellow cab company, and in December, 1925 put on a rabbit feed for all his employees and their families. Sometimes rabbit suppers became special features of hotel restaurants, as happened in Green Castle, Indiana in 1924.
Daily Banner (Green Castle, IN),  January 5, 1924
In other places a rabbit supper was joined to holiday feasting, as happened in Alliance, Ohio where the Eagles arranged an annual rabbit supper for Thanksgiving.
Alliance Review & Leader November 24, 1920
Newspaper reports do not often describe the rabbit hunts themselves, but at least sometimes they were organized much like wolf hunts, systematically corralling all rabbits within a shrinking circle. The Webster City Freeman told of such a hunt organized among the men of the local machine-gun regiment. Major Lund dispatched his men
over about a mile of territory and [they] then gradually work[ed] in toward a given center, driving the rabbits in. No firearms were used, the men catching them with their hands or using clubs. Thousands of rabbits were scared up, and as they dashed past the men managed to grab about one out of every twenty-five....Out of the wild mess that looked considerably like a cattle stampede, the soldiers managed to stop about 150 (Webster City Freeman, November 5, 1917).
Among civilian organizations, however, the more common practice was to use guns, and also to create two teams that competed against one another: the side that killed more rabbits got to enjoy the dinner being served them by the losing side. This was how it played out in Hardy, up near Humboldt:
Sides had been chosen...and there were about 100 men on each side. The hunt lasted all day and ranged over many miles of country near Hardy...More than 700 rabbits were killed, about 800 pigeons, thirty jack rabbits and numerous crows. Hanson's side won the day, Earl Saxton was high man with 150 rabbits and a bagful of pigeons (Humboldt Republican, February 14, 1930).
Rabbit hunting became so common in the area that in March, 1931 a little three-year-old boy from Malcom caught the fever. When his parents noticed that the boy was missing, neighbors and friends scoured nearby fields, only discovering the boy in a cornfield after dark. Reunited with his mother, little Jack Eichhorn told her that he had been "hunting rabbits wif Buddy," his dog.
Grinnell Herald, March 24, 1931
At some point—perhaps the early 1930s—either because the supply of rabbits had fallen off or because people were looking for an easier supper, some industrious farmers began to raise domesticated rabbits. A notice in the November 11, 1930 Grinnell Herald, for instance, reported that several Grinnell-area residents were organizing a local chapter of the American Rabbit and Cavy Breeding Association. According to the newspaper, at least one food market in Grinnell—Thompson  Food Store, 918 Main Street—regularly had rabbit for sale, and "many Grinnell people think it is as good as chicken." Moreover, the newspaper asserted conclusively, "In New York City rabbit meat is eaten extensively." By December the paper could claim that "over 400 domesticated rabbits of several breeds" were being raised in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald December 5, 1930
Despite the development of domesticated rabbit production, Grinnellians still hunted rabbit. In the depths of the Depression, rabbit helped supplement diets that might otherwise have been light on meat. Indeed, when being interviewed about the 1930s and 1940s, Everett Armstrong maintained that out in the country no one with a gun went hungry.
There was a lot of hunting in those days, too. You know, people were hunting for food. You could go out and shoot rabbits at night...we used to eat rabbit all the time because we got tired of beef and pork. Rabbit was kind of a treat for us and we'd go out and we'd—My dad, if he was out on the road somewhere, he always carried a gun with him, and he'd shoot rabbits and bring them home at night and we'd clean them and we'd hang them up on the clothesline and let them freeze. And when you wanted something different than beef and pork, you'd go get a rabbit.
Rabbits are still hunted in Iowa today, and each year the DNR publishes the dates for the rabbit-hunting season. Nevertheless, the huge rabbit hunts of yesteryear—like the 1919 hunt around Killduff which yielded 450 rabbits—will not be seen around Grinnell any time soon, nor are the rabbit suppers that were a regular feature of community life in early Grinnell likely to fill the town's twenty-first-century social calendar.
Kellogg Enterprise December 19, 1919
And for that, Peter Rabbit and friends are no doubt very happy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

When German POWs Canned Corn in Grinnell...

A few weeks ago I posted a story about how, during World War II, several hundred Mexicans as well as Wisconsin native Americans came to Grinnell to help harvest seed corn. The demands of warfare had drained much of the working-age population out of town, obliging the seed companies to seek temporary help.

