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

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The Other UW: John Muir’s University of the Wilderness

April 6, 2011

John Muir National Monument, Marin County, Calif.

Whenever I leave the state, it seems I take a little Wisconsin with me–and a brief trip to San Francisco last month was no exception.

Besides enjoying the more popular Bay Area tourist spots, my family and I spent a day hiking through Muir Woods National Monument. These woods, just a short drive north of San Francisco–past expensive homes and enticing overlooks on Marin County’s winding roads–contain one of the region’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood trees. They’re named for famed American naturalist John Muir.

Americans refer to Muir as the “Father of the National Parks,” and Californians claim him as champion of Sequoia National Park and other wild West Coast places. But as Wisconsinites know, John Muir also had strong Wisconsin ties.

In 1848, the Scottish-born Muir immigrated with his family to Marquette County, Wisconsin, where he grew up from age 11 on. His engaging memoir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (which you can read online at Project Gutenberg), describes early experiences with coons and snakes, shrikes and stumps, glacial lakes, Wisconsin winters and hard prairie living–all of which had certain impact on his later activism. In fact, Wisconsin authors Kathleen McGwin and Daryl Christensen have written a book called Muir is Still Here about these early influences.

John Muir. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Muir eventually left his family home at Fountain Lake Farm to study geology and botany at UW-Madison, but he never graduated. The last lines of My Boyhood and Youthrecount his wistful farewell to campus. “I was only leaving one university for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness,” he wrote. From then on, he left his gentle footprint all over North America, wandering the U.S., Canada, Panama and Cuba, and eventually winding up in California.

While I’m grateful to Muir for my memorable day in the California woods, I’m also grateful to philanthropists William and Elizabeth Kent. They donated the property then known as Muir Woods to the federal government in 1907, at which time President Theodore Roosevelt suggested renaming the place Kent Monument. In a charming exchange of letters, William Kent declined the tribute. He explained:

I have five good, husky boys that I am trying to bring up to a knowledge of democracy and to a realizing sense of rights of the “other fellow,” doctrines which you, sir, have taught with more vigor and effect than any man in my time. If these boys cannot keep the Kent name alive, I am willing it should be forgotten.

At the Muir Woods National Monument Visitor Center: a shelf-full of books on Muir.

For his part, on learning that the monument would retain his name, Muir expressed gratitude. “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world,” he wrote.

Muir would be so honored many times, with parks, trails and schools (and apparently even a minor planet) bearing his name. Wisconsin alone has John Muir Park in Green Bay; John Muir Drive in Middleton; John Muir View in Poynette; and of course, the family’s homestead site in Marquette County, Muir Memorial Park. I’m sure there are others.

In California, along a section of boardwalk at Muir Woods National Monument, we came across a new mom pushing her sleeping infant in a stroller. While stopping to admire the baby, I  wondered if the long shadow of the sequoia would imprint her newly born subconscious. How will the rush of Redwood Creek and the cool cyprus-scented air shape her development? Perhaps this nursery school of the wilderness is how the likes of John Muir are formed.

***

If you’d like to learn more about Muir or the National Park System, watch these two excellent videos: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and National Parks: Wisconsin. Also, read Kathleen McGwyn’s day trip tour of Marquette County on Portal Wisconsin. Then, hit the trails!

–Tammy Kempfert

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Teens view their world ‘In a New Light’

January 14, 2011

My Mother's Teardrop. Photo: Dakota, age 14.

By Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org

“If you think about it, a lot of successful artists had troubled youths,” said Ben Thwaits of Spooner. He teaches at Northwest Passage, a residential mental health treatment center for teenagers. Last week, we talked by phone about an inspiring youth project he developed with his wife Branda, a National Park Service Ranger.

Funded by an America’s Best Idea grant,  “In a New Light” connects boys enrolled at Northwest Passage to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway through photography. The project relies on the combined powers of art and nature to help restore a sense of dignity and wholeness to troubled teens’ lives.

Thwaits told me that a student who winds up in his all-male class may have faced any number of roadblocks to a healthy childhood—problems like substance abuse, harmful relationships or developmental disorders. Some have had truancy issues and haven’t attended school for years. But along the St. Croix River and behind the camera lens, Thwaits’ students thrive. When I asked why, he surmised:

Photography involves the quest to find the emotional essence of a subject, and it can take photographers a long time to get into that way of thinking. But whatever their challenges, a lot of these boys are truly emotionally brilliant, and they have so much pent-up emotional energy. They operate on gut instincts and often make emotion-based decisions. This project gives them an outlet for their emotional, expressive, creative sides.

