2021 T-Bone Trail · Museums and History · Northwest Iowa

Nativity All Year & Forever: POW Camp in Iowa’s Biggest County

*Another bucket list item checked off in Western Iowa and it was thanks to Kossuth County for helping me do it. Or should I say thanks to old Bancroft County? We’ll get this worked out later. Our trip was sponsored by the Algona Area Chamber of Commerce. Some of the meals, services, and goods were complimentary. The views expressed in this blog post are of our own. Now, let’s Gallivant!

This was a major geographical bucket list item checked off for me. The City of Bancroft in old Bancroft County.

Kossuth County, Iowa

That’s right, folks. Kossuth County didn’t become this big on its own. It had to absorb old Bancroft County to the north and bring Iowa’s county count from 100 to 99. Don’t worry, we still have 100 county seats because Lee County has two. That’s a different story and region all together so let’s stick to NW-Iowa because getting to Bancroft was on my bucket list ever since I read the story of Kossuth years ago. I’m a sucker for obscure history and this county peaked my interest long before the T-Bone Trail ever started. But, it was the trail that got me there and that’s another bucket list item checked off! Let’s take cover from the hot sun and see some of Algona’s history…

Get Some History

There’s not very many folks I’ve met that know about the WWII POW camps that dotted the map in Iowa and beyond. Algona has a museum that maintains and exhibits the history of Camp Algona and the plight of the German prisoners that were housed in Iowa. This is a very important part of Iowa’s role in WWII and how our nation handled the POWs from the axis powers. Make time for the Camp Algona POW Museum when you get within horseshoe throwing distance of Kossuth County.

This historical marker will be placed at the former site of Camp Algona which is now where the local regional airport is located.

Imagine flying into Algona, Iowa and imagining that the strip you’re about to touchdown on once had hundreds of German prisoners and many US Army guards and personnel in the surrounding acreage. These are the historic areas that get us to stop like clockwork on our road trips and we are extremely grateful for everyone that keeps this museum operational and keeping the doors open for all of Algona’s visitors. You can go see the airport, where Camp Algona was locate, but it’s history is housed in town.

These are just the POW camps in the Midwest. It was hard for me to comprehend just one camp holding Nazi and Italian POWs in America, many years ago when I heard about these facilities for the first time, much less a map like this. And it’s only 12 states.
Like all prisoners, the German POWs spent countless hours trying to stay occupied. These two, like many others, wrote poetry to pass the time in Algona, Iowa.
Artwork created by the enemy POWs is still on display at the Camp Algona Museum. Subjects and landscapes were created out of memory by the prisoners with many of them constantly thinking of home and loved ones back in Europe. Some of the portraits were of the American serviceman like the Chaplin in the bottom left.
There are poems like this all over the world by POWs of all nationalities. We all want our mother our whole lives.

The Camp Algona POW Museum shows the story of what life was like for this NW-Iowa community during the war years of the 1940s. It was a tough period for the entire country and the introduction of enemy prisoners to the daily lives of folks in Algona was a shocking alteration to what they were used to before war broke out. However, the Kossuth County area put the POWs to work towards the allied war effort on local farms and industry that utilized the influx of extra hands available to them. Much of the heartland’s youth were already overseas and away from the farms they helped tend to, especially during planting and harvest seasons. The POWs went to work and helped produce record amounts of product that went into processing during these years. There was even cases of POWs enjoying the Iowa land and its people so much, they moved back to the area after the war. It was an awful time for hundreds of millions across the globe, but their are stories out there that illustrate glimmers of goodness in the middle of the most destructive time period in human history. A poem to Mom, a painting of a loved one back home, or contributing to a successful harvest that will be feeding and energizing the soldiers that are trying to overrun your comrades. Just a mere sample of what was created by the German POWs of Camp Algona. There was another impact they had on the area as well. A scene that took years to complete and a scene that has been enjoyed by many for almost 80 years.

Say hello to Marvin! Our host of the Algona Nativity Scene and a man that has incredible passion for this precious piece of Iowa and WWII history.

I will always admire people that exude positivity and inspiration for their community and places that house important history. I showed up to the Kossuth County fairgrounds to observe a piece of Algona’s POW history and received much more of a welcoming than a finger pointing in the direction of the nativity. I met someone who has devoted endless energy to keep this priceless artwork relevant while searching for the history of the POWs who created it.

Marvin and his colleagues have found descendants of the artists that created the historic Nativity Scene and it has produced headline after headline of international press into this little piece of Algona.
Marvin flips through the articles in newspapers from all over the map. He can tell you how each story is detailed by just glimpsing at the pages.
It is this. The Nativity Scene that Algona has on constant display all year long. A gift left to the community by the German POWs from Camp Algona.

