Preserving the Remains Fort Sheridan WWII POW Camps

This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.

Preserving What Remains: Fort Sheridan WWII POW Branch Camps in the Cook County Forest Preserved in Illinois

Presenter: Paula Bryant


Located within metropolitan Chicago, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County owns and manages nearly 70,000 acres, or 11% of Cook County. This land management agency is the largest forest preserve district in the United States, with an estimated 40 million visits each year. Along with over 620 recorded archaeological sites, the Forest Preserves also contain the remains of three Civilian Conservation Corps camps, all of which were later used as World War II German Prisoner-Of-War branch camps of Fort Sheridan. In particular, Camp Skokie Valley, was one of the largest CCC Camps in the United States, housing over 2,000 men responsible for building the Skokie Lagoons, among other projects. The site was subsequently partially occupied by the 740th Military Police Battalion as Camp Glenview, then utilized as a German POW camp.

Archaeologists from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois-Urbana are collaborating with Forest Preserve staff, the public, and researchers from the University of Illinois-Chicago and the U.S. Forest Service on the documentation, interpretation, and preservation of the remnants of these CCC and POW Camps that have been hidden in plain sight. Given that the camps are situated within the third largest metropolitan area in the country, the potential for community access and community directed research and preservation is presumed great. We will discuss our ongoing efforts that have focused on raising local awareness of Camp Skokie Valley/Camp Glenview with public tours, using the area for the archaeological training, and further documenting the structures within the site.


Paula L. Bryant: Over the past few years, members of the Prairie Research Institute, which is comprised of five state surveys, including the Illinois state archaeological survey, have partnered with the Cook County Forest Preserve to develop the natural and cultural resources ... sorry, the natural and cultural resources master plan. This is a comprehensive and long term approach to identifying, protecting, restoring and interpreting the extensive range of natural and cultural resources that are present within the nation's oldest and largest forest preserve, which comprises 70,000 acres, which is about 11% of the area of Cook County. This is particularly important when considering that the proximity of the preserves to the 9 million plus inhabitants of the Chicago Metro area, whose urban expansion has eradicated most of the natural green space that's not otherwise acquired by the preserves.

So during the course of researching the cultural resources of the FPCC, the CCC and POW camps would come up every so often, but not usually directly impacted by work plans. So through conversations with other individuals and groups, it was recognized that we knew about the existence of the camps, however, very little research or field work had been done on them. Our efforts here are meant to bring together some of the information that has been opportunistically compiled or generated from the people and organizations over the years, in addition to highlighting some of the efforts we've made in increasing awareness of these areas and the importance of the preservation of the archaeological and architectural elements that remain.

Black and white aerial view of buildings and roads form a rectangle in the center of a field with a larger road on the right.
Aerial photograph of CCC Camp Thornton, 1938

There we go. So during the final years of World War II, more than 400,000 Axis prisoners of war were detained in over 500 camps across the United States. The majority of these prisoners came from Rommel's Africa Corps after their defeat in 1943. So shipping prisoners to the US solved several issues. They provided and ballast and empty ships that had just dropped off supplies to troops in the European theater, which subsequently nullified the need for shipping additional food and supplies overseas to sustain a POW population that would have been on European or African soils. So the POW’s has also relieved some of the labor shortages that were felt across the country, primarily in the agricultural sector, as much of the US workforce had been enlisted for the war effort. The POW worker wages, which were required by the Geneva Convention, were garnished and as such also helped to fund the program.

The US army's Fort Sheridan was utilized as an administrative headquarters for a system of 37 POW camps throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. Four of these camps were located in the Cook County and shared a history of several similar occupants over the years.

Looking at this through an archaeological perspective, history generally gives us the broad strokes and breaks down major events and turning points in the past, whereas archaeology uses material culture to afford us a look into the everyday life of people in a given place. So bringing the two together, you get a macro and micro scale approach to what was happening in a given place in time. There are several topics we can approach from that, these are just a couple, but we need to collect and record the information before some of these resources are no longer available.

Housing for the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corp Work Relief Program participants as well as other types of infrastructure required for the program, often took advantage of land parcels and facilities that were previously utilized during the World War I. So many CCC program administrators or US military staff were familiar with the decommissioned World War I storage areas and buildings. These administrators began modifying World War I facilities and public lands to fulfill the needs of the CCC camps. The program was discontinued with the advent of the US entering into World War II and later many of the camps were recommissioned to house the German prisoners for.

