Brownie Wise: The Life of the Tupperware Party

B20Those of you who join me at the Campfire Chronicle with any regularity know there is a general theme around here. Western. I love all things Western. Sometimes a story doesn’t quite fit into the Western mold, but I still find myself unable to resist telling you about it. This is one of those times. So, go ahead and tie up your horses because you won’t be needing them for the next few minutes. Today, I’m going to tell you about a lady named Brownie Wise, a mid-century housewife who became the indomitable force behind one of the most successful marketing programs in American history: The Tupperware Party. So, kick off your boots and untie your bandanna ’cause this story calls for kitten heels and a strand of pearls!

Tupperware Unsealed

B13Prior to getting into the meat of this story, we need to start with the first course—the invention of Tupperware. Before Earl Tupper, businessman and inventor of Tupperware, made good in the 1940s, he fell flat on his face. He had the kind of lean times that make a success story so compelling. When his landscaping and nursery business went belly up during the Great Depression, he filed for bankruptcy. The would-be inventor eventually landed a job with DuPont Chemical Company. He spent his time learning his way around plastics.

B1aTupper’s supervisor at DuPont gave him pieces of rigid, polyethylene slag, The slag, which was a waste product of the oil refining process, could have gone by another name—trash! Like a boy with a chemistry set, the industrious Tupper experimented with purifying the slag and molding it into non-breakable, plastic creations. In 1938, he founded Tupperware Plastics Company, where he molded cups, plates, bowls and containers. He even molded gas masks for WWII.

B18After the war, there wasn’t a big market for gas masks, but Tupper felt certain that housewives could use his kitchen goods. The goods weren’t quite ready, though. He wanted something that would make the women of America flip their lids. But what could that something be? Lids! He needed to make lids! He molded airtight, liquid-proof, burp when you seal them lids! I’m not sure if Tupper was an evil genius or not, but it is an indisputable scientific fact that Tupperware lids mysteriously disappear from kitchen cabinets, thereby practically guaranteeing continued sales. Mwah-ha-ha!

The Life of the Tupperware Party

In 1946, Tupperware hit the shelves of hardware and department stores. Yet, shockingly, in the beginning, those plastic bowls with lids did not sell themselves. As basic as it sounds, housewives didn’t understand why they might need bowls with lids. They didn’t understand the beauty of being able to seal your food, stick it back in the fridge and throw it away on another day! (Or maybe that’s just me.)

B3This is where Brownie Wise entered the picture. Besides having a name that sounded like she should be involved in a food storage company, Wise had other unique qualifications, which made her the perfect person to get Tupperware off the shelves and into homes across America. Wise was already selling cleaning aids and brushes for Stanley Home Products, at in-home party demonstrations. She was a divorced mother with an eighth grade education, and she had drive. She also had more than a smidgen of marketing genius and she understood the needs of homemakers. When she saw Tupperware, she began purchasing the products through her local distributors. Then she sold it along with the merchandise from Stanley Home Products.

B10Wise’s demonstrations made all the difference. It was a fresh idea and women were helpless to resist those burping airtight lids and unbreakable bowls! Wise sold so much Tupperware that she stopped selling Stanley Home Products and began recruiting other people to sell Tupperware. In 1950, Wise moved to Florida and began a business she called Tupperware Patio Parties. The Tupperware Patio Parties with their camaraderie and burpable lid demonstrations were selling far more Tupperware than the stale, old, store displays!

Party Line

B4Earl Tupper took notice. He had created his own home party division at Tupperware, but it was staler than week-old tater tot casserole covered in wrinkled, tin foil. Convinced that Brownie Wise had some magic ingredient, Tupper arranged for a meeting in 1951. He offered her the position of vice president of Tupperware and took the products off of store shelves.  From that point on, it was strictly party time for Tupperware.

Brownie Wise was, in fact, wise (and I hope to goodness she liked brownies). She realized that American women were in a vulnerable place. So many women had been given a taste of life beyond the kitchen, during WWII, only to have their jobs snatched away from them at war’s end. She knew that even the happiest of homemakers was often looking for a little independence and adventure.

