Devil’s Lake CCC Camp–Postcript

February 28, 2012

Last summer the History Press published a wonderful book by author Robert J. Moore entitled Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. It recounts the story of the CCC’s role in shaping the Devil’s Lake State Park we know today.

Men lined up for mealtime at the CCC Camp at Devils Lake State Park. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

The CCC moved out of Devil’s Lake in 1941, but the story of the camp didn’t end when the conservation corpsmen left. Less than a year later, in February 1942, the United States Army and its lead contractors, began work on what is now known as the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, just over the fence from the park.

In May 1942, more than 5,500 construction workers were swarming over the Sauk Prairie in a construction blitz to get the “powder plant” underway as soon as possible. During the peak construction month of August, more than 12,000 men were pouring concrete, laying pipe, and raising studs at Badger.

All those workers had to be fed and the small towns nearby were hardly capable of putting the necessary grub on the table. Hercules then hired a industrial food supplier and the Army reopened the kitchen at the CCC camp. Soon 1,200 meals a day were prepared at Devil’s Lake and trucked to “canteens” on the site.

The construction blitz slowed as summer turned to fall and new kitchen facilities were completed at Badger, so the CCC kitchen was again closed. The entire camp—kitchen, barracks, rec hall, offices—was shuttered even though the thousands of workers who arrived to build and operate Badger had created a housing crisis that saw some of them sleeping in remodeled chicken coops, or sharing “hot beds” that one worker slept in while another was at work.

Housing was scarce even though the plant suffered from a chronic shortage of workers that peaked in the summer of 1944. Workers were in demand to build a new rocket powder facility and meet increased demands for chemicals and smokeless powder due to the D-Day invasion of Europe and stepped up offensive action in the Pacific.

Earlier in the war, vegetable producers in Wisconsin and other states had contracted with workers from the British Caribbean colonies of Jamaica and Barbadoes. When the harvest season ended in September 1944, Hercules Powder hired over two hundred Caribbean men working in Illinois and also another 120-some directly from Jamaica.

The federal government classified these dark-skinned men of mixed-racial heritage as “Negroes” and required that they be segregated from whites when in federal service. Powder plant workers were in federal service. They had to be segregated from whites just as black soldiers, sailors and airmen serving their country could not share quarters or serve in mixed units with their white counterparts.

So even though, space was available in the Badger Village housing unit across Highway 12 from the plant, the Caribbean workers were isolated in the CCC barracks at Devil’s Lake. About two hundred of them stayed over the winter of 1944-45 and into the summer of 1945. Of necessity, they worked in mixed-race crews at the plant, but they were bused back to Devil’s Lake at the end of their shifts.

The CCC camp at Devil’s Lake tells a story of how the United States attempted to cope with the most serious economic crisis it had yet to face. It also tells the story of how the United States struggled with a racial question it was not yet willing to face.

–Michael Goc


Age, Relevance, and the World of Music

February 23, 2012

Ten years ago I went to see two of my idols in concert, Billy Joel and Elton John. It was an amazing concert; live music for four hours straight. I grew up with these guys. Sang my heart out with them in my bedroom as a child and teenager and then forced my own children to endure my renditions in the car during their own childhood and teenage years. The joke in my family being that to join in you don’t have to sing well, just loud. I’m always the first to join in and I’m usually the loudest even when I don’t know all the words. My reason for going to see this duo was simply because I had never heard them in person. You can’t pass up on an opportunity when it crosses your doorstep.

But since that concert in St. Paul a decade ago, I have not waited for my idols from years gone by toImage cross my path. Instead, I find myself actively seeking them out. I managed tickets to Eric Clapton in the cheap seats/nosebleed section. I spent all my birthday money on seeing Cher in Las Vegas. I traveled to Chicago to hear James Taylor and Carole King and would have traveled around the US for their entire tour if I was independently wealthy. This past November I really scored with tickets to Paul Simon at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. Even though I called in one minute prior to the tickets going on sale all that was left was the next to last row in the balcony section. Didn’t matter, I was there. And then last night, I sat truly at the edge of the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and heard Doc Severinsen.