On this slide you can see the location of four POW branch camps in Cook County, as well as Fort Sheridan to the north. And this is the camps. We can see that Camp Thorton, Camp Pine, and Camp Skokie Valley are all located within the preserves, which are in green, and then Camp Arlington Fields was on an outer landing field for the Glenview Naval Air Station, which is now an US Army reserve station.

As for the ones that are still extent, I'll give a quick run through of what can still be seen at the camps, Thornton and Pine, before taking a closer look at Camp Skokie Valley. So Camp Thornton is located in the southern Cook County. There were four groups of occupants. The CCC enrollees used the area initially for tent camping and then later constructed wooden barracks and structures with tarpaper exterior's beginning around 1934. The camp was abandoned in 1943. In that summer there were 83 young boys from the Chicago area that hiked in and reoccupied the area in order to work for the summer on the local farms. In late 1944, the camp was converted to house over 740 German POW prisoners who worked on local farms and businesses, and some of those were baby food cannery and also a manufacturer of stock feed and fertilizer. So by February 1946, the prisoners had been repatriated to Europe or temporarily housed once again at Fort Sheridan.

The land was intermittently used through 1948 as a temporary headquarters of a local high school and to house other migrant workers. Several of the original CCC buildings were sold at auction and reassembled elsewhere. In 1955, the Girl Scouts of America leased the land and remaining structures and used the area until 1988 when the last of the three structures were bulldozed.

So here we have the satellite imagery from 2012 showing the forest preserve and then an overlay of the 1938 aerial, which shows Camp Thornton. So this would have been during the CCC occupation. And then we have some of the buildings on there. These buildings would have been used for the subsequent inhabitants as well. And if we remove the aerial, we can see where those buildings should be located today. So while it's difficult to see the camp from satellite imagery, the footprint of the camp is still recognizable if you know what you're looking for.

This is Camp Thornton today. This is from a view from the entrance of the camp. And there are some grass pads that are still visible along there. Here you can see some footings, remnant foundations and drainage ditches that are still present where we would expect to see them from the aerial photograph. And then looking around, there's also artifacts from the various occupations. Here there's brick and coal, concrete, and even some laminate flooring which would've come from the Girl Scouts being out there.

There's four highlights to recognize about Camp Thornton here. After a 2010 archaeological survey that crossed a small portion of the site, the site boundary for the camp was expanded from 7 acres to 31 acres to include some of the activity areas, including a baseball field. The most prominent portion of the camp that remains is a piece of cement art at the camp entrance, which was made by the German POWs which they then painted in a Betsy Ross flag pattern. Today it's being cared for by the Thornton American Legion Post 1070. And we have another historical signup here. The Illinois State Historical Society in 2010 erected a sign highlighting the various occupants at the camp. And then finally, one building is still remaining from Camp Thornton, but that's because it was purchased at an auction of the camp buildings in 1946 and relocated about two miles away at the Isaac Walton Preserve in Homewood.

Our second Camp Pine is a 21 acre site that's located along the Des Plaines River in Des Plaines, Illinois. The occupation here was very similar to that of Camp Thornton, and it began with the CCC tent camping eventually being occupied by the Girl Scouts of America. The POW portion of the camp ran from the spring of 1945 with 81 prisoners when it started and by June there were 223 German prisoners that were located there.

The prisoners were put to work on local truck farms as well as with Pesche's Flower and Greenhouse, which is an establishment that's still operating today just a few miles down stream from the camp. When the Girl Scouts took over, there were still remnants from the POW camp in the form of standing barbwire fences, guard towers, and signs that were printed in German, and that was as of 1948.

Here's a satellite view of Camp Pine that we have and a 1938 aerial as well. We have at least 22 structures that are visible on here. And here we see the building layout over the camp. So there's still portions of foundations in these locations and you may note the little areas of trees and bushes that happen to coincide with the building footprints. These are also apparently really great areas for the bird population, so it gives them cover while traversing the big open field that's out there. And that's one of the things we learned when checking out the site with the local forest preserve site steward. So they enjoy that for that aspect.

And then this is what Camp Pine looks like on the ground as you enter along the main camp road if you were to go in there today. The gravel path leading to main road, and then to the left and right.

There are several piles in the woods of architectural debris that have grown up between the camp road and the river, and this is where it appears the superstructures of the building were removed and then piled off to the side in the woods. So those are present within that area.

