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Stateside With Rosalea: Iowa

Stateside With Rosalea Barker


It’s Christmas Eve, and what better place to spend it than Algona, Iowa. This small town in northwestern Iowa was the site of a prisoner of war camp during WWII, which captured German soldiers were shipped to from the theaters in Europe and North Africa. One of the soldiers created a small nativity scene his first Christmas there, in 1944, and the camp commander asked him and other inmates to create a larger one for the following Christmas.

You can read about Eduard Kaib’s Nativity Scene in a pdf here, and view what it looked like in 1945 on the camp’s website here. While you’re there, I recommend you also click on the link called “A Kossuth County resident remembers the first viewing of the Nativity Scene” as it tells the story of a newly appointed local minister’s invitation to attend “a special religious event” being held at the camp. Maybe you too “can experience a bit of the romance of a prisoner and his hope for peace.”

A look at the US Census Bureau’s statistics about ancestry perhaps shows why Algona was chosen as the site of a POW camp—more than 50 percent of the town’s population of just over 5,000 claim German ancestry, which is only slightly higher than the percentage with that ancestry in the total population of Iowa. Prisoners from the camp were sent to work at locations throughout four of the Midwestern states. The next highest group is Irish, followed by English, American, and Danes.

A high proportion of Danes settled in the southwest of Iowa because land was still available there, according to Iowa Public Television’s excellent website about immigration into the state: “Many Danes settled in Audubon and Shelby County around the towns of Elk Horn and Kimballton. Today, more people of Danish ancestry live in this area than in any other rural community outside of Denmark.” Kimballton even has a replica of The Little Mermaid in the middle of a fountain.

The Danish Museum in Elk Horn has a permanent exhibition called Across Oceans, Across Time, and has the wording of the panels from the exhibition online here. According to the exhibition: “Most Danish immigrants farmed, and in the 1880's they settled the Midwest in large numbers. They were drawn there because the Prairies and Plains had great agricultural potential and the railroads offered large tracts of land for sale. Once settled, Danish immigrant farmers in this area generally raised cattle, hogs, and some sheep, with supplemental poultry and crops.”

In keeping with the Christmas theme of this post, you might like to visit the Danish advent calendar at which is also linked to from the museum’s website. You click on the numbered hearts across the top to enter each day. The one numbered 23 has links to a bunch of different renditions of Silent Night to get you in the mood for Christmas!

Today, of course, Iowa—like the other Prairie and Plains states—is known primarily for its monoculture in the agricultural sense of the word. A publication by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, entitled IOWA—Portrait of the Land, includes a chapter about changes that followed the June 1, 1833, opening up to pioneers of the 6-million-acre Black Hawk Purchase along the west side of the Mississippi River. By 1846, when Iowa became a state, census records listed 96,088 people.

The two maps on this webpage, comparing 1850s land cover and the same in the 1990s, show the almost complete conversion of diverse prairie into cropland.

Another interesting map relating to Iowa is the one that was hand drawn in 1837, and which has been described as “no less than an illustrated history of the Ioway people between 1600 and 1837.” It was taken to Washington, DC, to assert Ioway claim over land that another tribe wanted to cede to the US Government. The Ioway (a name given them by other tribes; in their own language they were called Ba’xoje) had already sold land to the US in 1824 in order to survive. The tribe’s story is told in a 2006 documentary called Lost Nation: The Ioway, which was released on DVD in 2008.



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