Fort Hays Prisoner of War Camp

Did you know that the Fort Hays Experiment Station, located south of Hays, was once used as a German prisoner of war camp? Farmers in the area were facing a serious farm labor shortage around August 1943 due to many of Ellis County’s young men being at war. Arrangements were made to contract for labor using prisoners of war at the Concordia camp beginning in September 1943. Before the men could be brought to the Experiment Station, modifications to the buildings had to be made. A large feed barn was converted into barracks and a meeting house was made into a mess hall. The two buildings were enclosed in a 6 foot high fence with floodlights around the area.

A farm labor association was set up to assist the farmers in getting men from the camp to do labor. L. C. Aicher, who was superintendent of the Experiment Station, was named chairman of the association. The Experiment Station was also needing labor for the work around its grounds.

Guards from the military and the prisoners arrived on September 11. The men began working on September 13, and farmers were charged $3.25 a day for each man. The cost to the association was $2.82, and the extra monies went to help pay for the modifications and transportation costs. Most labor was used by farmers, but there were some businesses and schools that also had the prisoners work for them. Fort Hays Kansas State Teachers College was among the schools which hired the prisoners to do labor.

Two German prisoners working with a college employee on removing trees south of Picken Hall in the autumn of 1943.
Picture from the University Archives – Wooster Photo Collection.

The German prisoners of war were used as laborers in Ellis County up to the end of the war in 1945. The camp closed in November 1945.

The Special Collections and University Archives received a collection of pictures that were taken by L. C. Aicher during the fall of 1943. The collection of 17 photos was donated to us by Tom Osswald, whose father served as a military guard at the camp in September-November 1943. These photos are donated in memory of Lawrence E. Osswald (Corporal US Army 480th MPEG Company, Ft. Hays, Kansas, September-November 1943) by his son and family. Corporal Osswald was from Wilmington, Delaware.

The photos have been added to the library’s digital collection and you may view them at

Much of the historical information in this blog was found in “At Home in Ellis County, Kansas 1867-1992 Volume 1.”



University Archives Tidbits – Picken Hall before the columns


This is a photo of Picken Hall in 1908 shortly after the two wings were added. This is looking at it from the southwest. Martin Allen Hall, which was the gymnasium at the time, is seen in the background. 

An auditorium was in the south wing of the Academic or Administration Building, as it was called at that time. The library had been in the north wing for a short amount of time before moving over to the gymnasium after Sheridan Coliseum was built. The Administration Building was named Picken Hall in 1909 after faculty voted to recommend the name change to the Board of Regents. The Board approved and on May 28, 1909, a bronze plaque with the new name and date was placed in a corridor of the first floor. 

Information from “A History of Fort Hays Kansas State College 1902-1961” written by Lyman Dwight Wooster, President Emeritus.


63 Years Ago Today, May 22

Students and Faculty at Fort Hays Kansas State College were preparing for the last days of classes before finals began during the week of May 20 in 1951. The evening of May 22 changed their lives forever when Big Creek, which flowed through the campus, flooded the campus and the southern part of the city of Hays. Many homes and businesses, including the Post Office and the campus, sustained damage from the flood waters. Three people died when their car was swept off the highway west of Hays – 18 year old Gerald Gipson of Napa, Idaho, 19 year old Joanne Donham and her sister, 17 year old Treva, both from WaKeeney. Robert Ripperteau, the 14 year old stepson of President Emeritus L. D. Wooster, was killed in the basement of his home after a wall collapsed when the water broke through. Dr. C. F. Wiest, 75 year old retired faculty member, was also killed in his home. Hays resident June Bissing Herman, 24 years old, was killed when a tree came through the wall of her basement apartment allowing water to come into the basement.

From the book written by Dr. Wooster titled “A History of Fort Hays Kansas State College 1902-1961”, he writes The campus was inundated, and damage to the buildings and campus made it impossible to continue with classes or to house the students. The college year ended without the usual final examinations and commencement. Faculty members prepared grades for students, degrees were granted in absentia, and the graduates were honored at summer school commencement. (pg. 144) Little did they know that one month later, on June 21, another flood would hit the area and do some more damage. The only good news was there was no loss of life from the second flood.

There is now a 1.8 mile levee between Big Creek and the campus which has served its purpose well up to the present day.

Forsyth Library’s front doors the day after the flood. Today this is McCartney Hall.

Looking at the Cody Commons from Picken Hall the day after the flood. Cody Commons was located where the south part of the Memorial Union now stands.



Happy Birthday, Kansas!

