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Camp Au Train POW, CCC artifacts studied by team

Volunteers excavate one of the trash pits at Camp Au Train near Munising. Over 29,000 artifacts were found in the various pits used by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Prisoner of War occupants. Artifacts recovered from the pits included alcohol and condiment containers, soda caps, remnants of personal hygiene products, food cans, tobacco products and more. (Photo courtesy of LouAnn Wurst)

MARQUETTE — You may have walked along the lakeshore, went lighthouse hunting or hiked within the Hiawatha National Forest, but also tucked within the depths of the trees lies the remnants of what was once a Civilian Conservation Corps and Prisoner of War Camp.

Camp Au Train, located just southwest of Munising, was just one of five POW camps in the Upper Peninsula during World War II.

In a virtual presentation hosted by the Marquette Regional History Center, Dr. LouAnn Wurst, a professor of archaeology at Michigan Tech University, discussed the archaeology of Camp Au Train.

Wurst first started her fieldwork at the camp with a team from MTU in the spring of 2018 with its research focused on the site’s two former purposes.

Camp Au Train was established on June 10, 1935, and was one of many CCC camps throughout the nation, providing conservation-centered work for American men between the ages of 18 and 25. The CCC was a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and was geared toward handling the labor crisis during the Great Depression, Wurst explained.

Enrollees moved to the camp in July 1935 and lived in tents while they built the barracks. Day-to-day work included erosion control, wildlife management, planting trees and more. Workers were paid $30 a month for their labor, $25 of which was sent home to their family. Roughly 200 men occupied the CCC. The camp officially closed June 30, 1941.

Labor shortages in the U.S. continued during WWII as able-bodied men went off to war and POWs became a way to handle the shortages, Wurst said.

The first POWs were brought to Camp Au Train in February 1944. Most were Germans who were captured in North Africa. The men were considered volunteers and paid just 80 cents a day for their labor. All of the pay was in canteen script, which could only be used at the on-site store.

“The argument there is quite obvious, if a POW had a lot of cash in his pocket, then they were a flight risk, they’d have options if they escaped,” Wurst said. “If the only thing they had in their pocket was a handful of canteen script, you can’t get very far with that.”

Work at all the POW camps in Michigan was largely agriculture-based, including the work of the men at Camp Au Train, who performed timber work.

While Armistice Day was in August 1945, POWs stayed almost a year after the war ended. Camp Au Train was officially deactivated in March 1946 and a public auction for the buildings left at the camp was held the following October.

Wurst’s 2018 fieldwork at the former camp included a walkover of the site, a mapping of its features and the excavation of trash pits used by the men who once occupied the camps.

“Some of the questions that I find are really interesting to think about is: Why is the same space, the same place, seen as being appropriate for such disparate people with such varied goals? Why is it this one place is seen as being an appropriate way to confine prisoners and to house our own young male citizens? So that’s one thing we’ve been thinking a lot about. And then the archaeological question, or how this plays out in terms of the material culture is, what are the similarities and differences in the everyday life of both of these groups?” Wurst said.

The team searched for general patterns within the materials they excavated to find out more about the everyday lives of both groups and the similarities and differences between the two. Over 29,000 artifacts were found, Wurst said.

As the team excavated two different waste streams, they found a variety of items like auto parts, alcohol-related artifacts, tobacco tins and more. Food cans made up 48% of the artifacts found. Some of the differences noted between the streams were:

≤ The POW streams had many more milk bottles than the CCC as well as more condiment bottles.

“A lot of condiment bottles, 29 condiment bottles for the POW compared to two for the CCC and 23 of those were mustard. I’m not sure how significant it is to conclude that Germans like mustard but it sure looked like that from our data,” Wurst added.

≤ There was a noticeable difference in the meats consumed by the groups as POWs ate more pork and almost no chicken, while the CCC ate a much higher percentage of chicken. The animal bones found led Wurst to the conclusion that there was significant difference in the meat served and POWs only received a certain percentage based on their numbers.

≤ While not many soda bottles were found on the site, because they could be returned at that time, there were many soda caps that could identify the brand and flavor of the soda drank by the men.

“I never thought I would do an archaeological analysis of soda flavors but we found so many we were able to identify many of these caps. We actually looked at them by flavor and one of the things I find really interesting is during the CCC there was a whole lot more diversity of flavor,” Wurst said. “The POWs seemed to gravitate toward only a few, in particular, cola, ginger ale, orange and a few outliers. You can think about this as all of those other flavors are those super sweet sodas where ginger ale tends not to be so sweet. Although there’s a preference for orange across the board.”

≤ One of the biggest differences noted, she said, were related to alcohol. The number of wine bottles was similar between the two groups, but the CCC drank more liquor. Overall, the CCC had more variety in their options of sodas, beer and tobacco brands.

≤ Candy wrappers were among the trash found in both streams, though POWs consumed much more candy.

≤ Wurst also concluded that there was more emphasis on hygiene for the POWs as more razors, hair oils and related artifacts were found in their waste stream.

Another Passport In Time program, which brought volunteers to Camp Au Train for the archaeological work, is scheduled for the summer of 2021 and may continue at Camp Au Train or be conducted at nearby Camp Evelyn. A few MTU students are also focusing their thesis projects on the findings of the camp. Topics include issues of labor and masculinity for the CCC contexts; sanitation, refuse and waste streams; and military provisioning and supply, Wurst said.

The Marquette Regional History Center was glad to still be able to provide Wurst’s presentation as it was originally scheduled to be held in person, but was changed to online due to COVID-19, explained Betsy Rutz, museum educator for the MRHC.

Rutz hopes the nearly 70 attendees who attended the presentation learned more about archaeology and area history.

“We’re doing what we can as a nonprofit to continue having relative and exciting programming. And of course, I do hope that the patrons who were interested in watching the program were able to learn something about how POW camps function and how CCC functioned here in the Upper Peninsula and how that had an impact on our region,” Rutz said. “Also how archaeology itself is not just the study of ancient history but it’s really recent history. The industrial archaeology program at Tech is so incredible because they’re really looking at stuff throughout the last century and how people lived and worked and that’s kind of a newer, different field of archaeology for people.”

As in-person gatherings continue to be canceled and postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, the MRHC plans to adapt its programming for the public.

“As a museum, it’s very sad and difficult for us to be closed and in-person programs are like the meat of our existence and having people go through the museum, so we definitely want to get back to in-person programs. But we’re going to move with the times and do whatever we need to do to keep people safe and healthy, so we will be having more virtual programs,” Rutz said. “We’re also looking at having in-person programs that are also simultaneously virtual so you can stay home to watch as opposed to coming to the museum if you don’t feel comfortable being in groups throughout the summer, for instance.”

For more information on programs offered by the MRHC visit www.marquettehistory.org.

Trinity Carey can be reached at tcarey@miningjournal.net.

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