A video filmed for the project by Black Ice Productions shows a few of the boys in action:

A nature-based treatment facility, Northwest Passage takes advantage of its close proximity to the St. Croix Riverway to administer its programming. However, the program traditionally has used the adventure model—hiking, canoeing, camping—to incorporate nature into its curricula. “In a New Light” approaches nature therapy from a new angle, so to speak. According to Thwaits:

With this project, we’re really immersing ourselves in this beautiful and wild place in a quiet and introspective manner … I could almost see the boys’ brains slowing down; I could see them focusing. These are some of the most severe cases of ADHD that you’ll see in a teenaged boy, and yet they’ll spend hours and hours on end looking at a bird, a flower or a frog.

The "In a New Light" exhibition is on view at Wisconsin's State Capitol Building through January 22. Photo: Ben Thwaits.

An exhibition of the students’ work has already traveled from St. Croix Falls to Wausau,  and is on view now through January 22 at the  State Capitol Rotunda in Madison. Each photograph includes commentary, or in some cases poetry, from the boys themselves.

Student photographers participated in artist receptions at two of the exhibitions, events that Thwaits called “magic, truly pivotal moments in the boys’ lives.” At one reception a student was overheard saying, “That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever gotten an adrenaline rush from doing something good.”

Thwaits  credits a whole community of partners with the project’s success. The Wisconsin Arts Board, Black Iris Gallery and Custom Framing, the previously mentioned Black Ice Outdoor Productions and others made significant contributions, he said.


Those unable to take in the exhibition in Madison will have two more opportunities: the show travels to Cable in February and returns again to Spooner in March. A project website also showcases the boys’ work. And below, one more example of a photograph you’ll find in the exhibition—this one from 16-year-old Chuck.

Just a Teenager 

I’m just a teenager.
A teenager tryin’ to make it.
A teenager tryin’ to get there.
A teenager tryin’ to move on.
A teenager tryin’ to break free.
I’m just a teenager
that doesn’t want to fall through the cracks.

–Chuck, age 16


Let’s Go to the Film Festival?

February 16, 2010

An article earlier this month in the New York Times about the Sundance Film Festival, held annually in January, and about film festivals in general asked: Are they still necessary?

I think it’s a valid question, though I certainly hope the answer is yes. Or that they are at least still considered a pleasant and worthwhile way to spend a weekend. I am coordinating four film festivals this March and April here in Wisconsin.

Ghostbird film still

"Ghostbird," the movie, will screen at three of the Making it Home Film Festivals. See film information on the Making it Home Film Festival Website at http://www.MakingWisconsinHome.org.

The festivals are called Making it Home, and they each will use a variety of films, from Wisconsin and around the world, to explore the many ways people and place affect one another. The first festival opens during Aldo Leopold days and the fourth and final festival takes place during the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The environmental themes of the Making it Home Film Festivals make it especially important to ask out loud: Should we all save the carbon output by staying home and ordering up movies on Netflix?

The Wisconsin Humanities Council strives to support strong communities with public programs that encourage the use of history, culture, and conversation. We understand that films are powerfully good at telling stories and giving people something to talk about. We also figured that communities around the state would enjoy seeing free films and that, considering the strong tradition of caring deeply about the Wisconsin landscape and its natural resources, Wisconsinites would be eager to see some of the latest, most exciting new films from filmmakers around the world.

Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, which includes the annual festival and the Sundance Channel on cable, chooses to embrace technologies that allow people greater access to non-hollywood films. “Opening new vistas,” he is quoted as saying to describe his approach to the broad distribution of Sundance selections. He believes that the more access people have, the greater their overall appetite for independent film. The Making it Home Film Festivals draw from the Tales from Planet Earth Film Festival produced by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute in Madison.

Whats on your plate stars

The film "What's On Your Plate?" will screen at Making it Home Film Festivals, followed by family-friendly conversations about food! Film info at http://www.MakingWisconsinHome.org.

Ultimately, the goal and the appeal of film festivals like Making it Home and Sundance is to bring folks together to spend some time sitting still, in a darkened theater, to share the experience of a well-told story. Because when people gather, and feel moved or inspired, they are inclined to turn to one-another, friends and strangers, to talk.

The Making it Home Film Festivals, organized by the Wisconsin Humanities Council with local partners in Baraboo, Dodgeville, Milwaukee, and the Chequamegon Bay (Ashland/Bayfield), have been designed by and for those communities. Films were selected and events planned specifically to meet the interests of the people living in those regions, making the drive downtown to the main street theater worth the time (and energy). And while you can go to the Making it Home Website and watch trailers for some of the films, as well as short films made by Wisconsin filmmakers that will be interspersed throughout the festivals, I would agree with the Sundance fans: Attending a film festival is a life experience for which there is no substitute.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council.