Women’s Lib and Burping Lids

B12Becoming a Tupperware Lady meant that a typical housewife with a yearning for more could earn money and gain personal fulfillment without neglecting her family. An ad recruiting Tupperware Ladies asked, “Honestly, now… Haven’t you always wanted a career of your very own? Enter the wonderful world of carefree homemaking with Tupperware.”

B9Wise started Tupperware’s Jubilee, which was a four-day sales meeting on steroids. Tupperware’s Jubilee provided Tupperware Ladies a chance to break free from the everyday and enjoy entertainment, luxury prizes, and costumed theme nights. Wise’s philosophy was, “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.”

Women who weren’t interested in a career with Tupperware still enjoyed attending the parties. They snatched up those plastic bowls and Jell-O molds while playing games like, “Write an Honest Advert to Sell Your Husband.” It was a brave, new world!

Sour Grapes

In 1954, Brownie Wise had become the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week. America loved her! In 1957, she published Best Wishes, Brownie, in which she encouraged women to claim their wishes. Wise seemed to have everything she had ever wished for. But Tupper began to fear Wise’s celebrity status was becoming a distraction to the business of keeping food fresh. He fired her from the company in 1958. Wise went after Tupperware for $1.3 million in a wrongful termination suit, but eventually settled for a mere $30,000—approximately one year’s salary. Shortly after the settlement, Tupper sold the Tupperware Company to Rexall Drug Company for $16 million.

A 1960’s ad for Tupperware proclaimed, “Tupperware! Best thing that’s happened to women since they got the vote!” As hokey as that sounds, it may have been true. Tupperware parties paved the way for direct selling in cosmetic companies and other industries.  And we have Brownie Wise to thank for that.

I know that you will enjoy watching this short documentary film about Brownie!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

The Klondike Gold Rush: A Golden Anniversary

Blog1I love any reason to celebrate. Seriously, you come up with an occasion and I’ll be there with my fork poised to dig into some cake! Since August isn’t a big month for holidays, I’ve been going through cake withdrawal. Until now! I did a little research and learned that August marks a very special kind of Golden Anniversary. I’m not talking about the celebration of fifty years of marriage. I’m talking about the 119th anniversary of the date gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek, thereby starting the Klondike Gold Rush. If that doesn’t call for a cake, I don’t know what does!

The World’s Most Lucrative Rabbit Trail

Skookum Jim Mason (left), Dawson Charlie (center) and George Carmack
Skookum Jim Mason (left), Dawson Charlie (center) and George Carmack

On August 16, 1896, George Carmack, an American prospector, was traveling south of the Klondike River with his Tagish wife Kate, Kate’s brother, “Skookum Jim” Mason, and their nephew, Dawson Charlie. When fellow prospector, Robert Henderson, suggested they begin looking for gold on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike, they all were up for the adventure. It proved to be a very lucrative rabbit trail when one member of the group discovered gold. I don’t know who made the discovery, but George Carmack, as the only non-Indian, got the credit since there was a chance that mining authorities would refuse a claim made by an Indian.

Kate Carmack
Kate Carmack
Bonanza Creek
Bonanza Creek

Carmack and company measured off four claims and registered them on August 17.  Word spread and by the end of the month, every last claim on Bonanza Creek had been staked. One gold thirsty prospector ventured off the beaten path and found gold in another creek that branched off of Bonanza Creek. By this point, two things were obvious:  1) There was gold for the taking, and 2) there were plenty of takers!


Blog5The gold seekers in Canada and nearby Alaska were the first to stake their claims. Those gold hungry first responders worked all through the winter, arriving via dog sled, if necessary. But it took until the summer of 1897 for news to spread to California and other parts of the West. When prospectors from the Yukon arrived in San Francisco and Seattle with gold in tow, that set off a stampede of people headed in the opposite direction.

Blog6An estimated 100,000 people set out to make their fortunes. Not everyone arrived at their destination, of course, but they did leave home with visions of gold in them thar hills. About 40,000 men are said to have finally arrived at their destination. Which brings to question, “What in the Sam Hill happened to the other 60,000 people?” Most people probably never made it because Canadian Mounties required each person to bring an entire year’s worth of food and supplies with them. I can barely squeeze one month’s Costco purchases into my car. The thought of lugging a year’s worth of provisions all the way to the Yukon blows my modern mind. But I’m picturing them traveling by ship and overland toting gigantic packages of toilet paper, bags of organic spinach, and a couple of rotisserie chickens.