Black and white aerial view of 11 buildings forming a rough triangle in an open field surrounded by a forest.
Aerial photograph of Camp Pine, 1938

But many of the foundations still remain such as the [inaudible ] shower house foundation, it has a lift edge, and you can see a modified pipe with the metal and PVC up there as well. And this particular one is the aerial with a archived image of what one of the barracks buildings looked like from the ground. And this is actually from the CCC image of Camp Pine or CCC years.

There are some larger items that were found in the woods as well and sometimes the photographs can give us an idea as to where they came from. So in the lower right, this portion of a water tower support that also showed up in a photograph from the CCC days. We don't have any POW Europe photographs from the Camp Pine itself so we have the CCC photos for reference.

Here we have the Midden that's in the woods that is comprised of everyday items like bottles and ceramics and some hardware, like an electrical outlet. The ceramics have several makers marks that can help us identify the manufacturer's date. And the makers marks, we have found, date between 1934 and 1940 so this would have been during the CCC occupation, but these were also likely used by at least a POW group as both entities were at least partially run by the US military. So in the several times that we've revisited it appears that some of the ceramics and the bottles have been removed so this has led us to more fully document this area and apply for an Arbor permit to collect and preserve the diagnostic items that we have out there.

Camp Pine was recorded as an archaeological site in 1990. In 2013 there were potential plans to turn the area into a modern campground for the Forest Preserve as part of their camping master plan. However, after the archaeological survey results, another location ended up being chosen for that. So the site has been recommended for inclusion on the National Register considering its direct association with events that have made significant contribution to the broad patterns of history on a local and national level and it's potential to yield important information to understanding the local and natural history. As such, Camp Pine is currently being preserved in place with permitted collection of the Midden to ensure integrity of some of the information that may otherwise be lost.

So that brings us to Camp Skokie Valley, which is a 69 acre site located in Glenview, Illinois, which is adjacent to the north branch of the Chicago River. At its height, over 2,000 CCC workers lived at this camp, which is more than the population of the nearby town of Glenview in the 1930s. This large workforce was required to construct the Skokie Lagoons, which transformed the Skokie marsh into a recreation area that’s still used today.

The camp was abandoned by 1942 as the young men shifted from conservation work to military duty overseas and Congress ended the CCC program. The camp was then partially reoccupied by the 740th Military Police Battalion in the early years of the war. This battalion had a 30 piece band and was charged with protecting celebrities traveling through Chicago on war bonds drives. However, the need for local manufacturing and agriculture, in addition to the overcrowding of the Fort Sheridan POW population, prompted the conversion of a small portion of the camp to a German POW facility in late 1944. The camp opened with 137 POWs, but by June of 1945 Camp Skokie Valley housed 394 POWs. It's unclear when the camp officially closed, but evidence suggests it was the first to close of the three that we discussed here. The Girl Scouts took over in the latter part of the 1960s and renamed their portion of the space, Camp Adahi.

To take a quick look at the work of the CCC completed, we can look at this map of the development plans for the Skokie Lagoons, which also shows the CCC camp in the southern most portion I think ... I don't know. It's way down at the bottom over there of the map. The photographs below show some of the excavation of the lagoons along the north branch of the Chicago River. There were some machines that were used, however much of this work was hand dug, so there's that.

Here's a photograph showing flooding in a nearby town when the river would rise into the marsh, which was a common problem associated with living in the area. Then we have an aerial view in 1935 as the creation of the lagoons is still in progress, so it's partially filled.

Here we have the Camp Skokie Valley satellite imagery, and we have a little bit more extensive camp that's overlaying on the 1938 aerial, and that shows three sections of buildings as it would've been fully utilized within the CCC camp.

This is those areas where we would expect to see them in the the woods today. So a portion in the northeast of the camp was used for the Girl Scout Camp Adahi and was the only remaining structure that was on the site. It was comprised of two of the barracks buildings that were set up into an L shape and reconfigured. As per the lease with the Girl Scouts, they could modify existing structures but they could not build new ones. So the building remained uninhabited for several years after the Girl Scouts had ended their lease and unfortunately over the intervening years the building had fallen into disuse, which necessitated its demolition in the interests of public safety in 2016. It was just a couple of years ago.