Each figurine was formed and completed with great detail over the course of Horst Wendlandt’s imprisonment, who was leading the efforts. He had assistance from other inmates and it helped to occupy there time at Camp Algona. There’s little good that comes from war and much of the world’s most amazing pieces of art were destroyed during these years. Some by the destructive nature of bombings, fires, and collapsed buildings. Much of it destroyed intentionally by the Nazi-SS during their occupation of territories in Europe, Soviet Union, and North Africa. These acts are irreversible and mankind will never lay their eyes on some of history’s most revered pieces of art and architecture again because of this timeframe in the mid 20th century. However, it’s crucial that we preserve the beauty that was created during a period of massive destruction. You can honor one of those pieces of modern art in Algona, Iowa and imagine its importance to the future onlookers hundreds of years from now. Marvin and the crew tend to make such memories happen.

It’s time to get a NW-Iowa education in the last two story schoolhouse left in the state. And it’s right here in Kossuth County.

The Kossuth County Historical Museum is inside the main business district of Algona and it’s one of the rarest museums you’ll enter when you’re gallivanting through Iowa. This museum was once a two story schoolhouse and has been continuously operating in some form from the days it was hosting Algona’s pupils to what is now Kossuth’s house of history.

This museum was once a Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Hall and now it exhibits one of the most impressive collections of Civil War artifacts I’ve seen in Iowa’s county museums. The satchel was from a former Civil War soldier and still smelled like gunpowder from the ammo it once held. I would love to get one story from this artifact if it could talk.
Multiple levels of Kossuth County history is arranged here and the volunteers do a terrific job of managing the museum year after year.
And the folks here are always ready to give you an antique music lesson to go with your history lesson.

One of the most enjoyable parts of every visit to Iowa’s county museums is meeting the folks who work them. The vast majority of the workers are volunteers and they do it because they love the community they’re preserving. Kossuth County is no exception to this wonderful way of seeing the area through decades of history. The Kossuth County Historical Museum is right around the corner from the Camp Algona POW Museum and makes for a great tandem of history when you’re enjoying downtown Algona. And the history lesson doesn’t stop here….

Back to the fairgrounds and the Kossuth County Agriculture & Motorsports Museum. The first thing that really caught my eye were all the paintings by Russell Sonnenberg. They’re all over this facility and depict life in rural Iowa in incredible detail.
Movie buff alert! This motorsports museum has the actual car from Richard Pryor’s Greased Lighting!
A birds eye view of this ag and motorsports museum. That’s a lot of history through the shine and age of Kossuth’s tractors, racecars, and everything that loves a fresh tank of fuel.
Just across the hall from the the big toys is the little toys. But, it’s a big track here. You ever lose yourself watching the animals at the zoo? The same hypnotic thing can happen here when you’re watching the trains zip by.

Stay Active

I was taking a drive through the northern reaches of Kossuth County and I got the urge to stretch my legs. One thing I always tell travelers is to pay attention to those brown signs with white lettering. Big or small, they lead to some amazing places and can get you enjoying a long walk in the great outdoors. I love these places and I’m making more of an effort to explore these public lands during my travels. This refuge jumped out at me and I knew I would be under the Kossuth County skies for a much needed break from driving.

Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge popped out at me like a big watery signal to pull over. And that’s just what I did!
Iowa’s federal public lands aren’t around every corner like some other states in this country. I’ve done my best to take advantage of thier trails whenever possible like the one at Union Slough. Surrounded by miles and miles of rural Kossuth County with a big change in scenery compared to the southern areas around Algona.

Only in Kossuth

There’s unique shops, scenery, personalities, and buisnesses in every community. We stopped by some of these great places in a past gallivant and we had to come back for seconds. There’s always time for an oppertunity to baby your pets and you can do that in a very entertaining way here in Algona!

State Street-Algona is a busy stretch of many shops and restaurants and one of our favorite places to visit and revisit is Pet Kingdom!
This place is designed to pamper our pets, but it’s one of the most smile producing stops you can take in Kossuth County. Upstairs and downstairs, front to back, and everywhere you look is another fun way to shop for our loved ones that might be fury, scaly, or underwater goers. Look at that portion of catnip! Whoooooooo, baby!
A quick stop at Reeb’s Wicked Good Bar & Grill and a can of local brew. Titonka Brewing Company is a Kossuth County original and this small town establishment is one of the places you can knock back this Iowa craft beer.
Train Wreck Winery made it back on The Iowa Gallivant! We’ve stayed in touch with the folks that make this old depot thrive with award winning wines and we couldn’t wait to stop back in again.
It’s always a good sign to see the medal winners when you walk in. Train Wreck Winery has been making a great name for themselves and representing the Algona area with delicious varieties every year.
A second time to Train Wreck for Monie and a first time for Mom. This winery just made two Texans very happy on a stunningly beautiful afternoon in Algona. Get your wine tasting started here at Train Wreck Winery!

Let’s Eat Steak!

We’re back to State Street! Algona’s Billie Jo’s Bar & Grill was the Kossuth County participant on the T-Bone Trail in Western Iowa! 4 East State Street

We first came to Billie Jo’s Bar & Grill a few years ago during a RAGBRAI scouting mission. On that Gallivant I went face first into their hot dog and cheeseburger combo called the 4th of July burger. It made it onto our Best Between Bread series and now Billie Jo’s was back on TIG and this time for Western Iowa’s T-Bone Trail!

A great beer list that includes some popular Iowa craft beers!
Tasty apps like onion rings and spicy boneless chicken wings came charging in. Along came the fresh side salad and plenty of Bleu cheese dressing to go with it. Yup, I love to pepper-up my salads!
Another juicy Ribeye headlining another great meal on the T-Bone Tail!

Perfectly aged steaks are a true gift to the beefy world of amazing dinners. Billie Jo’s is very proud of their Ribeyes and the one that I would tear into was waiting for a good home for 28 days. A common time period for premium aged steaks and I could taste the care and patience that went into it. Billie Jo’s was bursting with customers and the servers were keeping up with the rush of people coming in. My steak, apps, and salad arrived with expeditious grace and an entertaining personality to go with the whole experience. Not to mention that the meal was another great one that I got to enjoy at this fast paced restaurant in Algona. Click here and watch our video from Billie Jo’s Bar & Grill!

Check-In

AmericInn & Suites had it’s second round in as many days when it came to hosting Team Goodvin on the T-Bone Trail. This time in Algona! 600 US HWY 18 515-295-3333

AmericInn & Suites-Algona welcomed a very active family to wind down after another summer day in NW-Iowa. We’ve had some great stays at this hotel chain during our past Gallivants and we were back again! From what I can recall, this was the fourth time we’ve checked into an AmericInn over the years and Algona’s was just as comfortable and relaxing as we expected. And for the second day in a row!

No, Gigi you can’t call both of them!
Fridge, flat screen TV, and remote at the ready for an evening of surfing from my big and fluffy pillows at the AmericInn!
That break lasted about 11 seconds when the kids heard there was a pool down the hall. Well played, AmericInn!
Morning came quickly because there was another NW-Iowa county we needed to explore for the T-Bone Trail. There was no shortage of coffee to get the day started right in Algona.
Pancakes made to order from the AmericInn’s fancy DIY pancake machine. The complimentary breakfast is an inviting way to keep coming back to the AmericInn. It was well prepared and stocked with plenty of options.

There was no worries when we pulled up to the parking lot at another AmericInn & Suites on the T-Bone Trail. We have come to look forward to our stays here and that’s because we’ve never had a bad day, afternoon, evening, or night at this member of the Wyndham hotels family. Algona’s had the clean rooms we knew they’d have and plenty of ways to keep us entertained at night and fed in the morning. This property is an easy few minutes of a drive to State Street and all of Algona. We splashed our way into the night and awoke to the comfort of a great night’s sleep in our room with the AC cranked all night. I even got three loads of laundry done in their guest laundry room! Boy, we needed that bad in the middle of a three week road trip through Western Iowa. Thank you, AmericInn & Suites for another great stay on TIG! The entire staff rocked while we were here!

Bonus Beef

Were you wondering what we had for lunch? I knew you were! We stopped at Lucky Bowl because we’ve had extremely good luck when it comes to small-town Chinese restaurants. And we found another great one in Algona! Papa Bear got the Mongolian beef to keep the beefy momentum going on this Kossuth County expedition. That egg roll stayed scorching hot during the entire meal!
Skoglund Meats is on the Kossuth County side of West Bend and they have a special history with TIG as well. They were the first locker featured on out project called Iowa’s Wurst Road Trip: Casing the State for the Best Sausage. We first came here in the winter of 2017 and they set the bar very high when it came to the search for Iowa’s tastiest sausages. Skoglund’s is known for many great products and that includes their own special hot dog recipe known as Mike’s Wieners. Skoglund Meats are local legends which means you should be bringing a cooler when you make plans to see the Grotto of the Redemption across the street!

I loved how we mixed in some newly discovered places and areas with locations we’ve been to before in Kossuth County. I spent much of 2020 wondering when I was going to see towns like Algona again. As much as I love diving into a new area, I found it very relieving when it came to revisiting places we loved discovering in past road trips. I thought about these places often and I don’t mind saying that it can be a little emotional when returning. Kossuth County showed more of it’s HUGE land mass to us on this trip while leaving many square miles left for another Gallivant or several. And I won’t be able to resist myself when it comes to checking in on the local folks I’ve met over the years. Here in Kossuth County and beyond. Something tells me that a Christmas season trip to Algona would be a very fulfilling one….

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See everything we’ve covered on The Iowa Gallivant in the Northwest Region of Iowa!

Just one time around the block. Or let’s say I’ll turn around when I get to Swea City….

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