Blog7Whatever they brought with them and however they got there, most of the men who arrived faced the same thing: Disappointment. By the time the stampede rushed into the boomtown of Dawson City, the best claims had already been snagged. There was nothing for the men to do but dry their eyes on some of that toilet paper they brought in with them, eat some of their rotisserie chicken, and then turn around and go home!

Math Word Problems

Blog8To help put everything in perspective, here is the final stampede analysis in the form of a depressing math word problem:

Question: 100,000 men attempted to go to the Yukon to get rich. Of those, only 40,000 men arrived. Of those 40,000 men who arrived, only half were able to stake claims. Of the half who staked claims, only 4,000 men found any gold. Of the 4,000 men who found gold, a few hundred struck it rich. What were the odds of striking it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush if you were not already there before 1898?

Answer: Bad. The odds were very bad.

Keep in mind that I’m no math whiz. But I’m pretty sure that’s the right answer.

Treacherous Journey

Blog9All joking aside, the trip to the Yukon was a treacherous journey. It killed both man and beast. One of the saddest chapters of the Klondike Gold Rush is that of Dead Horse Gulch. Prospectors anxious to reach their destination overloaded and overworked their animals. Between the malnutrition, the beatings, and the rocky terrain, more than 3,000 animals died on the White Pass Trail. The bones of many still lay at the bottom of the gulch.

Blog10For the men, perhaps the most difficult stretch of the journey was the rugged Chilkoot Trail, which is a thirty-three mile trail through the Coast Mountain, with the last half mile extending almost straight up. An industrious group of entrepreneurs painstakingly worked to make the final half mile of the rugged Chilkoot Trail passable during the harsh Canadian winters. 1500 steps were carved into the ice, allowing the men to walk single file to the top of the trail. The miners who made it had to carry their thousands of pounds of gear, making trip after trip up this “golden staircase.” Meanwhile, the men who carved the stairs collected a toll from the travelers.

Golden Opportunity

Blog11You didn’t have to travel to Canada in order to cash in on the Klondike Gold Rush. Shrewd businessmen on the west coast made a fortune selling just about anything with the word “Klondike” on it. There were Klondike mining schools, Klondike electric gold pans, Klondike medicine chests, Klondike bicycles, and entire Klondike outfits could be purchased. You could even by a portable Klondike house to take with you.

Blog12In fact, people all along the way were making money on the would-be gold hunters. In Canada, roadhouses popped up. It was like the original Airbnb. If you had a tent, you could pitch it, and rent it out to a weary traveler for the night. Structures sprung up overnight, promising miners protection for the elements and a hot meal.

They Worked Hard For the Money

Blog13Whether they struck it rich or not the Klondike prospectors worked hard for their money. We’re not talking about some mamby-pamby panning for gold (although some panning did take place). For the most part, men were mining deep underground. The frozen ground was so hard that a dynamite blast wasn’t strong enough to make much more than a dent. Fires burned around the clock in order to soften the ground for digging. If a test dig revealed gold, miners kept digging in search of the vein. If not, they began the entire process again at a different location. Deep under the frozen ground, miners shoveled day and night. The risk of a collapse or asphyxiation was very real, and the men above ground risked frostbite.

Blog14They did it all for a chance at wealth, though most did well to recoup the cost of their passage and supplies. It is said that some of those who struck it rich were collecting the equivalent of more than $20 million worth of gold in today’s money, in just a few weeks’ time.

In honor of the men of the Klondike, I would like to say, Happy Golden Anniversary, fellas. Now, for crying out loud, won’t somebody please cut the cake? I’m pretty sure it’s carrot, er, karat cake!

Here is an interesting video, with wonderful documentary photos of the Klondike Gold Rush!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Native American Boarding Schools: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

Blog19Many of us remember singing along with the Schoolhouse Rock song, “The Great American Melting Pot” on Saturday mornings. I will admit that I never found it as catchy as “Conjunction Junction,” but it did give us something to ponder. It was a fun little cartoon showing heartwarming scenes of immigrants bringing their own languages and customs and melting right in with thousands of other people to form a country. Meanwhile, the Statue of Liberty was standing by holding a recipe book. Everybody sing!

