Camp Algona marks a decade

ALGONA – Generations of Iowans have seen the Nativity scene in Algona that was made by German prisoners near the end of World War II.

While the Nativity scene is well-known, the circumstances that brought those German prisoners to Kossuth County remained relatively unknown for decades.

A group of Algona residents set out to change that. Their efforts created the Camp Algona POW Museum, and now they’re marking its 10th anniversary.

The museum opened July 9, 2004, in a former furniture store at 114 S. Thorington St.

Since then, residents of all 50 states and several foreign countries, including Australia, Britain, Germany and Mexico, have viewed the museum’s collection.

About 2,600 people visit it each year.

“A small group of people sitting around having a cup of coffee can start big things,” Brian Connick, an Algona High School history teacher and member of the museum’s committee, said during a recent event marking the anniversary.

Mike Vogt, the curator of the Iowa Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston, called the museum “an exceptional resource.”

“There’s an old saying that all history is local history,” he said during the Thursday evening anniversary celebration attended by about 50 people. “And your museum here does an excellent job of exhibiting how the Algona community participated in a larger occurrence which we know as World War II.”

According to Connick, the first notion of doing something to tell the story of Camp Algona emerged in 1998. He said 1998 was “a big year for the study of World War II” thanks to the book “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw and the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which both debuted that year.

“They brought World War II to everyone,” he said.

He said over the next couple of years there were numerous discussions about local World War II history. According to Connick, some of the key people in these early discussions, which eventually led to creating the museum, were Wes Bartlett, a leader of the Methodist Men’s Club that cares for the Nativity scene; and Dr. Jerry and Jean Shey. They were later joined by others, including Dick Schorrs, Mayor Lynn Kueck, Jerry Yocum and Vicki Mallory.

In 2001, the people who had been talking over coffee about the history of the camp created a formal organization.

“The idea of creating a museum at that point seemed pretty distant,” Connick said.

The group focused on collecting artifacts from the camp.

“As the next couple of years progressed, it became pretty apparent to us that we had a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t do a lot of good in a fireproof safe somewhere or in the library somewhere,” Connick said. “Certainly, a museum seemed like a logical answer.”

The committee bought the Thorington Street building at a time when it seemed like it had exhausted all the possible options for finding a home for the artifacts.

For expert help in setting up the museum, the committee contacted Jennie Bailey, an exhibit designer who had worked for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Bailey hadn’t heard of Camp Algona before, and she said Thursday that she found it “quite astounding” to learn that there was a prisoner of war camp in Iowa during World War II.

Upon entering the museum building for the first time, she immediately had concerns about the color of the carpet.

“As a designer, I thought how am I going to do World War II with teal carpeting?” she said. “That’s not going to go well with a lot of colors and themes like red, white and blue.”

The teal carpet remains in place, and Bailey said it never posed a problem with the design of exhibits.

The first display to be assembled is one on the south wall of the museum that provides an overview of Camp Algona. It includes a well-worn door that came from the camp’s guardhouse. When it was mounted on the wall, Bailey insisted on using some small pieces of moleskin to protect the door from the wires that hold it. She recalled that members of the museum committee thought that was unnecessary since the door already had plenty of scratches and dents after being in a barn for decades.

When the museum opened, its exhibits consisted of the overview of the camp, a 1941 Ford sedan painted to look like an Army staff car used at the camp and a diorama of the facility.

Displays of artwork made by the German prisoners, and tributes to the men and women from Kossuth County who served in World War II have since been added.

The Nativity scene is not part of the museum’s collection.