Kansas will turn 152 years old on Tuesday, January 29. She became a state in 1861 after a volatile period as a territory which had bold consequences for the nation as a whole. The Special Collections Room has a number of books about the history of the Kansas territory and of Kansas statehood. Stop by and browse through the books which make up part of the Western Collection.

Also, the traveling exhibit titled “Americans by Choice: The Story of Immigration and Naturalization in Kansas” is currently on the main floor of the library. It will be here until February 20. Celebrate Kansas Day by coming to view the history of immigrants who settled in Kansas!


Learning Express Library

Yesterday a situation came up in the Library that reminded me of a resource I was aware of, but never really thought about: Learning Express.  Learning Express is available through the State Library of Kansas, but has a lot to offer the FHSU community.  Here is part of the Learning Express blurb from their web page  “Each of our Learning Centers offers the practice tests, exercises, skill-building courses, eBooks, and information you need to achieve the results you want—at school, at work, or in life”.

This resource contains college preparation tests such as the ACT and TOEFL.  In the Occupation Practice Tests section there are preparation materials for the LSAT, ASVAB, and CMA exams.  Tabbed sections include resources for workplace skills and for college students.  These sections have resources for business skills, AP placement practice exams, personal finance, and test taking skills.  There is much more here than I can mention in this short note.

You do need to register to use this resource and you do need to be in Kansas.  Remember, this resource is provided by the State Library of Kansas, not Forsyth Library.  If you are using a computer on campus or with a Kansas IP address you should not have any problems.  If you do experience a problem, you might want to use your code from a Kansas Library Card.  Kansas Library Cards are available at your local public library.

To use Learning Express, go to, and then click on “Explore Our Resources”. Select “Learning Express” from the list of resources on the left side of the page. After that you will need to register as a new user or log in as a returning user.  Begin looking for materials by choosing a tab at the top of the page.  To add resources to your account click “add to my center” in the area at the right of the resource you would like to use.  Then you may need to click a download button on the right side of the page.



Fort Hays Trivia for Veterans Day

In honor of Veterans Day, Friday, November 11, I have some trivia questions. Fort Hays State President William A. Lewis (1913-1933) was a history buff, and he named several buildings  for historical figures. See if you know who they are and which building was named for them. I have provided some links below from a library database which provide some information.

  1. Which campus building was named for a man who took part in the Battle of the Arickaree (or more commonly known as the Battle of Beecher Island)?
  2. Which campus building was named for the wife of a man who was a lieutenant colonel at Fort Hays in 1867?
  3. Which campus building was named for a General who was known for his hostile views towards the Indians and directed campaigns against the Southern Plains Indians and the Sioux Indians?

This is a picture of a train car that is now housed at the Hays American Legion, 13th and Canterbury. The car was one of many “40 & 8” trains that had been used in World War I and World War II to transport American soldiers across France. After World War II ended, the Americans ran Friendship Trains throughout Europe beginning in 1947. These trains carried food and hope to the region that had been devastated by the war.

The French decided to give 49 of these cars to the United States as a thank you for to the Americans for Franco-American wartime cooperation and for the Friendship trains. A French “Merci” Train was sent to each state in the United States and was filled with gifts. The train for Kansas had its home in Hays, and it was on the campus from 1949 to 1975. It was located between McCartney and Albertson Halls, and had fallen into disrepair by the 1970’s. The American Legion asked if they could take it to restore to its original glory and place on their grounds.

To the veterans, we thank you for your service and sacrifice.

Answers can be found in these links, which can be viewed through Forsyth Library’s databases:

The answers to the questions are:

  1. Forsyth Library
  2. Custer Hall
  3. Sheridan Hall


Black Sunday in Kansas

I have had several requests recently about the Dust Bowl, so that got me to thinking it would be a good topic for the blog. I want to focus on one particular day which affected Western Kansas and the region in ways that we probably cannot imagine today. Last year was the 75th anniversary of that dark day in our region’s history.

I found an article that tells the background into how and why the Dust Bowl occurred. The Reader’s Companion to American History says the following about the Dust Bowl:

The Dust Bowl was the name given to the Great Plains region devastated by drought in 1930s depression-ridden America. The 150,000-square-mile area, encompassing the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and neighboring sections of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, has little rainfall, light soil, and high winds, a potentially destructive combination. Ranchers and farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, driven by the American agricultural ethos of expansion and a sense of autonomy from nature, aggressively exploited the land and set up the region for ecological disaster. Most early settlers used the land for livestock grazing until agricultural mechanization combined with high grain prices during World War I enticed farmers to plow up millions of acres of natural grass cover to plant wheat. When drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called “black blizzards.” Recurrent dust storms wreaked havoc, choking cattle and pasture lands and driving 60 percent of the population from the region. Most of these “exodusters” went to agricultural areas first and then to cities, especially in the Far West.

