German Prisoners of War and Lake Wabaunsee
Seeing a German Police dog and a guard with a gun in our fields and at our country dining room table was a sight my eyes shall never forget. I was a small child during World War II, but those images are etched deeply in my mind. The prisoners were housed in barracks at Lake Wabaunsee and trucked to our farm for hire.
My family lived on a farm southeast of Lake Wabaunsee in Wabaunsee County and my dad was a mule skinner. He told me the story about helping create the lake before I was born. the work was part of Works Project Administration in the 1930s. He used his mules and slip (a piece of machinery, horse drawn) to help dig the lake. He had to ride one of the mules, bareback, from our farm across the Flint Hills a few miles carrying his lunch and feed for the mules. His story was fascinating to hear, and my friends over the years have enjoyed hearing the tale almost more than I do telling it.
Dad and other men with their teams worked hard and long days digging the lake for low pay, but were glad to get the money, as most of them were farmers and just coming out of the Great Depression. Money was tight and hard to get. He said more than once how glad he was to earn a dollar a day!
The lake formed the design of a gingerbread boy, with the dam across the shoulders instead of a head, providing lots of shoreline for cabins, camping, fishing and picnics. The water covers an area of about 215 acres of the 500 acres property belonging to the city of Eskridge, and cabin lots were sold after the lake was completed. The lake has thirteen natural springs supplemented by the drainage from 7, 500 acres of Flint Hills prairie. The result is a crystal clear lake.
No heavy equipment was used in the 1930’s for that project: just men, muscles and mules or, occasionally, teams of horses. Mules were used usually as they were more rugged animals and could withstand more heavy work. But you had to know how to handled mules and my dad was considered a “real" mule skinner!
After the lake was built, buildings were put up to house the Civilian Conservation Corps and their officers. Later the National Youth Association and the War II German prisoners lived in those quarters. That occurred over seventy years ago but some of the buildings stand today. The lodge for the officers is used today for the Flint Hills Steak House and Lounge.
My dad hired the prisoners to work on our farm. That's what created the scene that's still in my head today of guard dogs and guns on our property. My older brother was bitten by one of the guard dogs and said, “That damn dog was supposed to bite the Germans—not me!” Bob, my brother was somewhat a clown and it's more than likely the dog just got his attention!
I had been the chief water gal up until then, but when the German prisoners were in the field, I was not allowed to carry water for any workers alone. My older sister or mother had to accompany me on my water rounds, which caused a problem as I rode a horse when going alone.
Mother had to prepare meals for the prisoners, and I had to help cook and fix pans of water outside for hand washing so they could clean up to eat. All of our water had to be carried in and out of the house so it was just a matter of setting up a bench to hold the pail of water and wash basin and find a suitable place for the soap and towels.
Mother was required to feed the prisoners an afternoon lunch so we prepared a light meal, packed it up and drove out to the fields to serve the snack. The prisoners would not eat corn in any fashion as they felt it was hog feed. Otherwise, they ate what we ate for the noon meal and sack lunches.
The prisoners could not understand our English language and we could not speak German, but sign language of sorts usually got the correct or almost correct meaning across to each other.
I can also remember the sadness in the eyes of the prisoners when my little nieces and nephews were close to them, and my dad let them hold the baby. Big tears rolled down their cheeks as they missed their own children.
My dad paid the prisoners a minimal amount during the war. I am sure that was difficult but that was the rule. At the end of the day, they were loaded up in the truck and taken back out to Lake Wabaunsee to sleep.
Later, Lake Wabaunsee became an important part of our family activities. When I was in high school, it was the only source of recreation—the spillway served as a dance floor or a place to wash our cars. Also the spillway served as a swimming spot but there was designated area on the east side just for swimming with a diving deck. That was the only place in the county for swimming lessons .
In 1950 ,there were 105 small cabins around the lake, but no one lived there year around. Now there are no small cabins but very nice homes crowded in around the bear shaped lake.
On a summer holiday weekend, many small tents, fishermen, boat drivers and skiers have fun, and on the Fourth of July, picnickers gather to eat and watch the fireworks display. Most of the boat owners decorate their boats and parade around the lake until dark and then anchor the boats to watch the lights jetting above the water.
I often wonder if my dad knew he might be helping to build such a wonderful playground for our neighbors that his kids would enjoy it for a lifetime. Iit is one of my favorite places to meet up with old friends and enjoy a wonderful evening.