As I was driving down to the cities last night, I found myself wondering why. Why this obsession over the past several years with “older” musicians? Yes some of them were childhood idols. They got me Imagethrough difficult times. But not all of them were idols, some of them had just sprinkled my younger days. I am almost embarrassed to admit it but I was not a musical junkie in my youth. My sister had crates full of albums. The music played nonstop for what seemed like days on end. I on the other hand had just a few – Sony and Cher, Bobby Sherman, Barry Manilow, Supertramp, Bread and I think Jim Croce – oops I can’t forget Cat Stevens. I know, it’s a very sad list indeed. So I guess the question again is why? Why the time and effort? Easy, because it’s worth it. Because in addition to hearing great music I learn something new every time.

So here is the list of what I’ve learned.

1. From Cher: Cher might not be able to dance in 6 inch heels in her 60s but she can still strut. And she does it so well. Why then do so many of us stop? Stop strutting, stop being a little outrageous. Maturity should not have to equal boring.

2. From James Taylor and Carole King: Songs that brought us to tears three decades ago cause the same reaction now. Why? Because although the years have gone past and our bodies have matured, our souls are still the same. As a patient said to me one day in the ER, “My body is 70 years old but inside I’m 20 or 30. How come no one can see that?” Perhaps we need to spend more time looking at a person’s soul and less time looking at their body.

3. From Paul Simon:  My teacher, Randy Sabien, was right all those years ago when he tried to drum into my head that rhythm is where the magic lies. Paul Simon is the master, a genius when it comes to rhythm. He could have a melody that consisted of one note and the song would still rock. At 70 there isn’t anyone better, not the rappers, not the hip hop artists. If he continued to evolve and improve into his 70s, why do so many of us feel we have peaked in our 40s or 50s? There is so much more to do.


The view from my seat

4. From Doc Severinsen: I grew up hearing Doc Severinsen on Johnny Carson. What a great duo that was. The concert last night was wonderful, Doc and a 15 piece band (5 saxophones, 3 trombones, 4 trumpets, 1 double bass, 1 drummer, and 1 pianist.) As my friend said, “What happened to that music? Why did it ever go away?” I had no answer for it. I would have thought that a brass band that large in a small club would have ruined my hearing for weeks but no the volume was perfect and the jazz sweet. I should also mention that Doc had a vocalist with him, Vanessa Smith, from Kansas and the amazing Ernie Watts on tenor saxophone. Here however are the interesting parts. 1) The concert started a little late. 2) After they finished the number “King Porter”, Doc Severinsen wasn’t happy with it so they played it all again. As he said, “You got to get back on that horse right away boys.” 3) There was no encore after the last number. The audience was hoping for it and working the final applause to insure it. The band stayed on stage expecting it to happen. But, Doc Severinsen wasn’t coming back out. Truth is age does have its privilege and at 84 you get to call the shots, all of them.

I suppose the truth is I go to these concerts to remind myself that despite the fact that the magical age of 50 is coming down the pike, my age should not dictate who I am, what I am capable of doing, or the height of my  newest pair of shoes. I am way too young to limit myself at this point.

Oh, if you are wondering. I still have Glen Campbell at the Big Top Chautauqua in June,  Neil Diamond in St. Paul this July and if Tom Jones ever comes this way, I am so there. I’m definitely not averse to a road trip.

–Dayle Quigley


Houdini and Wisconsin

February 16, 2012

The magician Harry Houdini continues to be an important figure in America’s cultural pantheon, though he died nearly 86 years ago. Hungarian by birth, he often claimed Appleton, Wisconsin, as his hometown since he lived there as a boy.