In response, the federal government mobilized several New Deal agencies, principally the Soil Conservation Service formed in 1935, to promote farm rehabilitation. Working on the local level, the government instructed farmers to plant trees and grass to anchor the soil, to plow and terrace in contour patterns to hold rainwater, and to allow portions of farmland to lie fallow each year so the soil could regenerate. The government also purchased 11.3 million acres of submarginal land to keep it out of production. By 1941 much of the land was rehabilitated, but the region repeated its mistakes during World War II as farmers again plowed up grassland to plant wheat when grain prices rose. Drought threatened another disaster in the 1950s, prompting Congress to subsidize farmers in restoring millions of acres of wheat back to grassland.

The Dust Bowl prompted a cultural response from artists like Dorothea Lange, Woody Guthrie, and John Steinbeck, who lamented the American economic ethos that had created the disaster. To them, the Dust Bowl signified the final destruction of the old Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian harmony with nature.

The residents of the Great Plains had been dealing with dust storms for several years, but none were like the one that struck on April 14, 1935. It was Palm Sunday that year, but it became known as Black Sunday after a massive front with winds of up to 60 mph came through the Great Plains. The winds scooped up the loose top soil which became dust clouds hundreds of feet high.

“People hurried home, for to be caught outside could mean suffocation and death. The dust and darkness halted all forms of transportation and the fine silt sifting through any crack or joint forced the closure of hospitals, flour mills, schools and businesses.”  – Kansaspedia

Here is another description of what people were doing that day:

“By 24 March [1935] southeastern Colorado and western Kansas had seen twelve consecutive days of dust storms, but there was worse to come. Near the end of March a new duster swept across the southern plains, destroying one-half the wheat crop in Kansas, one-quarter of it in Oklahoma, and all of it in Nebraska—5 million acres blown out. The storm carried away from the plains twice as much earth as men and machines had scooped out to make the Panama Canal, depositing it once again over the East Coast states and the Atlantic Ocean. Then the wind slackened off a bit, gathering strength, as it were, for the spectacular finale of that unusual spring season—Black Sunday, 14 April.

Dawn came clear and rosy all across the plains that day. By noon the skies were so fresh and blue that people could not remain indoors; they remembered how many jobs they had been postponing, and with a revived spirit they rushed outside to get them done. They went on picnics, planted gardens, repaired henhouses, attended funerals, drove to the neighbors for a visit. In mid-afternoon the summery air rapidly turned colder, falling as many as 50 degrees in a few hours, and the people noticed then that the yards were full of birds nervously fluttering and chattering—and more were arriving every moment, as though fleeing from some unseen enemy. Suddenly there appeared on the northern horizon a black blizzard, moving toward them; there was no sound, no wind, nothing but an immense “boogery” cloud.” – Dust Bowl : The Southern Plains in the 1930s

It was this black day that gave a name to this particular era.

As the nation had become aware of the dust storms, journalists such as Associated Press staff writer Robert Geiger were in Guymon [Oklahoma] writing a series of articles. In his April 15 release for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star he wrote: “Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent. If it rains. . . .”

Geiger used the term “dust bowl” for the first time in print. Within three months “dust bowl” was being used throughout the nation. He specifically referred to “the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico.” That area is almost identical to the Dust Bowl boundary as formally designated in 1939 by the Soil Conservation Service as the geographical extent of the severe wind damage by 1939. – Dust Bowl Lore

The library has a number of books on the Dust Bowl, so look in the online catalog for titles. There are also a number of web sites on the Internet that provide good sources. I have listed below some primary and seccondary sources about Black Sunday. Oral histories, written essays, and photographs are included within these links.

Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of History & Culture –

National Weather Service –

Living History Farm, York, Nebraska –

Dust Bowl Oral History Project, Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas –

PBS Series: American Experience –

Kansas Memory –

Wind Erosion Research at KSU –

Field and Stream Magazine – –


Sources cited:

Logsdon, Guy. “Dust Bowl Lore.” Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of History & Culture. 16 March 2011 <;.

“Reader’s Companion to American History.” 1991. Credo Reference. Houghton Mifflin. 16 March 2011 <;.

Society, Kansas State Historical. “Kansapedia.” Kansas State Historical Society. 16 March 2011 <;.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl : The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.


Picture is from