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.
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.