A new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates Houdini as an American icon. “Houdini: Art & Magic” includes work by contemporary artists as well as historical photos, ephemera, films, objects, and much more. I’ve made one quick visit to the gallery and will be sure to return.

Harry Houdini

A pubilcity photo of Harry Houdini from 1922. Wisconsin Historical Society ID 83261

A paragraph on a text panel early in the exhibition explains that Ehrich Weiss (or Weisz) arrived in Appleton in 1878. Though he often said he was born in Appleton, Houdini was actually born in Budapest and came to Wisconsin with his family when his father took a position as rabbi at a small congregation. Four years later the family moved to Milwaukee and not long thereafter to New York City.

Appleton celebrates its connection to Houdini with an elementary school that bears his name. Appleton’s History Museum at the Castle has an ongoing exhibition about the famous escape artist and a virtual exhibit on the Web.

For much more about Houdini and Wisconsin, it’s worth reading an article from the The Wisconsin Magazine of History (Spring 2002). “The Bonds He Did Not Break” gives a thorough overview of the magician’s ongoing relationship with Wisconsin as a young boy and as a celebrated performer.

The exhibition “Houdini: Art & Magic” was organized by the Jewish Museum in New York and is making its only Midwestern stop in Madison. Isthmus, Madison’s weekly newspaper, has a review of the exhibition by Jennifer A. Smith, former project director of


The Ghosts of Sinipee

February 7, 2012

Hunting for ghost towns this time of year will give you the shivers in more ways than one.  And I know of an example in Grant County where you can earn an extra shriek if you find the lonely cemetery that harbors the victims of a long ago disaster.

Sinipee was built as a point of budding commerce in the Wisconsin territory.  The crescendo of lead production convinced a group of Mineral Point investors that money could be had if they constructed a port through which they could ship ore and bring in supplies.  Dubuque was only four miles downriver but it was on the wrong side.

The investors formed the Louisiana Company and selected an area a few miles north of Dubuque on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi where a creek empties into the mighty river.  They paid a rich sum for the land with the stipulation that the landowner build a splendid hotel, and hired a man named John Plumbe to manage the venture.

The village and port prospered.  A constant stream of barges arrived from St. Louis to carry lead.  Sometimes five steamships would be moored at the dock.  One source stated that there were 25 commercial buildings in the village and another suggested the population reached a high of 1,000 residents.

The grand hotel at Sinipee, years after the town had been abandoned

The hotel was a two-story showplace made of stone with a large room upstairs for gatherings.  It was built at the base of big bluff and water from a spring that flowed from the rock would travel right under the hotel.

Folks from all around and miles away came for fun and recreation.  One story has it that two American presidents visited Sinipee.  Both Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis were stationed with the garrison at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien to the north. (Granted, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States, not United States of America.)

Developer John Plumbe was a visionary with a grand plan that the United States build a railroad across the nation to join the east and west coasts.  He worked hard at his proposition and one evening – with a group assembled in the hotel – drafted a petition to the U.S Congress to start with a link between Milwaukee and Sinipee.  Although the idea was well received in Washington D.C., the venture never got off the ground.  But the seeds of a transcontinental railroad were sown.

Sometime around 1839 Sinipee was struck by a monumental tragedy.  Melting snow and spring rains had caused the Mississippi to flood.  The waters quickly receded but left shallow pools of stagnant water, perfect breeding areas for mosquitoes.  Soon villagers faced an outbreak of malaria that spread rapidly, infecting almost everyone and killing many.  Those who survived fled the town.

By the beginning of 1840 all but two families had abandoned Sinipee. Theodore Rodolf, a member of the Louisiana Company, returned to Sinipee and wrote this haunting account:

“When we finally rode down the ravine to the Mississippi River, and the bankrupted city burst upon our view, a singular sensation took hold of me. The buildings were all new, showing no sign of decay or deterioration by usage or the weather, having stood there but a little over a year. I expected momentarily to see the occupants come out to bid us welcome. There, was, however, not a living being to be seen or heard … I think not even a bird gave life to the desolation. The quiet of a church-yard reigned. The houses, all painted white, seemed to loom up as monuments of departed greatness.”

