Our microwave died a couple of weeks ago. It gave up the ghost as we were making popcorn, a decades-long Sunday night tradition in our home. It was an Amana Radarange (raise your hand if you remember those) and we bought it the summer we moved to Oklahoma (the first time). It was almost thirty-eight years old, and we used it almost every day. I think we had to change the light bulb only twice in all those years. Pretty amazing, huh?
The Amana Colonies (where the above-mentioned appliance was made) are in east central Iowa, not far from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The cluster of seven German settlements (Middle Amana, [Main] Amana, South Amana, Homestead, West Amana, High Amana, and East Amana) had its beginnings in 1856 and was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
Today’s Amana Colonies are popular tourist attractions where they provide comfortable places to stay, make beautiful things (e.g., furniture and woolen goods), and serve wonderfully yummy food in several highly rated family style restaurants. If you ever find yourselves driving across Iowa on I-80 and need a break—and trust me, you will need a break if you’re driving across Iowa on I-80—you really should stop there for breakfast or brunch or lunch or dinner and a little shopping. It’s just a few minutes north of exit 225—definitely worth the effort.
We try to visit the Amanas whenever we’re in Iowa. The last time we had a meal there was in October 2016 when we were back for the dedication of the new Voxman Music Building on the University of Iowa campus. (The old Voxman Music Building, where Joe and I were students back in the day, was destroyed in the flood of 2008.) We really enjoyed the food and the company. (That's me and my brother Chris in 2010 after enjoying a meal at the Amanas.)
Thinking about the Amanas made me think about German immigrants which made me think about German POWs which made me wonder if any of those POWs had worked on farms near the Amanas during WWII. They didn’t—I checked. The nearest POW (branch) camp was in Toledo, Iowa, about fifty miles away. Not quite close enough, I guess.
So, I can’t tell you about German POWs working on farms near the Amana Colonies, but I can tell you about German POWs working on a farm near Algona. During my Q&A session with the senior citizens in Algona in 2016, I learned this story from the delightful Jean Balgeman Shey whose father hired POWs to work on their farm one summer. The farm was about fourteen miles from Camp Algona on the way to West Bend.
For one whole summer, we had prisoners shocking oats and walking beans. They had the noon meal with us, and we all sat around the table together. The oldest gentleman, when he was about through eating, would sit up and go like this [pushing down on his stomach], hoping he could eat some more. He told my dad to always come [to the camp] early in the morning because they always wanted to come back to our farm because they liked my mother’s cooking. So, Dad tried to go early so he could get the same guys. Dad just had a car. Three had to sit in front and three in back—five prisoners plus a guard who would stay under a tree in the yard and sleep or sometimes come inside and eat, too. The prisoners had “PW” stenciled on their shirts and pants. They weren’t big people. They were pretty slender.
After my father died, I found some letters. He had corresponded with a couple of the POWs after they’d returned to Germany, and I thought “goodness, I should write to them.” So, I did, thirty years after they’d left the camp. I received this one letter from Wilhelm [Schittges]. He was so excited about hearing from me, so I told him we were coming over to Austria to visit our son and we’d like to stop and see him. He lived in Dusseldorf, Germany. Our whole family was there one New Year’s Day. We spent the whole day with them. We took an interpreter with us. We found out so much information and our oldest daughter was writing everything down. He was the only one left [who survived] from his unit because he crawled over a fence instead of down into a ditch. That was in Russia. He was so interesting.
Then a few years later, my two daughters and I and Ann our interpreter went over and spent a week with him and his wife. He wanted to travel to Iowa for a visit, and we were making plans for that, but then he fell, and he wasn’t able to travel.
On the last day [the prisoners] were on our farm, my father, who could speak a little German, told Wilhelm “if you need anything, please write.” Well, he needed something, but he was too proud to write. He waited three months, then he wrote “please send us some food.” So, Dad sent food and clothing, coffee, sugar, and at the very top he put a chocolate bar. And when [Wilhelm] opened the box at the post office, he said his wife just devoured [the chocolate]. She didn’t share.
We have a new microwave. It’s a Panasonic and it was made in China. It’s working fine so far, but it probably won’t last thirty-eight years.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.