Thanks for Asking | February 25, 2010

answering your questions to the very best of his considerable ability

Frank Smoot

"My mother-in-law was wondering if we had any POW or internment camps here. Do you know?"
Thanks for asking! We had a German POW camp in 1945, the very tail end of WWII. Prisoners were housed at the 4H Fairgrounds, which was, at the time, directly across Fairfax Avenue from what’s now Mega East and the Eastridge Center. Really Altoona more than Eau Claire.

The 4H Fairgrounds had just opened in 1941, and it really fit the bill. It already had two dormitories furnished with bunk beds, a kitchen/concessions area, and a concrete platform plumbed for water, where kids would wash their livestock before taking them into the show ring. The military surrounded that platform with a tent, and, voila, showers!

The chief renovation to make it prison-ready? A wire fence (a regular old woven-wire farm fence, from what I understand) and two guard towers kitty corner from each other. Evenings, according to Betty Cowley’s great book on the subject, Stalag Wisconsin, prisoners marched across Fairfax to what was then an open field (now the Mega / Eastridge parking lot, more or less). There they played soccer, a pretty exotic game to the Eau Clairians of the day. Residents used to sit alongside Hwy 53 and watch.

A first group (about 175 total) arrived here in July of ’45 and worked for Lange Canning Company harvesting and canning peas; they were gone in time for the Junior Fair to take place in August as scheduled. A second group came in September and helped can corn.

All told, Wisconsin had 38 similar camps and held about 20,000 captured enemy soldiers. Big number, but a small percentage of the 370,000 German prisoners housed in the U.S. during the war. One big benefit: Eau Claire had a labor shortage, especially for seasonal work. (Something like one-tenth of the total Eau Claire County population was directly involved in the war effort.) These guys canned a lot of peas and corn.

"Why does the AT&T building downtown have fake windows? It looks weird."
I sympathize, but let me tell you, this façade looks a lot better than the last one. In 1931, Wisconsin Telephone built the original on the 300 block of South Dewey. Substantial and elegant. Brick with so-called “quoins” (in limestone, I think) running like staggered ladders up the corners. Arched windows around the Dewey Street entrance, multi-paned double-hungs all over: 80,100 windows total? This was back in the day when they thought people could look out a window and still work.

In 1969, the phone company doubled the building, partly to install yer basic “4A switching machine,” which covered 6,000 square feet, or roughly two Oakwood Hills McMansions. (At that time, we were Wisconsin’s lone long-distance switching station north of Madison and Milwaukee.) To conjoin these old and new twins, the architect cased everything with a ribbed concrete and composite stone facing, apparently trying to make it look like a Soviet housing project.

Six, maybe seven years ago, AT&T tried as best it could to heal the wound on the downtown vista. I don’t know much about telephonic networking equipment, which fills the building, but I do know solar radiation is not its friend. So no windows – hence the solid façade, this one in a style called trompe-l’oeil (“trick the eye”). This particular example doesn’t really trompe anyone  (unlike, say, Richard Haas’ stunning mural on Milwaukee’s Centre Theater building, RichardHaas.com/zcentmil.html). But still a vast improvement, trust me.


Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (mail@volumeone.org) and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 41 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.

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