For the rest of Camp Skokie Valley, it's best to view the remaining areas in the winter as the vegetation is down. This is one of the walkways on the south end of the camp. And here's an image of the camp street as it looked during the CCC days. And here are some of the foundational remnants that are still visible, drainage, ditches next to the barracks, and three sided foundations as a shared use space between the barracks. And then other features that can be seen are steps to a building that is no longer there. A fire hydrant as well as the footings to a guard tower that was located along the north branch of the Chicago River.

In 1946 the Chicago sanitary district was doing some repair work that ran along a portion of the camp. This was really helpful in that they created a map which shows the labels of some of the buildings, which we did not have. So there's a watch tower that's noted along with a kitchen and also a barbed wire fence. So it was likely that this was the area that was sectioned off to contain the POW prisoners, and then on the upper right, a 1951 aerial shows the northwestern portion of the camp that's partially dismantled. And then in this 2012 image, the maintenance facility and the watchman's residence is visible, which is what's out there today.

Here are a few images from the surface artifacts that have been located within the site, such as coal fragments, foundations, brick, and then parts of a roller for a machine.

In 2016 we recorded Camp Skokie Valley as an archaeological site. It had not been officially recorded until that point in time, however, it has not been evaluated for National Register of Historic Places eligibility. We've been using different opportunities that have arisen from other aspects of our work with the Forest Preserve in order to highlight Camp Skokie Valley site.

One of the issues that we run into is members of the public that are trying to clean up the woods, and they're not recognizing that they might be removing some of the surface scatters that would give indications to where some of these historic sites might still be in place. It's not always the case, however, it seems that at Camp Skokie Valley, it does not have a high density of portable artifacts visible, which may be a byproduct of some of these efforts. So we've attempted to counteract these activities with some of our outreach and interpretation.

We have several approaches to dispersing and collecting information, we've conducted site tours and there's also a Facebook page that was established for people to share stories and information that they may have. One place that has been particularly fruitful is the Hackney's restaurant that's just up the road from the camp. During the occupation by the MP’s, Hackney's was annexed into the boundary of the camp and this was so the soldiers could go get a beer and they didn't have to get a pass to go off base. So Hackney's is still there and there are still MP’s that will go there for a drink from time to time. So we've been able to run into some of those folks.

Coauthor, James Meyerhoff, and colleague, Arthur [Stasik], have conducted a number of informal interviews over the past decade with people who have had connections with Camp Skokie valley, including some of the guards, a member of the 740th MP battalions band, local residents, business owners who employed POWs, business owners who provided services to the camp for the camp staff, as well as a family member of an ex-prisoner that was held at the camp. For these interviews, it appears that camp life was relatively relaxed and relations between camp guards and prisoners and between neighborhood residents and prisoners were often friendly. However, specifics about the camp infrastructure and daily life at the camp seem to have been forgotten in favor of anecdotes of friendship and good times during a period of uncertainty and war. So these histories are of high priority. There are fewer people by the day that are available for such interviews. These stories fall then to relatives to keep if they were told them in the first place.

Next we have the Master Naturalist Training. So for several years we've taught the archaeology portion of the Illinois Master Naturalist program, which is run through the University of Illinois extension. We provide a hands-on experience for the Master Naturalists in understanding and appreciating the range of cultural resources that one might find in natural areas and what to do and who to contact when they find archaeological materials. And this is to help them become more engaged and responsible environmental stewards. So in 2018 we used Camp Skokie Valley area for the field work component of this course and this included a site tour, identification of portable and non-portable artifacts, architectural remains, and culturally modified landscapes mapping and recording site components, and a brief overview of the legislation protecting the cultural resources on public lands.

We've also conducted tours of the site that were advertised during a forum discussing the cultural history of the Forest Preserve. Engaging with the public and having a presence on the site has yielded some unexpected outcomes. I've dubbed them Tour Magic for our purposes here. One of the tour guides made an offhand suggestion that one of the attendees might go out to the National Archives and copy the original military documents that had been moved there. They were moved from the regional archives in Chicago so we don't have access to them over in our area. We did get a volunteer to do just that and he brought back over 16 gigabytes of data, so we're still going through those, but it was a very helpful thing for him to do.

And on another tour, a Forest Preserve resource manager who saw us giving the tour, directed us to an area that is usually covered by a pile of mulch, which you will see up here. And then he pointed out this area which was cleared off to find a step with Company 605 on it, which was attached to the foundation of a CCC era latrines/shower house, which we saw from the company designation and the many pipes and drains that were in there in the foundations. So through some Internet research, we were able to find the pictorial review of Company 605. So from this mention of an interesting step under a pile of mulch, we found images of daily life at the CCC camp, a company photograph, and a list of all those in the photos, in addition to the members that were not present that day. So from that one step, we've found about 60 to 90 people that are associated with this area. So this linking people to places compels visitors to think about their potential connections to the landscape as well.