You simply melt right in, 

It doesn’t matter what your skin.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from,

Or your religion, you jump right in

To the American melting pot.

The great American melting pot.

Ooh, what a stew, red, white, and blue…

While other verses of the song mention English, Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and Russians, it never mentions Native Americans. Nope. There’s not one little mention about how U.S. government officials were bound and determined to throw the Native Americans into the melting pot, whether they wanted to assimilate or not. From the late 1870s until well into the 20th century, Native American children were taken from their homes and forced to live in boarding schools. It’s a shocking chapter in American history, and not at all the kind of material that should be turned into a Schoolhouse Rock song. But it is definitely a story worth telling.

School of Thought

Blog5U.S. Army officer, Richard Henry Platt, commanded a unit of African American Buffalo Soldiers and Indian scouts in Oklahoma. He had witnessed the Bureau of Indian Affair’s policies on reservations. The Army placed Platt in charge of seventy-two imprisoned Indian warriors in Florida, in 1875. During their imprisonment, Platt arranged to teach them to read.

That experience got Platt to thinking. Some of those thoughts he was thinking were downright alarming to our modern sensibilities. He wanted to come up with a way to stir Native Americans into the great American Melting Pot once and for all.

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

During a speech on the subject, Platt said, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that the high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only on this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man…”

Ouch! Kill the Indian…save the man, became the unfortunate mantra behind the Native American boarding school movement. The theory was that assimilation would require getting the children before their Indian culture had become too ingrained and educating them in the way of the white man.

Blog1aIn 1879, Pratt was given permission to use a deserted military base in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as the site of the first boarding school for Native American children. Between 1879 and 1918, more than 12,000 children from more than 140 tribes attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Melting Pot

Other boarding schools sprang up across the country. Oftentimes, children as young as toddlers were taken against their parents’ will. Those youngsters were then forced to travel as far as hundreds of miles from home for the privilege of being “Christianized” in semi-military schools. The goal was to force the students to embrace the white culture, with the idea that those children would one day become acceptable members of society. Children were expected to speak only English. They were given haircuts, “civilized” clothing, and even Euro-American names.  Woe to the child who failed to assimilate!Blog10

Blog14Education focused largely on learning trades. Boys were taught carpentry. Girls were taught housekeeping.  Children were also expected to do backbreaking manual labor. No one was very concerned that children were, for the most part, not being taught traditional school subjects, such as math and grammar.

Dishonor Roll

Children caught speaking their native language could be beaten. In fact, any behavior seen as being Indian could be severely punished. There are tales of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse occurring at these boarding schools. Malnutrition was also a concern, and often as a form of punishment children were starved. Beatings were often severe enough to result in broken bones. Children were even punished for being homesick (Because, as we all know, a good beating was the way to make a child get over homesickness and make him feel welcome!).Blog21

Homesickness wasn’t the only type of sickness that plagued the schools. Disease spread like wildfire through the close quarters. At the Carlisle School alone, hundreds of children died from diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and pneumonia. Others died in escape attempts or at the hands of those who were supposed to be looking out for their best interests.

Wake Up Call

Blog6In 1928, a report known as, The Problem of Indian Administration was issued, following an investigation into government policies toward American Indians. The report found children at the federal boarding schools to be overworked, poorly educated, abused and malnourished.

More than forty years later, a new report was issued. The Kennedy Report found the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ education budget to be severely inadequate. It also stated, “When asked to name the most important things the schools do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an import goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of ‘civilizing the native.’” Holy cow, people! That was in the 1960s! The report also spoke of harsh discipline, dormitory overcrowding, unappealing meals, and sterile, rigid school environments.

Making the Grade

Blog1bMany of the American Indian boarding schools were closed by the 1940s. Others were converted into Native American schools and colleges. Haskell Indian Nations University, a tribal university located in Lawrence, Kansas, was founded in 1927. The campus still features a reminder of its dark, boarding school past. As with other Indian boarding school campuses, there is a cemetery filled with the graves of children who died as students. How many died from disease and how many died from abuse and neglect, we cannot say. But we do know they all died while separated from their parents and stripped of their cultural identity.

