POW Nativity

I have never visited this international treasure even though it’s less than 30 miles from my home so yesterday this is where Reed and I went.


In 1946 during WWII German prisoners of war were held at Camp Algona. One pamphlet says the number of prisoners was 10,000 and another says 3200. During this time the German prisoners were lonely and to fill the time they made a half size nativity scene.

The project was finished and ready to display for Christmas 1945. The figures are made of concrete over wire and wooden frames. There are 65 one-half size figures which are finished with hand carved plaster and painted making them very realistic.

When the camp disbanded in 1946 the city of Algona made it a permanent exhibit in a heated building with stars in the night sky and a brook/waterfall over rocks.

The three wisemen approach from the left with their camels standing behind them.

The little town of Bethlehem is painted as if in the distance and the Angel is suspended over the stable roof. It is a moving exhibit and one I felt was educational for Reed. Since it is open only during the month of December we had to take a break from our sewing to go to Algona.

There are many historical documents that we did not take the time to read but since I had many questions I went online to see if I could learn the answers to a number of questions.

1. Why does one account say 10,000 prisoners and another says 3200.

2. Where were these prisoners captured?

I learned that these prisoners worked on farms and farm related factories such as the canning factory in Blue Earth, MN because the farmers and workers were fighting in the war. The value of their work in the 4 state area is estimated at $3,506,000!

Does anyone have the answers to my questions? Reed and I discussed this at length and I’m still curious.

We had a nice afternoon which included a stop at the thrift store which yielded 2 small clocks, a white dog planter, a chicken mug and 3 books. Can you believe books cost only 20 cents each?

With the warm weather we’re enjoying the grass is beginning to turn green! The pond thawed out and the geese had a ball today.

Last night we got some pretty heavy rain leaving puddles everywhere.

Worked on the plants in the basement today – with helpers.

It exhausted Ernie evidently.

And if Ernie can be on the island, Hazel thinks she can, too. I am outnumbered!

54 thoughts on “POW Nativity

  1. SandyBessingpas

    I have never heard of that Nativity. What a special place to visit at Christmastime. I have 15 inches of fresh snow in my yard..waiting for the plowman to come..it is up to my knees..it has been snowing steadily since late yesterday.

  2. Becky from TX

    I grew up in Osage and never knew it existed….well my Aunt and Uncle from Garner never said anything either. Wish I had known. That Hazel ain’t she something……what a hoot!

  3. Betty Klosterman

    I can’t remember where I read about it and it may be the camp at Algona. The prisoners volunteered for tests to see how long a man could go without food or water before they couldn’t fight. It showed the prisoners walking on a tread mill to see just how far they could go. The men were so thin their bones were just held together with skin.
    Another place you and Reed can go is West Bend. It is heaven for a kid who loves rocks.
    Are you getting the storm or is it missing you. Today we had lots of strong winds with snow blowing all over. Plus it is about 15 degrees and nasty cold especially with the wind. We don’t have that much snow in Rapid, but it is worse east of us. Take care of yourselves and all the critters. My cousin in Watertown has all the grandkids and lots of popcorn and cocoa. So they are probably having a great time.
    Hope you had a very merry Christmas.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Betty Klosterman – you must have missed my post from last August when I took both Reed and Myra to the Grotto.

  4. Sandy Bessingpas

    Interesting post. I have never heard of that site..and the history behind it is interesting. I have 15 inches of snow since yesterday afternoon and it is still coming down. I will get plowed out tomorrow morning.

  5. Linda

    Mary, you and Reed need to return to Algona for a visit to the Camp Algona museum. All your questions would be answered. It is a very well done collection of many artifacts and information from the POW Camp…just one block south of the Kossuth County courthouse.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Linda – actually we did visit the museum but it would take hours to read all that’s there and we said we will go back sometime. I figured I could get my questions answered online.

  6. Diane in Central Ohio

    This is really interesting. I will ask my sister who taught history if she knows about it. Great trip for both of you. Hazel makes me laugh😺😺. Nice here in Central Ohio. 44* and going up!!

  7. Patricia Campbell

    How incredibly….. civil…. Can you imagine the prisoners at GITMO doing this? hmmmmm…..
    I think not.
    Thank you Mary for another wonderful post!!
    Merry belated Christmas!!

    Patti from Phoenix, AZ

    1. Patricia Campbell

      Oh! And we are to have a low of 36° tonight! 34° later this week. Quite chilly for Phoenix, but this northern girl LOVES it!! Tomorrow, I go ice skating!!! ⛸⛸

    2. Barbara

      Somehow doubt the prisoners at Gitmo, being Muslim, would be interested in creating a scene from the Christian bible!

  8. Patricia Campbell

    Oh! And we are to have a low of 36° tonight! 34° later this week. Quite chilly for Phoenix, but this northern girl LOVES it!! Tomorrow, I go ice skating!!! ⛸⛸

  9. Felicia Hamlin

    I have heard about it, but I didn’t realize that is only open in December. Do you know if it is open on the week ends? Thank you, Mary. Happy New Year,.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Felicia- it is open this weekend but then closes until next year except by appointment.