The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Gone Fishin’

July 21, 2009

Work before play was the ethic of the Victorian era, but not everyone subscribed.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Take the fellow known to Ashland County historians only as  “Mr. Merrill of Prairie du Chien.” A few months after the first cars of the Wisconsin Central Railroad reached the Lake Superior shore in spring 1877,  he traveled halfway across the state to board  the train running north from Marshfield to Ashland.  At a spot in the forest yet to be disturbed by logger’s axe or farmer’s plow, but where the locomotive was obliged to stop, Merrill hopped off the train and headed down the trail running due west.

Leaves were already turning in the softening September light. Canoe birch to bright yellow, soft maple in the lowlands to scarlet, hard maple on the uplands to burnished gold. White pine needles stayed green but added a wintry caul of dusky blue.

After a trek of about five miles, Merrill reached his destination, Butternut Lake. One thousand acres of gravel bars and rice beds, rocky dropoffs and reedy shallows, all overlain with a flawless mirror of clear water capturing images of the sky.

He set to his task, but not to work. He laid no traps to extract beaver pelts,  chipped no rocks in search of copper or iron ore, appraised no trees for their content of lumber in board feet,  stretched no chains to mark forties for farms or town lots for sale, scooped up no soil to assess its capability for corn.

He went fishing. In waters yet to be sullied by logging slash or camp debris, or marred by farm runoff, wetland drainage or village trash.  All that and more would come to Butternut and thousands of other virgin lakes in the north, but not in 1877.

Only Merrill of Prairie du Chein, who did very well with his hook and line. The Ashland Press reported that he caught “eighty pounds of musky.”  He probably hooked as much or more of walleye, pike or perch, but even in 1877, the tiger fish of the north was the catch most coveted.  He lugged his haul out to the railroad, packed them in a barrel full of ice and shipped them home to Prairie du Chien where they enlivened the catfish-rich dinner tables of his family and friends.

“Time is the pool I go fishing in,” wrote another lake lover thirty years prior to Merrill’s expedition to Butternut Lake.  For Henry David Thoreau, how we use our time on this earth was the elemental question.

In September 1877, Merrill of Prairie du Chien fished in the pristine pool of Butternut Lake. His choice was well-timed. 1878 would have been too late.

 issued by the Land Department of the Wisconsin Central Railroad in order to promote the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin.

An advertisement issued by the Wisconsin Central Railroad promoting the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

–Michael Goc


Full Steam Ahead

June 22, 2009

If you’re  a teacher or you have a school-aged child, or maybe you’re just interested in education issues, you might have heard the acronym STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Emphasis on STEM careers and STEM education has garnered federal attention and support, and some educational reformers use the term as a rallying call for change within the American school system.  They say a knowledge-based economy such as ours needs a workforce skilled in these disciplines to prosper — employees with the curiosity, the analytical skills, the working knowledge of computers and other technologies that STEM coursework fosters. You can’t argue with that.

Yet recently I heard someone suggest a one-letter revision to the STEM acronym. By changing STEM to STEAM, we acknowledge the critical role arts learning plays in educating children to their fullest capacity.  In a creative economy — one grounded in innovation and problem-solving — the arts are integral to developing critical thinking skills and to sparking the human imagination.

Listening to Here on Earth on Wisconsin Public Radio last week, I heard a fantastic example of STEAM learning. Margaret Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring, the program’s guest, explains how hyperbolic geometry was discovered by 19th century mathematicians, but at that time “no one knew how to make models of it and had come to believe that you couldn’t make physical models of it” — not until Cornell University mathematics researcher Daina Taimina used her skills with the crochet needle to create one of the first models of hyperbolic space.

Professor Taimina, who learned needlework in her childhood in Latvia, began crocheting the models in 1997, and she’s been at it ever since. [Read more about Daina Tamina in “Knit Theory” from Discover Magazine.]

Crochet hyperbolic kelp. Photo: Institute for Figuring.

Crochet hyperbolic kelp. Photo: Institute for Figuring.

Building on Professor Taimina’s discovery, Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine noticed that, in coral reefs, nature makes its own models of hyperbolic space. And so the Australia natives began crocheting a coral reef hyperbolic model. Ultimately, they wound up spearheading a worldwide crocheted coral reef movement, involving tens of thousands of hours of accumulated labor and a model that fills a 3,000 square foot gallery space.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview with Dr. Wertheim:

The crochet reef project for us comes out of our combined interest in both theoretical ideas — math, science, logic, etc. — but also our love and deep engagement personally with the techniques of handmaking, and the commitment of physical labor, and physical time that it takes to do those things. It is whole body, whole mind, and I think in some sense, whole being.

It’s a project that resists our inclination to divide and classify. Instead, it invites further thought about relationships, not only about the relationships between geometry and fine craft but about conservation and what we traditionally regard women’s work.   Now, there’s an idea that has some steam.

To hear the full interview, visit Here on Earth‘s audio archives and select the June 17, 2009 program.  And for more stories on the relationships between science and art, browse NPR’s Morning Edition series “Where Science Meets Art.”

–Tammy Kempfert