There are still a few American Indian boarding schools. Fortunately, they bear virtually no resemblance to the schools of our country’s not-so-distant past. Today, the Native American culture is embraced at the federally funded schools. Students have opportunity to learn traditional skills that were regretfully not passed on by generations of Native Americans who were robbed of their culture.

How About a Salad, Instead?

Blog12It has been suggested that the United States is more of a giant salad bowl than a melting pot. The different flavors are tossed together, but each maintains its own unique taste. Perhaps that’s as it should be. The Great American Salad Bowl can be a place where we can all take pride in our unique heritages. Someone should set that to music!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia


House With a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary: A Stairway to Heaven

House with a HeartWhen I first found this story, I wondered if it might be too sad to share around the campfire. I was having quite a dialog with myself over it, which went pretty much like this: The more I read about it the story, the more I realized it’s really like a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie—sort of sad, yet uplifting. Then I remembered that I don’t care who dies in the movies, as long as the dog lives. Finally, I told myself that this isn’t a story about dying dogs, it’s a story about old dogs finding a place to live out their final years. So, I decided it is definitely a tale that is campfire-worthy. I trust you’ll agree.

Friends Until the End

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”~ Anatole France

B1aWhat does it take to open a senior pet sanctuary in your own home? In 2006, Sher Polvinale and her late husband, Joe, decided to find out. So many loving pets lose their families in their final years. Sometimes that is because their owners are also facing their golden years and are forced to move into nursing homes, retirement homes, or in with family members. Having to give up a pet can make a difficult time almost unbearable. That’s where House With a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary comes in!

Blog7This is not primarily a rescue group. It is not primarily a foster home, although they do provide a safe-haven for a few dogs, while continuing to search for their forever homes. Normally, however, House With a Heart is the last home a pet will ever need. It’s a place offering unconditional love—and a whole lot of it! Sher Polvinale serves as the Director of House With a Heart and works tirelessly from her home in Gaithersburg, MD.

Blog9So many times I have researched an animal charity only to uncover some less than flattering information. That is not the case with House With a Heart. Rather than uncovering dirt, the more I dig into this non-profit, the cleaner it gets! That’s saying something when you consider we’re talking about a house filled with dogs and cats!

Old Dogs, New Schtick

“All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” ~Samuel Butler

B5The first resident, B.J., came to the home via a local Humane Society. B.J., with his tongue that lolled out the side of his mouth and winning personality, inspired the Polvinales to bring home more senior pets. In the beginning, they kept the number of canine residents to no more than ten. Joe Polvinale’s dying wish was for his beloved wife to be able to stay in their house caring for the senior dogs she loved so much. With the void left by Joe’s passing, Sher began taking in more and more dogs. That required some changes to the daily running of the house.

B1dSher began a doggie daycare and boarding service in order to keep things running on a grand scale. One woman could not possibly do it all. Harriette Sackler, a volunteer and Vice President of House With a Heart, joined the effort. But two women, however diligent, could not possibly do it all, either. More volunteers arrived on the scene—55, as of 2014. Watching them work is reminiscent of watching a couple bring quintuplets home from the hospital. They run like a well-oiled machine, because they have to.  With numerous resident dogs and a handful of resident cats, organization is a necessity.

Dog Days

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~Roger Caras

B2Polvinale is on the job 24/7. She awakes at 6:00 each day, lets the animals out to do their business, and feeds them before the volunteers arrive at 11:00. Volunteers clean house, play with the animals, bathe them, scoop the abundance of poop, help administer meds, and take animals for necessary veterinary care.

Magnetic strips with the residents’ names are kept on the front of the refrigerator. When an animal is fed, its magnet is moved to the opposite side. That continues until each animal has been fed. Before bedtime, a head-check is performed to be sure each animal is present and accounted for.

According to Polvinale, she she may leave the house a grand total of four times a year. That, my friends, is dedication. Even so, she considers herself to be one of the most fortunate people of the planet because she loves what she does.