For future plans, all three of the CCC POW camps discussed here have potential for continuing research efforts, public involvement, partnerships, interpretation, and preservation. The largest, Camp Skokie Valley, likely offers the greatest potential. The Youth Outdoor Ambassadors or YOAS, which is an established Forest Preserve program, offers paid internships to Chicago area youth, introducing them to careers and resource management, conservation and outdoor recreation. Working with the FPCC, we have had the opportunity to integrate archaeological resource management into these internship programs. And we feel that a Camp Skokie Valley project that includes archaeological field work and lab work, habitat restoration, archival research, community interviews and site interpretation would be an excellent fit for a long time YOA program.

Four short cement rectangular columns in over-grown brush covered in a blanket of snow with a creek in the background.
The remnants of a guard tower at Camp Skokie Valley

Secondly, there is a rapidly dwindling group of people who have had firsthand experiences with the camps during their occupation. Occasional interviews have been conducted, and those have shown the strength of the emotional connection that people have to the area. These are recorded, however, using a platform like Story Corps would be a good means for permanent story curation as well as public access platform such as that can give a much wider audience access to the history of their community without or in addition to actually visiting the site area. Also, European researchers searching for information on these camps could access this information as well.

So in addition to this, an onsite or a virtual space for visitors to contact an archaeologist or historian may be helpful in directing people to a common place to share their experiences. There have been several instances, a former POW is making a special trip back to the camps where they were interned and bringing their families to show them and share their stories, and then sometimes even going to check back on the farms and the farmers and their families that they worked with while they were there.

As far as photographic evidence is concerned, the University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections Daily Library contains over 331 linear feet of shelf space of FPCC records and photos from 1904 to 2011. These photos are unsorted and only minimally labeled, so nonetheless, a systematic investigation of this collection will be an important component to this ongoing project. To date, no World War II era documents or photographs have been discovered in this archive.

So the current research into the Chicago area branch camps constitutes a macro scale investigation into the POW experience in America. The current methods available in such an endeavor such as field survey, archival research, and informal interviews enable exploration of the broader top-down and dominant American side of the POW experience. We can explore concepts like the transformation and conversion of space, methods of control, status and identity, and the material culture of prison camps. More detailed methods of analysis such as archaeological sampling and excavation can investigate and expose the details of life within specific camps and for specific populations within these camps. So these locations are especially important for understanding dynamic changes in the land use through time on both the national and local level. The camps are places where people from a very wide variety of backgrounds developed connections with one another and developed connections to a particular place. And this continues today. So material evidence associated with this history is still present and, with a little digging and interpretation, we can connect a person taking a short walk in the woods into a glimpse of past people who also lived a portion of their lives in the same shared space. So by making them aware of the history and its presence around them, we can hopefully gain additional support for preserving this portion of a larger network of sites. Thank you.

Any questions?


Speaker 1: Hi. I was wondering if you've been able to reach out to any of the Girl Scouts that stayed there and did they or their families know that it was a former POW camp? Because I'm just imagining what that would look like today.

Paula L. Bryant: Yes. So we have done a few talks to the public on this topic and that's how I learned how to correctly pronounce Adahi. So they would come up after and talk to us about that, and they basically overall had a good time and some of them knew about the history of it. Others did not. The information that we received about the German signs and barbed wire still being up was from a Girl Scout camp letter, so from one of the leaders as they were starting to set up the camp. So they were aware of it. I don't know how many of the Girls Scouts were, but the leaders at least.

Mary Striegel: Other questions?

Speaker 2: Looking at the steps, going up to that latrine and bathhouse, I think you said, it didn't look like that was stamped, was it a stone step? A concrete step? And who built these structures?

Paula L. Bryant: It was concrete and the structures there would have been built by the CCC. So they started out with ... That group actually started out closer to the Skokie lagoons, and then the people whose land it was started to want rent, and so they moved it to this other area and then they built the CCC, built the structures for the people there.

Speaker Bio

Paula L. Bryant is a staff archaeologist at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Elgin, Illinois where her research interests currently focus on the management of cultural resources within public lands.

Last updated: June 12, 2024