This bank note was most likely issued a little after the demise of Sinipee. It does give credibility to the old story of future presidents visiting the village: If you look closely this note was issued to a J. Davis, most likely Jefferson Davis, eventual President of the Confederacy who was stationed at the garrison in Prairie du Chien

Today, there isn’t much left.  It is an uncommonly isolated and quiet spot.  Much of the old village is now underwater, a result of permanent flooding caused by the construction of Lock and Dam #11 in 1934.  In a 2001 article Clifford Krainik called it “Atlantis on the Mississippi”.

But there is plenty to explore, and almost everything worth seeing is on public land.  Now called the Fenley Recreation Area and managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the site was willed to the state by descendents of Payton Vaughn, the guy who sold the land for the village and built the hotel.   Almost anyone who knows about the place goes there to fish, but you can go to explore.

In the spring before things start to get green you can see indentations along the path to the river where homes and businesses used to be.  A little farther along that same trail you’ll meet the railroad tracks and you can venture north a few yards to the site of the old hotel.

If you’re really adventurous you can head a bit farther north to look for a crevice in the bluff, where it is said an image of the Virgin Mary was found in the rock.  Stories have it that thousands of people came to view the image and locals finally placed bars over the niche to protect it.  I haven’t found that yet.

The most stunning remainder of Sinipee is the all-but-lost cemetery, a lonely sentinel perched atop the bluff over five hundred feet above the location of the village.  It is said that there are 60-70 graves up there but only a few are marked.  The walk up the bluff trail is super. I have macabre visions of funeral processions from the village below up the steep bluff trail – it’s quite a haul.  The view from the top is extraordinary.  If I was going to be dead someplace this would be a good choice, as long as I wasn’t keen on having many visitors.

I like to come here in the spring and fall, when the air has a nip to it and the bugs are gone.  The hike keeps you warm against the cool air.  When I last visited I sensed that those in the graves appreciated my presence.  I got chills thinking that the ghosts of Sinipee knew I had returned.  Visit Wisconsin’s Atlantis on the Mississippi and introduce yourself to them.  Now you know their story.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

Lost and Found

February 6, 2012
Kurt Vonnegut UW Madison 2003

Author Kurt Vonnegut speaks in the Wisconsin Union Theater as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate's 2003-04 Distinguished Lecture Series. Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.

“If you want your child to be a writer, go bankrupt.”

The theme of the upcoming 2012 Wisconsin Book Festival is “Lost and Found.”  Every year the Wisconsin Book Festival accepts and encourages submissions from writers around the state and the country who would like to present at the annual fest in Madison. Publishers and groups can also submit ideas for authors and events. This year’s Festival is November 7-11.   It is a gathering for creative and passionate voices working and writing today in all genres. The deadline for submissions is March 30, 2012.

I’ve been thinking about writers lately. I’ve been on a kick since I saw “Midnight In Paris,” written and directed by Woody Allen. The main character of the film is quite lost. He then finds his courage and voice by interacting with the “lost generation” of writers living in Paris in the 1920s. It’s a humanities movie, in a fun way!

According to an article by David Kipen in the latest issue of the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, losing a fortune is one formula for raising kids who are writers. He cites various examples of well-known authors who had that experience (like Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck) and went on to make their mark in American literature.

Davy Rothbart at the Wisconsin Book Festival 2007

Davy Rothbart, founder of “Found” Magazine, at a Wisconsin Book Festival event in 2007. Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.

In Paris or in a daydream, we wander and get lost. We lose a penny, or a fortune. We find hope. We find treasures.

What does the “Lost and Found” bring to mind for you?

Mark your calendars for November 7-11, 2012! Visit

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council