Every Dog Has Its Day

“I believe all animals were created by God to help keep man alive.” ~Iwao Fujita

Blog4Dogs are given the best possible medical care. Two current residents who have mobility problems are the proud owners of their own wheels, which they use to maneuver their world. Incontinent dogs don diapers. Special diets are provided, depending upon each dog’s health requirements. But there is no dog shaming allowed! Each dog is met where it is and given exactly what it needs.

B4Some dogs are more sociable than others. If an animal prefers to spend more time in solitude, that is A-OK. No animal is pushed beyond its limits. The dogs do develop special friendships with other residents. It’s not uncommon to see canine BFFs playing in the secured yards or roaming on the two-acre fields.

Stairway to Heaven

“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Blog2At House With a Heart, no dog dies alone. When the time comes, a human caretaker is there to offer comfort and companionship.

The stairway wall of House With a Heart tells the story of all the residents who have passed away. Picture frames, lovingly decorated with the animals’ names hold the pictures of the dearly departed. Known as the Stairway to Heaven, it is a constant reminder of why they do what they do. Every pet deserves to live out its life knowing it is loved.

Happy Endings

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” ~Will Rogers

Blog11So, friends, even though the dogs do eventually die at the end of this tale, this really is a story about living. These animals are given the opportunity to live until the very end.

House With a Heart relies on donations, grants, and wish list gifts. You can learn more about this worthwhile organization here, on their website, and you can meet Sher Polvinale and her volunteers in this beautiful video!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia


German POW Camps in Texas? Sieg Heil, Y’all!

1When I think of Texas, I think of barbecue, cowboys, and longhorn cattle . . . Bluebonnets, Hill Country and Western Swing, with a healthy dose of J.R. Ewing tossed in for good measure.  One thing that has never come to mind when I think of Texas, is German prisoners of war. So, imagine my surprise when I learned Texas was home to more World War II POW camps than any other state in the country. Folks, you just know this was way too good a story for me to pass by. So. . .set down, squat down or lie down, kick off your boots and and make yourselves t’home. We’ve got us a story here that is just begging to be told.

Everything’s Bigger in Texas

A2When the United States entered World War II in 1941, few people were thinking about what we would do with foreign prisoners of war, but the reality soon hit. Following the surrender of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in April 1943, the U.S. found itself in possession of more than 150,000 enemy soldiers, with an average of 20,000 new POWs arriving every month thereafter. There were German and Italian prisoners of war flooding into detention camps at an alarming rate, and we had to find permanent camps for them someplace. But where? By the war’s end, there were more than 500 prisoner camps scattered throughout the United States, with around 70 of those being in Texas. Texas had twice as many POW camps as any other state.

A1bWhy were there so many camps in the Lone Star State? The main reason was the heat! The Geneva Convention of 1929 requires prisoners of war to be moved to a climate similar to the one in which they were captured. Do you remember those German troops stationed in Northern Africa?  They would have been unprepared to survive harsh winters, so sending them to shovel snow in Vermont was out of the question. Texas also had the advantage of sheer size. There was plenty of vacant land on which to build camps. And the flat terrain made it easier to spot any attempted escapes. Larger camps tended to be near more sizable towns, while smaller camps dotted the rural landscapes like oil wells.

Farming Them Out

A5In 1941 there was a labor shortage in America due to the large number of enlisted men, so the War Department authorized a program to allow farmers to utilize labor from the camps. This was the main reason there were so many rural camps. Some of the smaller camps had as few as thirty-five prisoners. Texas A&M agriculture agents were paid to put the POWs to work pickling peaches and other fruit, chopping wood, baling hay, picking pecans, harvesting rice, and chopping cotton.

The Fritz Ritz

A6aHearne, Texas was home to one of the larger camps, housing 4,800 prisoners. Shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the citizens of Hearn lobbied their congressman to have a camp. The Army Corp of Engineers scoped out the town and liked what they saw. They were a small town, but they wanted to make a significant contribution to the war effort. It took under a year to complete the whole shebang. The land was acquired. The facilities were built. By the summer of 1943, Camp Hearne was open for business. The prisoners arrived in style—via Pullman trains.