  10. Pat Smith

    I grew up in Iowa and never knew there were German POW’s held there. What an interesting nativity display. Reading your blog has made me realize how many interesting sites there are in Iowa and nearby Minnesota. I wish now I had kept a list of the places and their locations that you’ve visited with Reed during the last year so that I might be able to visit some of them in the RV. It looks like spring in northern Iowa. I doubt it will last!

    1. Laura Stephens

      There was also a POW camp in Clarinda Iowa. They housed German prisoners, then later Italian and Japanese, as well. There are similarities in the camps, but no Nativity in Clarinda.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Lin – I think I’m wrong – we went to a museum just 2 blocks from the Nativity – I’m thinking there must be another one, huh?

  11. Carol

    What a treasure to share, along with some history. You lucked out with weather… in Western New York we will have temps in the 50s with rain rather than our typical freezing temps and snow and wind and ice. What a great holiday season, I don’t need snow, I need my family to travel safely!

  12. Marcella in Illinois

    Mary and Reed, You are teaching me new things through your adventures. I googled WWII prisons of war and found information that I didn’t know. Reed this would make a great paper for a future history class. Mary it is so interesting to read this blog and you are quite a photographer. Hazel makes me smile too. Happy New Year! May we all have good health and new adventures in the New Year. Happy stitches too.

  13. Beryl Hoff

    How interesting! The display is beautiful. I am sure it kept them going. I went to Luther for 2 years, years ago, and never heard a thing about this. It would have been fun to go visit. My brother lives in Owatonna, we may have to go down there if I get back there for Christmas next year. Thanks again for all of the wonderful pictures! We have had about 4 inches of snow since last night, thankfully no wind and in the 20’s today. It was very pleasant out there with the light snow falling nearly all day. I have been home the pat two days but must venture out tomorrow, I am hoping I get called that I am not needed!! ( I am in Montana just west of Helena about 25 or so miles in the mountains).
    Happy New Year!

  14. Sunflowers

    That hazel is a rascal! The picture on your wall of the goat in front of the red barn is what I saw a few years ago on Pinterest which then led me to your blog. I’m so happy I can follow you and all you do.
    By the way, my daughter just rescued a female pit bull in Indianapolis. To our surprise, this dog has such a gentle soul and is so loving. I think she’s grateful to be off the street and in a loving home. She wasn’t potty trained at the age of seven (best estimate of the vet) but is learning quickly and is so grateful to be inside! I swear that dog has a grin on her face at all times and she snores!
    Happy New Year!

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Sunflowers – that picture was my beloved Susannah who weighed less than a can of soda when she was born to a mother who hated her so I became her mother for almost 13 years. I raised her in my house for the first 18 months – she was trained like dog to go outside! And when I hear of rescue stories like that of your daughter ‘s it nearly brings me to tears. Oh but she is a lucky dog and please tell your daughter thank you for doing what’s right! Too bad there aren’t more like her.

  15. Mary Says Sew!

    There’s a TV program on the Germans at Camp Algona. If memory serves me, the focus of the show was about a band, and the show is an Iowa Public TV production.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Mary Says Sew! – oh thank you for that info! I’m going to look into it. You readers are the best!

      1. Mary Says Sew!

        Search Iowa Public TV, Camp Algona German Prisoners” and you’ll get a lot of links, for the TV show, newspaper articles, and a recent book by Linda McCann. Maybe add the book to your local book group or the blog book club.

    2. Betty Klosterman

      Yes, I remember seeing the Iowa Public TV program they had on the POW camp when we were visiting. Is there a list of all the people that were in the camp? And have some of their ancestors come to visit? I wouldn’t think that it would have been such a horrible place like the POW camps in Europe. And such foresight of somebody to put their beautiful work in a safe place where it could be enjoyed for a long time to come. Where did they go when the camp closed?
      And I’ve got to go look at August postings!! I will have to beg to miss it as sometimes my life can get pretty busy.

      1. CountryThreads Post author

        Betty Klosterman- I’m referring to a brochure that says the prisoners returned home in 1946 and several returned to view the Nativity years later. This was an interesting trip for Reed and me and I have so enjoyed our dialogue about it. I know so much more about this historical destination today thanks to the blog readers!

  16. Lynn McMahon

    The Camp Algona Nativity is a treasure! On your next visit to Algona you will need to visit the POW Museum which is located downtown.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Lynn McMahon – nice to hear from you, Friend! Reed and I went to the museum just 2 blocks from the nativity but just didn’t have time to read all of the info. Are you saying that there is a different museum?

      1. Sandy

        The POW museum is downtown and VERY interesting. The local Methodist church is responsible for the Nativity care. When volunteers sign up, they sign up for babysitting for Baby Jesus! My take on the 3200 vs. 10,000 is that 3200 could be housed there at one time, with a 10,000 total. I could be wrong about this.

  17. Linda

    I found this information on their website:
    During World War II Algona, Iowa was the site of a main camp for prisoners of war. This camp was ‘home’ to a total of 10,000 German prisoners from April 1944 to February 1946. The value of the work done by the prisoners in 34 branch camps in the 4 state region was estimated at $3,506,000. The average monthly population in the entire system was 3,216, although the number kept in the Algona camp rarely exceeded 2,500. The camp had a huge economic impact on the community of Algona and the surrounding area. The experience of the German prisoners in the Camp Algona system is explained in this exhibit.

    So it read that as 10,000 prisoners TOTAL from April 1944 to February 1946, but rarely exceeding 2,500 at any one time. Hope that helps! Here is their website: http://pwcamp.algona.org

  18. Bobbie Casey

    Several years ago we visited the Camp Algona Nativity, taking my parents with us. My dad served in WW ll. It is amazing. Today as I was looking @ your pictures Mary I realized the nativity set that I got from my Mom was almost an exact replica of the Algona one (it is an old set), including their clothes & the way they are standing, even the angel is in the same place. I love seeing pictures of Hazel – I’m sure she is very entertaining!

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Bobbie Casey – amazing that your older nativity set is so similar to the Algona scene! I wonder if a similar Nativity is still available.

  19. Janet

    What great pictures! My Book Club read the book “Stars Over Clear Lake” by Loretta Ellsworth and then visited Clear Lake and Algona this past summer. We are about 100 miles from Algona ( in southeastern Minnesota) but it was well worth the drive. We made an appointment so were able to tour the museum and see the Nativity scene. The tour guides were very knowledgeable and answered many of our questions. They felt the German prisoners were well cared for and some actually returned to the area after the war.
    Although the book is fiction it seems to be well researched and is a great read. We all enjoyed it.
    We look forward to your reading lists. They are a topic of discussion at our Book Club meetings. Thanks.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Janet – I ordered Stars Over Clear Lake for my friend Gayle and I believe someone else read it to her.

  20. Linda

    This is your answer to you second question:

    Each POW had a number that began with 8-or 12-. This indicates
    where they were captured. 8 means they were captured in Europe 12 means in
    Africa. There were other codes, but you get the idea. There were Italian
    prisoners in the US as well as Japanese. They had a different code system.
    The best answer would be, most of our 10k prisoners were Germans who were
    captured either in Europe or Northern Africa. Although the prisoners were
    to be held in a climate that was similar to where they came from, that was
    not always the case. The 400,000 prisoners were a commodity that were moved
    wherever they were needed.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Linda – oh my gosh! That is fascinating! I had no idea that matching their climate was considered. And obviously the prisoners were needed to do farm related work in the 4 state area because the locals were in the service. Thank you from all of us reading your answers!

  21. Nancy

    In umbarger, tx . solders painted and molded statues in St.mary’s church during that same time frame. Beautiful building….try to google it. I love your posts!!!! I m in Arlington tx. High today in 50’s.

  22. Kate

    What a hidden treasure. There must have been some artists in those who were captive. Glad they did something constructive like making the nativity. Makes one wonder if any of them ever came back after the war to see their creation.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Kate – yes, several of the men returned after the war to see the Nativity.

  23. Judy in Janesville, WI

    So thoroughly your visits. Reed is the best for company on your many trips. I bet he learns a lot.

  24. Diane in Central Ohio

    This is very interesting. I read all of the web sites you listed. I understand about housing them in similar climates, but how and why was Iowa picked? It seems far away from the East or West coasts where the pows would have initially landed. Fascinating!! I’d love to see the nativity. Maybe someday. 55* here today😺

  25. Laura

    When the community of Algona repainted the Nativity in the 1990s my son-in-law repainted some of the sheep, I think it was. I think the Camps were not studied much by the generation that was directly involved in the war because of their memories, which were too fresh in their minds to discuss. It was up to us and the next generation to show the history to the future. My father was incarcerated in Poland after being captured in North Africa early in the war and he only began to speak of his experiences in a limited way. It was the mid 70s before he and his fellow captives began to meet biannually to share their experiences.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Laura – another interesting bit of information – I did not know the Nativity had been repainted. Today’s adults would have liked to know more, wouldn’t we?

  26. Moe Baly

    Hi Mary, Maybe their were 3200 at a time but 10,000 different soldiers over the time the camp was open. There were similar camps in Door County, the German men picked fruit when it was time. There would not have been anything for them to do in winter so they may have been moved to other areas of the country where labor was needed. My uncle Ralph worked as a guard in a camp in Arkansas, he said it housed Italian prisoners. He said the barracks they lived in were nicer than the homes in the nearby town. Did you see the book on FB, I pointed out to you about the camps. I can’t remember the name of it now.

    1. CountryThreads Post author

      Moe Baly – I’m sorry but if you sent it through Messenger I know I did not see it. I just don’t use FB much and don’t have Messenger. It I think someone else mentioned the book and how the number of prisoners were counted.

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