You can learn things digging through The Forum's "morgue," the jam-packed library and reference room located just off the newsroom on our building's second floor.
It was there, for example, where I stumbled across a reference to a 1922 study about Red River flooding, which led me to search for a copy of the study, which led me to find out there was a suggestion nearly 100 years ago for a river diversion to reduce flows on the mighty Red. Sound familiar? So I wrote about it in a column.
It was in the morgue, also, where I found an article about a major project planned to revitalize downtown Fargo — in the 1970s. That led to a few days of looking through microfilm and leafing through file folders of dusty newspaper clippings, which led to more instances of big plans to "save" downtown in the '70s, which provided a nice historical perspective on the massive Block 9 project currently under construction. So I wrote a column about it.
My latest accidental find — neither of the previous two columns referenced came about because I was looking for them; they were the result of inadvertently seeing a headline while searching for something else — came earlier this month while surfing through microfilm from 1944 Forums in search of information about D-Day. I did get an online story about the great Normandy invasion, but there was also this headline that piqued my curiosity:
"Moorhead German Prisoner Drowns in Gravel Pit Pool."
The first paragraph of the article read: "A German prisoner of war, one of 150 encamped on the outskirts of Moorhead, drowned Sunday in the Benedict gravel pit pool about seven miles southeast of Moorhead." The prisoner's name was withheld by Lt. Richard Blair, who was in charge of the camp.
To which this longtime Moorhead resident responded: Wait, Moorhead was home to a prison camp for German POWs during World War II? The U.S. shipped Hitler's soldiers all the way to the middle of the country?
So I did what all Clay County residents do when they have a historical question. I emailed Mark Peihl of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. And as is always the case, Mark responded promptly.
Turns out, indeed, Moorhead was home to German POWs in 1944 and 1945.
Ich werde verdammt sein, as they say in Berlin.
Peihl wrote an article about the Moorhead POW camps for a historical society newsletter in 1991, which he shared. The presence of German prisoners in the Red River Valley during World War II makes sense, after reading Peihl's article.
It was all about farm labor. Because so many young American men were overseas fighting in the war, there was a severe worker shortage. That was particularly true for agriculture, which was not considered a high-priority industry. The government, Peihl wrote, offered to supply POWs on a contract basis. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the labor could not directly help the war effort or be dangerous. Many agriculture areas took advantage, including the Red River Valley.
So, according to Peihl, farmers Henry Peterson and Paul Horn contracted for 150 POWs to work their vegetable farms. Army inspectors at first wanted to house the prisoners in a barn near the Red River on 12th Avenue south in Moorhead, but neighbors objected and so an onion warehouse on 21st Street near 4th Avenue North was selected, Peihl wrote.
The arrangement appeared to work well. The first group of prisoners arrived in Moorhead from a large POW camp in Algona, Iowa, in late May 1944. Most Germans were pleased with the good treatment given to them by Americans and farmers needed the labor, although one of the Moorhead farmers said the prisoners worked at only "about 65% compared to migrant labor from south Texas. . . . they just couldn't keep up."
Piehl wrote: "Six days a week, trucks from the Peterson and Horn farms picked up the POWs and their guards and carried them to the fields. There the prisoners planted, hoed and eventually picked the vegetables or did general farm maintenance, always watched by guards. They were paid, too. The contractors paid the government 40 cents an hour per prisoner for their labor, the going rate for farm labor as defined by the Clay County Wage Board. In turn, the government paid the prisoners 10 cents per hour in coupons redeemable only at the camp canteen. The remaining 30 cents went toward housing and feeding the POWs and profit for the U.S. government. (Between June and September 1944 alone, local POW labor netted the U.S. well over $13,000!)"
All was not rosy. The guards apparently caused more problems than the prisoners because, according to one of the farmers, "They were hillbillies. Sometimes they went out with some of the neighbor's girls, and so on and their parents didn't like it very well." The farmers also might have been too lenient in some cases. One prisoner wrote that they were given beer and cigarettes, taken to movies and there was "a memorable trip" to Moorhead's Magic Aquarium Bar, according to Peihl.
The German prisoner's drowning came on a common weekend swimming trip to a gravel pit southeast of Moorhead. Peihl said the prisoner was eventually identified as Franz Hummer.
"An inquest was held and the jury decided that since the prisoners had been warned that there would be no body guards watching and that the water was deep and cold, no punishments were handed out," Peihl said. "Hummer’s body was returned to Algona for burial. After the war his remains were transferred to the military cemetery in Fort Riley, Kansas."
German POWs, right here in Moorhead.
Now I know. And so do you.