A6The Geneva Convention doesn’t only care about the climate of POW camps. It also states that any POW must be provided ample food, shelter and clothing. The living conditions for our captive enemies were as good as they were for American GIs. In Hearn, wooden barracks were filled with cots covered with clean sheets. There were showers with hot and cold running water. And the food was plentiful. The accommodations were so accommodating that civilians nicknamed the Hearne Camp the “Fritz Ritz”.

A1aCamp Hearne, like other camps, was divided into sections. There was the American compound, with the camp headquarters, the hospital area, and three separate POW compounds. There was a double fence around the entire camp. Each compound was separated from the adjacent compound with a fence. Watch towers with machine gun wielding guards were placed throughout the camp to discourage any prisoner from attempting a great escape. Guards also patrolled the camp on foot and by vehicle.

Sieg Heil, Y’all!

A7aThe strict security was a necessity because, just like in most prison settings, there was a struggle for power within the community. In the German POW camps, there was fighting among the anti-Nazi prisoners and the pro-Nazi prisoners. One evening, in late 1943, a group of anti-Nazi men at Camp Hearn attacked the Nazi supporters. It was a bloody brawl, which ended in the groups being separated. The ultimate result of the camp segregation was that the pro-Nazi prisoners joined together to take control of the camp population. Ah, the best laid plans…

At least one anti-Nazi prisoner was killed for crossing the wrong people. Hugo Kraus had developed friendships with the many of the guards. He was believed to have informed them of the location of a smuggled shortwave radio. The radio was confiscated and Kraus found himself on the painful end of a lead pipe. He died from his injuries three days after the attack.

Reaping What You Sow

A3Daily life for prisoners began with reveille at 5:45 each morning. Lights out was promptly at 10:00PM. During the hours in between, the POWs spent their time working or participating in POW education courses. Course activities included things such as English language study, a camp newspaper, theater, orchestra, and soccer. Some prisoners took correspondence courses through local colleges. POWs were required to work daily, and the was $0.10 an hour, or $0.80 per day, which went a long way at the POW camp stores. And most important, prisoner attendance was mandatory for newsreel film screenings documenting the Nazi atrocities of World War II and the American liberation of the Death Camps.

Off to Greener Pastures

A8Escape attempts weren’t common, but they did occur. Most of the “prison breaks” were actually just POWs in need of a “day pass”. They would wander off for a day of freedom and then flag down a guard at the end of the day, looking for transport back to the camp. One fellow was picked up while walking down the side of the main road back to camp loudly singing German marching songs. Another escapee was treed by a Brahman bull and was quite relieved to be rescued and returned to his life as a POW.

A few escape attempts were more serious in nature, with prisoners making their way toward the Mexican boarder. Three prisoners were caught floating down the Brazos River on a crude raft. They had been hoping to float back to Germany. (Hey, say what you will. If the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” had shown that much gumption, they might have gotten off that island much sooner!) All total, records indicate that twenty-one POWs escaped. Each was caught within three weeks. There is no indication that any escapee committed an act of sabotage while on the lam.

After the War

A9At war’s end the prisoners were moved from the smaller branch camps to the base camps. From there they went to military installations at Fort Bliss, Fort Sam Houston and Fort Hood. In November 1945, the former POWs began returning to Europe at the rate of 50,000 per month, but they were not sent directly back to Germany. The majority of the men were first sent to Britain or France to assist the Allied Forces in rebuilding the damaged infrastructure of major cities.

What became of the POW camps in Texas? Well, in Huntsville, a POW camp became part of what is now Sam Houston State University. The university has since closed that portion of the campus and, while a few of the original buildings remain, the land is now mostly used for cattle ranching. Camp Mexia became home to the Mexia State School for the Mentally Retarded. In Bastrop, Camp Swift was turned into housing developments, a University of Texas cancer research center, and a medium security prison.

A10Most of the other camps have been quietly absorbed into their communities and rarely get a mention. But in Hearne, the “Fritz Ritz” went up for public auction following the war. It has since been restored and opened to tourists who want to see this little piece of obscure American history for themselves. It’s a place where you can learn that Texas isn’t all barbecue, cowboys, and longhorn cattle.

Here is an interesting video about the Princeton, Texas POW camp. . .I think that you will enjoy it!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia