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.

1 comment:

  1. Reading about a corn canning plant in Grinnell, and throughout Iowa, it makes me wonder if a lot more sweet corn and a lot less field corn was planted in those days.

    I also think the German POWs were very lucky to be "imprisoned" in Iowa especially after learning about conditions in Japan and Southeast Asia during WWII.