Exploring Concordia, Kansas: POW Camp, Orphan Train and Longest Brick Mural

One of the great things about full time RV traveling is the ability to have a flexible itinerary. We try to keep to a certain travel schedule, but sometimes we learn about interesting places and want to stay longer than planned or decide to change our route. This was the case while visiting Kansas. One of our first stops in the state was Liberal which has declared itself to be the “Wizard of Oz” town although it has no connection with the story or film. They had a nice visitor center there with brochures and one of them was on the German WWII POW Camp in Concordia. I had never given any thought to what happened to German POW’s and was surprised to learn there was a camp in Kansas. Actually there were several of these camps in Kansas as well as in many other states. This is the only POW camp that still has original structures remaining. I thought this would be a unique and interesting place to visit and Mark has done a lot of reading about World War II so I figured he would enjoy as well. Plus, there were a few other things of interest to see in Concordia. So, we ended up staying a little longer in Kansas then planned.

Guard tower above was built of stone by German POW’s who reportedly were ashamed of the shoddy wooden towers built by the Americans

Mark and I had our own private tour at the Camp with a knowledgeable docent named Paul. At one time this place was quite large with over 300 buildings, but almost all of them were dismantled years ago with a guard tower, warehouse, officer’s club and guard station remaining. The museum that we toured is in a warehouse building called T-9.

Warehouse building – T9

I would call this museum a “work in progress” as it has only been opened a few years. There are some good displays though and we spent quite a bit of time looking at everything. It only took 90 days to build Camp Concordia which opened on May 1, 1943. The Camp was completed with a 177 bed hospital, barracks, mess halls, administrative buildings and an officer’s club. Paul told us that the prisoners were accorded the same rights as American soldiers would be treated as far as food rations, sleeping quarters and other necessities. Treatment was fair in other areas as well. The POW’s had their own band and newspaper (called the “Barbwire”) and could take classes offered by the University of Kansas. They had a sports field and their own sport teams. A library was provided with reading materials in German. A PX was available where they could purchase items and the German officers had their own club.

Original kitchen prep table

The enlisted POW’s were put to work at area farms but officers were not expected to work. Remarkably, the POW’s even received a wage. Relationships were reported to be good between the prisoners and the local farmers. I watched a very good documentary on Camp Concordia called “Prisoners of Plenty.” You can find it on You Tube if interested. A letter sent by a POW to one of the farm families thanked them for their many kindnesses and how much he enjoyed working on their farm. He reminisced about the chicken dinners they fixed him. Good relationships were also made at the Camp with POW’s and American staff. One former worker reported that she corresponded for over 50 years with a soldier who also made visits back until he died. There wasn’t much concern that prisoners would escape since they were in the middle of the Kansas prairie with no place to go. But one incident that occurred was when prisoners were being trucked back to the Camp and at an intersection, two of them jumped out. Their absence was not noted by the guard who was in the cab until they reached the Camp. MIlitary police were sent back to town to look for them and they were found walking on a road about 1/2 mile out of town. They reported that they had stopped to get a beer and were walking back to Camp.

Some of the prisoners were quite talented and the museum displays examples of their artwork, sculpture and furniture crafting. My favorite is this picture of a horse above. It was created by a prisoner while sitting at a campfire. He picked up a piece of charred wood and drew this picture of one of the horses of an American sergeant. A drawing of his village in Germany is also in the museum.

Paul told a story about how he was able to develop a relationship by email with the son of a German officer and they even met in person. The deceased officer had a pair of boots that his son wanted to donate to the museum, although some family members were reluctant. Eventually, the boots were donated. It is amazing how far these boots have come – from many battlefields throughout Europe to Camp Concordia, then back to Germany and civilian life before finding a final home back in Concordia. The Camp closed on November 8, 1945. When I stood outside the warehouse building and looked at the many fields surrounding the Camp, I could imagine the area probably hadn’t changed much since the 1940’s. This still looks like a farming region where German POW’s would have labored.

Fire truck from Ebay

There are a couple of vehicles at the museum, but the best is this vintage fire truck that Paul found on EBay of all places. It was formerly in use at another German POW camp in Kansas. Paul was able to arrange the purchase of this truck and it came to Concordia. He turned on the lights and siren for us. I love this old truck………good old eBay!

