A little slice of World War II history intrigued writer Lucy Sanna so much that she created a fictional world around it. Sanna, who lives in Madison, learned that German prisoners of war worked in the cherry orchards of Door County in the 1940s, and, from that moment on, she became obsessed with the idea.
She began researching and learned that, over the summer of 1945, the prisoners were dispatched to help with the cherry harvest as workers were scarce due to the war.
“The POWs were kept at military camps and sent out to small rural areas where labor was needed,” Sanna said. “Rural communities wanted the prisoners as labor.”
With that bit of history in mind, Sanna invented “The Cherry Harvest,” her debut work of fiction featuring a farm family that welcomes the POWs only to become embroiled in emotional turmoil.
Sanna researched her story at the Door County Library, where adult services librarian Laura Kayacan assisted her in sorting through archived copies of the Door County Advocate, the weekly newspaper that chronicled the events of the summer of 1945. Sanna set her book in 1944, taking some liberties with history in order to create more tension in her fiction.
According to the Door County Advocate, German prisoners were set up at Camp Sturgeon Bay in May of 1945.
Help for the harvest
When the prisoners arrived in May, 81 were initially housed at Camp Sturgeon Bay, with up to 2,000 more expected in time for the harvest. According to the May 18, 1945, Door County Advocate, “the prisoners of war will clean out brush and do spraying, hoeing and cultivating in cherry orchards, and will plant and cultivate potatoes. The wage rate will be 50 cents per hour, the contractors making payments directly to the United States treasury.”
The prisoners received 80 cents per day in canteen coupons on the days that they worked, and the rest of the money went to Uncle Sam. The newspaper’s July 20, 1945, edition, stated that Army officials estimated that 10,000 prisoners working in Wisconsin that month would net the government a million dollars.
“There were camps all over Wisconsin,” said Maggie Weir, head curator at the Door County Historical Museum in Sturgeon Bay. “They worked in the orchards, they worked in cranberry bogs.”
A display of photos on the front page of the Door County Advocate on May 25, 1945, shows images of German POWs smiling while picking stones at a potato farm, renovating cabins that would house their guards and cooking in a barracks kitchen. The caption reads: “Men of the type used here really don’t need guards to keep them from running away, camp officers say. The PW’s all know the war is over and are content to await eventual shipment home.”
Weir said that “the Germans were delighted to be here. They made little gifts for the families they worked for, and many of them established lifelong friendships.”
Absence created drama
Unlike the storyline in Sanna’s book, the presence of German POWs in Door County created very little friction. In fact, when they didn’t arrive soon enough, farmers grew worried.
On July 20, 1945, the Door County Advocate reported that the cherry harvest got off to a slow start, “and some fears were expressed that there may be a shortage of help.” At that point, only half of the expected 2,000 prisoners had arrived, and “only 76 Mexican nationals and Jamaicans” were in Door County to work the harvest. Foreign laborers were mostly tied up in pea canneries, the paper said.
“In spite of the short crop, it is expected that every one of the PW’s, Jamaicans and Mexicans ordered will be needed to pick the cherries before they get overripe, because the response to the call for civilian help has met with very poor success.”
The story goes on to say that only a few civilian pickers have applied for work, and orchard camps that would normally house local workers had very few applications.
However, that didn’t stop some from complaining.
“In spite of repeated calls for help from the civilians, both in the orchards and in canneries, the local federation of labor continued to complain this week that civilians were being denied jobs because of the presence of prisoners,” the July 20 paper reported.
Army officials called the charges that the prisoners were taking away civilian jobs “ridiculous.”
Just in time
By Aug. 3, 1945, an estimated 2,140 prisoners of war were laboring in the orchards of Door County, along with 1,100 foreign recruits, mainly from Mexico and Jamaica.
“Arrival of the balance of the imported pickers was immediately reflected in factory receipts,” the Advocate reported. “On Tuesday, the big Fruit Growers cooperative plant here worked from 9 a.m. to midnight for the first time this season and operated its five lines of hot pack to capacity all day.”
The paper also put out an appeal for more workers, both in canneries and in the orchards. The crop was estimated to have produced about 12 to 14 million pounds of cherries, with a lot of credit for that going to the German prisoners of war.
“Everyone I’ve talked to in Door County said that the Germans got along very well here,” Weir, of the Door County Historical Museum, said. She cites a 2002 book, “Stalag Wisconsin” by Betty Cowley, as being a good source for information on this period in the state’s history.
The Germans may have felt right at home, because “this area was settled very heavily by Germans anyway,” Weir said. They likely fit in with the beer-and-bratwurst culture; Weir said that “most of the prisoners gained weight” during their time in Wisconsin.
“There were prisoners who didn’t want to go back to Germany when the war was over,” she said. “They would have been very happy to stay here.”
“Everybody wants to go to Door County for the summer, right?”