Another page in that story concerns German prisoners of war who, like the Mexicans and Menominee native Americans, came to Grinnell to bolster the work force in war-time Iowa. However, unlike the others, the POWs did not reside in Grinnell, even temporarily; early suggestions of building a tent camp near the college campus were not received well, so planners decided to house the men at the former Sac and Fox Sanitarium in Toledo, and bus them into Grinnell each day in late summer. Some prisoners worked in the fields to complete the harvest, but most worked at the canning factory, which came to life late each summer, canning large quantities of sweet corn and other vegetables. This is the story of how Germans, far from home and the war in which they had fought, played their part in Grinnell's wartime history.

Images courtesy of Grinnell Historical Museum

The Grinnell Canning Company factory arose in 1912 on the land just west of the Minneapolis-St. Louis Railway line and east of Park Street (later known as 230 Park), just south of Harrison Ave. Rumors about the coming of the new business appeared in newspapers in late 1911, but by early 1912 the Herald reported that George R. Kelley (1880-1954) of Vinton, Iowa, had visited Grinnell in behalf of his business, Iowa Canning Company, whose several factories were reported to have produced 12 million cans of corn in 1911.

Kelley and his investors—the only local investor was W. T. Moyle who operated a grocery store in town—agreed to build a new canning facility in Grinnell. Property south of town (and south of the paving!) was soon acquired, and farmers were enlisted to plant and provide the corn from what Kelley hoped would be 1000 acres.

Grinnell Canning Factory (ca. 1912) (Digital Grinnell)
Plans called for a total of five buildings—four of them all brick—on the site. The process room would be 45 x 60 feet and stand three stories tall. The warehouse would be two stories high, but constitute a long rectangle—60 x 120 feet. The retort room and boiler room—both one-story—would be 24 x 100 and 30 x 60 feet, respectively. The first stop for corn deliveries would be the husking shed, a frame building measuring 44 x 160 and fitted with dumps to facilitate unloading farmers' wagons. So the entire complex—completely invisible today because of subsequent development—promised to be imposing.

By early May, 1912 the newspaper reported that R. G. Coutts had won the contract to build the factory, his low bid coming in at just over $21,000. Since the company estimated that machinery for the factory would cost another $20,000 and because the firm also had to purchase property on which to erect the facility, total costs were estimated at around $50,000. With a payout of some $17,000 to local farmers and labor costs that first year of around $10,000 (up to 250 laborers were thought necessary), the newspaper noted that "the presence of this factory means the expenditure of large sums of money each year in Grinnell and vicinity."

The plant opened its doors in late August, 1912, and set about its brief, hectic, season. One month later the newspaper declared that the first year's pack was complete, having produced 55,000 cases of corn—or, to put it another way, 1.3 million cans. Kelley and others announced their satisfaction, and Grinnell's canning industry could bask in a successful beginning and what looked like a potent contribution to the local economy.
Des Moines Register April 13, 1930
Over the next several decades the canning factory prospered. Of course, there were setbacks: more than once the factory was closed for the installation of new equipment; a drop in demand as the Depression settled into Iowa closed the factory for a time; severe drought also affected production in the early 1930s, and at least once the company had to face litigation about failure to pay obligations. For the most part, however, the factory followed an annual rhythm, opening in late summer for the harvest and the rush of canning (a time when the most on-site labor was needed), then closing off the pack a month or six weeks later, with only a small crew thereafter to complete labeling, storage, and shipping of the factory output. In 1935 Mid-State Canning took over operations without much effect upon local production.
Council Bluffs Nonpareil September 2, 1945
But, like the seed corn business, Iowa's canning factories—in 1900 there were only 17 canneries in Iowa but the number swelled in the first two decades of the twentieth century—had to confront the shortage of labor that World War II had brought to the American heartland. Their solution was to make use of German and Italian prisoners of war, who had been installed in a network of camps across the country, beginning in 1943.
Prisoner-of-War Camps in the United States as of June, 1944 (US Army via Wiki Commons)
By 1945 the United States housed some 425,000 prisoners of war (about three-quarters of them German) in some 175 camps. Iowa had two such camps—one at Clarinda and the other at Algona; both were designed to accommodate up to 3000 prisoners, but neither ever reached maximum capacity.
Des Moines Register August 20, 1943 (State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City)
In late summer 1943 the Des Moines Register announced a plan to locate a POW camp in Algona, but the first prisoners did not arrive there until early April, 1944. Some 500 German prisoners were brought from Nebraska to help construct camp facilities, where over the next twenty months some 10,000 prisoners spent time. Like other POW camps, Algona had its own farm, band, theater troupe, newspaper, and other forms of entertainment to help prisoners pass the time. Algona's POWs even managed to create an impressive, 20 x 40 feet nativity to mark Christmas, a memento of the camp that remains on display in Algona each December, decades after the camp closed.
A Camp Algona POW Band (
The Geneva Convention prohibited using POWs for war-related labor, but the men could volunteer for non-war-related work, and many did. Work detachments were sent to do logging in Minnesota, harvest sugar beets in the Dakotas, help localities recover from tornadoes, harvest peas in Minnesota and corn in Iowa. Each man received a credit of 80 cents per day, which was not in itself much stimulus to work, but the chance to get out of camp, to see other people and other towns proved attractive to hundreds of the POWs.