Orphan Train Museum

I was interested to visit this museum since I have read some on the subject including a historical fiction novel titled “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. Located in the old Concordia train depot, while the museum space is rather small, it contained quite a bit of information. Having the museum near the train tracks added to the experience because as I was reading about these youngsters traveling out west by rail, trains would come rumbling close by.

Orphan train riders

A film and exhibits with letters, photos and memorabilia portrayed the lives of these young ones. The orphan trains sent children whose parents or legal guardians were either deceased, absent or incapacitated from New York City and other places in the East to families primarily in the Midwest. There were several organizations involved in placing these children with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) primary. The belief was that these children were better off with families than left to fend for themselves on the streets (like in the photo below) or in crowded orphanages.

New York City youngsters sleeping on the street near a grate to keep warm.

The Orphan Train officially began in 1854 with a group of 46 boys and girls, ages six to fifteen who were sent to Dowagiac, Michigan. From there, 36 remained and 10 more went on to Iowa. Once the children were placed with families, CAS continued to monitor the children with agents visiting yearly, filing a progress report and maintaining written communication with the children and their new parents. The children were in a foster care like situation where the Agency could remove them and place elsewhere if needed. Foster parents were recruited and applied for these children. To identify them the child and foster parents were given a number so they could match up when pick up time came at the train station.

Bonnet from Marie who had Number 25 sewed on her bonnet

The museum shared a number of stories and pictures regarding individual children, their siblings and families. Many of the placements were deemed to have successful outcomes, but for some there were many difficulties and not all remained in their initial placements. Over a period of 75 years, more than 200,000 children were placed in all 48 states and even into Canada.

Orphan train rider Clara

In Cloud County where Concordia is located, you can find 28 sculptures paying tribute to an orphan train rider. I believe there are plans to continue to place more around the County. As I walked around downtown I spotted several of these statues, all of them had plaques with information about the riders. The statue pictured below represents two siblings, Elmer and Ethel who were placed together in a home in Iowa after their mother died in childbirth and their father could not care for them or their siblings. When Ethel died in 1990 at the age of 93, she had 197 descendants.

Elmer and Ethel, Orphan Train riders

Concordia has something else to be proud of – the longest sculpted brick mural in the U.S. The mural is on the wall of the Cloud County Museum/Visitor’s Center and is a real beauty. It contains 6,400 bricks and is 140 feet in length. The mural shows the history of Cloud County and was completed in 2008. One of the staff at the visitor center gave us a tour and explained how it was created and put together which was a real feat.

Standing by one small section of the longest sculpted brick mural

The mural is so long that I couldn’t take a photo of the whole thing without doing a panorma shot which shows the mural curved instead of a straight wall. But it gives an idea of how big it is.

It was a great day in Concordia but we had one last stop on our way back “home” to Salina. On the drive to Concordia I had seen a sign about a monument to President Lincoln’s little letter writer. As Mark drove I looked it up and read an intriguing story I had never heard of. While traveling, I have great fun researching things as we drive from place to place. There are always interesting tidbits of history we learn about! So, on the way back we made a stop in the very small town of Delphos.

This monument to Grace can be found in a park in the town’s tiny center. The buildings, few in number have seen better days with the park looking the best kept. Located on the monument are two letters inscribed in stone, one from Grace and the other from President Lincoln. When Grace was a girl of 11 and Lincoln was running for the presidency, she wrote him that he should grow whiskers as it would improve his appearance and help him get elected. Lincoln responded and the last sentence of his letter reads: “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now.” After that, Lincoln did grow a beard and during his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. he stopped in Grace’s hometown of Westfield, New York and met with her. Grace recalled the meeting years later: “Gracie, look at my whiskers I have been growing them for you and then he kissed me. I never saw him again.” In her adult years Grace moved to Delphos and lived here until she passed away in 1936 at the age of 87.

Next time finds us in Missouri in the home town of Mark Twain!

1 thought on “Exploring Concordia, Kansas: POW Camp, Orphan Train and Longest Brick Mural

  1. Matt

    Caught a bit off guard about the orphan train, had never heard of that, so incredible, and heartbreaking. Definitely life was much harder in years past. Put that with the story of Hi, Jolly in stories that I never expected to have been true! Kansas seems like it came through with a lot of interesting stuff

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