The history left behind at U.P. Prisoner of War camps

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UPPER PENINSULA — Yesterday, we told you about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps turned Prisoner of War camps in the Upper Peninsula. Today, we will explore the history that can still be found at the camps.

Dr. LouAnn Wurst is a professor in the Industrial Heritage and Archaeology Program at Michigan Technological University. She works a lot within the Hiawatha National Forest, specifically on the impacts of looting at historical sites and on labor in the U.P.

“One day we were out and visited Camp AuTrain and it’s been heavily looted so there’s been a lot of digging at the site. We decided that it was a great place to start working on some of those issues,” explains Wurst.

Last October, Wurst took a group of Graduate students to Camp AuTrain in Alger County and found an area of uneven land near what was once the mess hall. They begin to dig…

“And ended up…ended up bringing back so many artifacts, it’s unbelievable,” adds Wurst.

They discovered two ‘trash pits’ filled with items. So what were some of the things found at the camp? Wurst says a lot of tin cans, lightbulbs, and bottle caps; even some dishware and beer cans.”

“One of the things that we did find was a litte toy truck and so there’s…you know, somebody thought that was important enough to bring with them,” says Wurst.

Even some artifacts were found that proved the camps had an entertaining side.

“Quite a few ping pong balls,” says Wurst, “…It’s an early celluloid ping pong ball and we have quite a few that are broken. But all the records indicate, you know, the recreational hall they had ping pong and they had outdoor sports.”

While the artifacts clearly date back to the 1930s-1940s, one of the difficulties is identifying whether it’s CCC or POW camp items. The Civilian Conservation Corps occupied the same camp just a couple of years before the POWs. Both groups were run by the United States Army meaning the artifacts could be from either group.

Wurst explains, “Because it’s such a short period of time, we don’t really know. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to look through the kinds of artifacts we find to see if it’s possible to associate it with one or the other.”

Wurst believes that artifacts are able to tell the true history of historical sites, such as the CCC or POW camps. They are able to know what kind of plates were used, what the prisoners would drink and eat, etc.

Dr. Wurst and her students plan on returning to Camp AuTrain this summer to continue their research. 

If you are interested in hearing more about their findings, the Marquette Regional History Center will be hosting Dr. Wurst on May 22 at 6:30pm where you can learn more about the Camp AuTrain project. There is a suggested $5 donation.

To learn more about the history of the CCC/POW camps in the Upper Peninsula, click here.

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