Prisoner labor was also alluring to the midwest farm economy as labor shortages became more common, especially during harvest. Communities like Tama began to agitate for installation of branch POW camps in their towns, both for the revenue stream these establishments represented as well as for the availability of agricultural laborers.
Cedar Rapids Gazette July 30, 1943
According to a 2009 interview with Larry Ellis, whose father, Percy (1904-1960), had managed Grinnell's canning factory in the 1940s, there was even talk about creating a temporary POW camp in Grinnell:
They were gonna take 'em [POWs] in the old riding academy up here at the college. ...if you go back to maybe where the baseball diamond was at, the riding academy sat right in there and it was a good-sized riding academy, and they wanted to house [the POWs] back there in tents. And the people of Grinnell didn't like that idea. They didn't feel secure to have them down in the residential area where if some of them would get loose, why...
Sac and Fox Sanitarium in Toledo, occupied by POWs in 1945
A compromise solution was to establish Branch Camp No. 27 in Toledo, making use of the former Sac and Fox Sanitarium there. The folks around Tama had entertained the idea of a branch camp for some time, and the decision to use the old sanitarium was greeted with enthusiasm. In late summer 1945 about 125 POWs (along with about a dozen guards) were transferred from Algona to the Toledo sanitarium. In the presence of an armed guard, these men worked in canning factories in Gilman, Toledo, and Reinbeck, and also worked in the fields to bring the harvest to the canneries.

Grinnell was one of the beneficiaries of Branch Camp No. 27 POW labor.  Every day in late summer 1945 buses brought some sixty German POWs from Toledo to work two shifts in Grinnell. Some worked in the fields to bring in the corn, and others worked in the canning factory. At the end of the day, the prisoners were bussed back up to Toledo.
Des Moines Register August 30, 1945
The Grinnell Herald-Register claimed that Manager Ellis thought the prisoners "good help and [they] gave no trouble." The visiting Germans must have provided some sight, however. According to the newspaper, they traveled under armed guard, and wore overalls "with P. W. stenciled on the back in big letters." Factory manager Ellis told the Herald-Register that some of the men spoke English quite well, and, aware of what their comrades on the Russian front had experienced, they were "glad to be in this country instead of in the hands of the Russians."
POW overalls with "PW" stenciled on them
Unattributed photograph in Mariah Goode, "The Harvest of 1945: German POW Camps Filled Door County Labor Shortage," Door County Pulse July 1, 2005 (
Nevertheless, evidence of contact between the German POWs and Grinnell civilians is slight. Larry Ellis maintained that the POWs worked at the very back of the canning factory,
by the cooling canal, that was a[n] open area. It was screened in, had a roof on it, came down, oh there was a screened area maybe four or five feet high from your waist up to about a foot from the top of the building. It was all screened in so you had plenty of air moving through there. They'd stay right there and that's where they guarded them at. 
Apparently in this area the POWs would box the canned corn, working in isolation from most other laborers in the factory. Given this separation and the fact that the entire POW contingent went back to Toledo each night, few were the Grinnellians who met one of these Germans, now far from their homes.
Grinnell Herald-Register September 20, 1945
The only one of the POWs at work in Grinnell whose name made it into the public record was a man whom the newspaper called Wilhelm Liesenbach. Unlike the Germans at work inside the canning factory, Liesenbach was part of the contingent put to work out in the fields. According to a brief report in the Herald-Register, the POWs had finished their day's labor, and had already boarded a truck for the drive back to the factory when Liesenbach's hat blew off. Jumping off the moving truck, Liesenbach landed on his head. The resulting fracture took him to St. Francis hospital, although how long he stayed there the paper did not say. Indeed, I could find no other record of Liesenbach at all, making me wonder if perhaps the name—better known as a place in central Germany—might have been misreported. But I could find no other evidence of contact between the POWs and townsfolk.

POWs who did similar work elsewhere seem nevertheless to have made connections with locals. As Michael Luick-Thrams reports in Signs of Life: The Correspondence of German POWs at Camp Algona, Iowa 1943-46, young Evelyn Grabow of Owatonna, Minnesota exchanged notes with POWs who worked with her at the Owatonna cannery. One German left this note of appreciation in his own creative English:
Evelyn! Last time, I was very sorry to cannot have say you good bye as I wanted to do it...The feeling, to have made the acquaintance of one person very congenious, makes me happy and I have a good knowledge of human nature. From this country I get only unagreeable experiences. This [my meeting you] is a beautiful exception....
POWs who ended up working in farmers' fields also at least occasionally established personal relations that were revived in letters after the war's end. A 1946 letter from Helmut Langenbach to a Moorhead, Minnesota farmer, Henry Peterson, is one of many examples, if exceptional in its detail. Despite the sometimes contorted spelling and grammar, the letter confirms that Peterson had made strong personal connections with the POWs who worked on his farm:
Our camp have had a good cook, a good citchen and the best Army-food-ration. And then you was coming evry Saturday with bier [sic] an cigarettes. Allway [=Always] a Hollyday [holiday] for the P.W.s of Moorhead City. Evry Sunday we drove to the Staate-park for swimming or to your sport-field...When a P.W. was sick you was helpful and has given fruits to the hospital. We have had to this time nothing for a thank [you but]...Today I will thank you again for all [the POWs you helped] through my letter.
Some Iowans also established personal relations with at least some of the POWs. For example, Chad W. Timm, writing about Iowans' encounters with POWs, quotes Gerald Haas, who was only twelve when his farmer parents employed Algona POWs. "My family hired some prisoners to pull and cut weeds on our land," Haas remembered. "....My mom always cooked and fed them their noon meal and as a result they worked very well for us." Something similar happened with the Balgemans, who had Algona POWs work on their farm. "Balgeman's father became close to two of the Germans, and kept in touch with them after they returned to Germany." Indeed, for several years after the war the Balgemans sent packages of food and clothing to their former German laborers, helping reunited families get through the worst of the post-war recovery in Germany.

Something like this may have happened in Grinnell, too, but interviews with some thirty Iowans about farm life in these years did not produce a single mention of the German POWs, let alone any evidence of on-going relationships after the prisoners returned home.
Algona Upper Des Moines September 6, 1945
Once the war was declared over, some newspapers reported that POWs might wish to remain in the US, rather than return to their native countries, a development that patriotic Americans found unsurprising if not altogether welcome. All the wheels of government were turning in a different direction, however. As provisions of the peace were settled, the US government started to close the POW camps. Toledo had only been a temporary branch camp, and it was abandoned soon after the 1945 harvest ended. Camp Algona survived longer, but it, too, gradually emptied out as the Americans transferred POWs to other facilities to expedite repatriation. The Algona camp officially closed in February, 1946, its buildings and property being ceded to the city.
Des Moines Register September 21, 1945
Back in Grinnell, the cannery continued to operate, but its future grew cloudy. In 1947 the factory managed to pack only 11,260 cases, a record low, and well below the record high of 105,000 cases packed in 1931. In 1948 output rose again to 50,000 cases, about the same number of cases that the factory had packed with the help of German POWs in 1945. However, by the time that the city of Grinnell celebrated its centennial in 1954, the canning company was gone, its factory occupied by a fertilizer enterprise.

George Kelley, who had founded and then superintended the Grinnell plant for several decades, managed his last stint at the cannery in 1934, then moved to Forth Worth, Texas where he lived with his son (who was also a cannery manager). He later moved to Los Angeles where he died in 1954. Percy Ellis, who managed the canning factory in the 1940s, also moved on, in his case to Seymour, Wisconsin, where he headed yet another cannery. Ellis died there in 1960 and was buried at St. John's Catholic cemetery in Seymour.
Gravestone for Percy Ellis, St. John's Catholic Cemetery, Seymour, Wisconsin
What about the POWs who worked in Grinnell? I could find no trace of these folk, nor did I discover evidence of later correspondence or visits, as happened with some of the POWs in Algona. These men had appeared in Grinnell on a daily basis for a month or so in late summer 1945, making few personal contacts as they were ferried back and forth from Toledo. Then, when the packing season ended, they returned to Algona, and by the beginning of 1946 were on their way back to Europe. Did they remember Grinnell? Had they made even fleeting contact with Grinnellians at the cannery or out in the fields? We may never know....
PS. Karen Groves originally put me on to this story, and along with Dorrie Lalonde of the Drake Community Library, helped me dig out some of the particulars. I thank them both. I hope that this post might find some folk from around Grinnell who recall the POWs working here, and can perhaps add some examples of personal connections with the German POWs.