The Remarkable History of Camp Dubois

Almost as free as hawks. But still, very far from home …

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POW6The snows are building in the mountains again, and the “snowbirds” with homes in Arizona are gone.

And about this time of year, more than 70 years ago, an extraordinary group of summer visitors would have been leaving Camp Dubois. It must have been an unusually melancholy return to civilization for them, traveling to the much larger base camp at Scottsbluff and leaving behind the “most beautiful time” in a place “cut off from the outside world” where, like the hawks, one man wrote, “we could lift ourselves away from the everyday life of the prisoner.”

Its name might bring to mind a summer camp for girls, but Camp Dubois was a temporary home for up to 150 German prisoners of war and U.S. military personnel. Located at about 9000 feet in elevation, far back in the woods roughly 9 miles from town as the crow flies, it was established at the request of Wyoming Tie and Timber, whose free-living American employees lived in villages in the mountains all winter, felling trees to create railroad ties. Camp Dubois was open for 14 months in the milder seasons from 1944 to 1946, helping to fill a wartime labor shortage.

POW5The POW camp was dismantled and bulldozed after the war, although fascinating traces remain hidden in the woods up near Union Pass. Thanks to the extensive records and photos of camp commander Lieutenant Harold Harlamert, to military records, and to the prisoners’ own letters, poems, diaries (and even a Skype interview of a former inmate last April) amassed by local historian Cheryl O’Brien, Camp Dubois may be one of the best-documented “branch” POW camps in the United States.

I was lucky enough to visit the site two summers ago, when I took these pictures. This article is based on a presentation Cheryl gave last August during the week before the solar eclipse.

Due to its isolation, the camp did not need to be heavily guarded. Some POWs at Camp Dubois volunteered to come, in order to escape from harassment by pro-Nazi POWs at the larger base camp. All the evidence suggests its residents were relatively content.

POW7Although they had to wash in the stream while the enlisted men who worked as guards got hot showers, the prisoners were well treated according to the strict guidelines of the Geneva Convention. Only one POW died during the camp’s existence: 19-year-old Max Stoll was killed when a gust of wind blew down a tree he was felling.

The POWs slept in wood-framed tents covered with white canvas, each of which had a wood-burning stove. They did much of the same work as the civilian tie hacks: cutting logs with two-man crosscut saws and axes, and stacking them to be taken to the river and floated down to Riverton.

They would have eaten well, especially when their food was provided by the civilian loggers. The prisoners trapped game in their spare time, and they wrote of bagging rabbits, grouse, and porcupine.

A stray dog that a POW found at one of the sawmills became the camp pet.  Their postcards home were sent postage-free through the US mail.

The life held a “special kind of romanticism,” as POW Rudolf Ritschel wrote, and they were excited to see real cowboys. But for all that, remoteness had its loneliness. And they were far from home.

POW8According to Knights of the Broadax, a book about the tie hacks, some men cried when the wife of the store manager at the civilian tie-hack village brought her infant son along on a visit. Kip MacMillan, the grandson of the President of Wyoming Tie & Timber Company, recalls being terrified when, as a young boy, he was told by his grandfather that he would be spending a night at the camp, unaccompanied. But when he got there he was treated like a long-lost member of the family. One POW even gave up his bed for Kip and slept on the floor.

After the war, the men were eventually freed, but it took months and sometimes years for Camp Dubois’ residents to return home. Cheryl knows of only one POW who revisited the camp. Fritz Hartung brought his family to Dubois in 1975, to show them where he once hiked and “swam with beavers”.

Starting two years ago, representatives of the US Forest Service began meeting with interested Dubois residents about how to preserve and provide interpretive information about the Camp Dubois site and make it accessible to visitors. Cheryl is currently working on a book about her research into Camp Dubois and the other 15 branch POW camps that once existed in Wyoming.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

The Unanticipated Pleasures of Commuting

What’s causing this slowdown? (No ordinary jam.)

TrafficOne major advantage of working remotely, of course, is that you no longer have to deal with this.

(I have the impression that the word “telecommuting” has fallen out of favor. Nobody wants to think about commuting, even in the context of avoiding it.)

It’s always a jolt to return to a city while traveling somewhere, and have to encounter the reality of rush hour. There’s nothing novel about it. I did this for quite a while back in the day, on the Long Island Expressway and in New Jersey.

It was worth it at the time. I loved my job.

Then I found myself lucky enough to do a job I could love without ever having to hit the brakes. Out here there is rarely any traffic to speak of (except during total eclipses of the sun and the high summer tourist season). Once during eclipse week I actually had to wait several minutes to take a left turn onto Horse Creek Road. Shocking!

DuboisEastbound030116“I think I’ll just slip into traffic,” my husband (that native New Yorker raised in Manhattan) will intone as he pulls onto the highway, with not a car in sight. It’s rarely difficult to catch a picture like this one, which I snapped from the passenger seat as we were heading toward town.

Nearly all the roads out here are two-lane, but I’m not at all nervous about passing. You don’t have to wait long until absolutely nobody is in sight coming the other direction.

The trade-off is that often we have to commute away for errands, such as visiting the county seat, going to a medical specialist, or shopping at a big box store. The larger towns are more than an hour away. So we do have something of a commute now and again.

This seemed a burden at first, but I’ve realized that my neighbors take it for granted. You have to go “down county” on Thursday. Big deal. I used to take the subway to the Bronx to see my ophthalmologist. Took just as long on the subway, and let’s not even talk about that view.

100_0112

It can actually be a pleasure to take the drive down county, someone reminded me the other day. It’s nice to see how the view changes in different light as you cross the reservation.

I like to listen to the Native American station from Ethete, and rest my mind on thoughts of the people who crossed this plain long before my kind of folk did. How did they see these vistas?

The landmarks pass, just as they did in New York City. Not 14th Street, 34th Street, Times Square, crowds and noise and subway tiles, but Red Rocks. Crowheart Butte. Antelope there. Fort Washakie. Miles and miles of grass and sage and sky.

TogwoteeAutumnFog3Now and again we have to head over the pass to Jackson, where we can’t avoid contending with traffic. Some people like Jackson. I think of it as something I have to endure, now and again. The compensation is eating at a Thai restaurant for a change.

The destination is a grind, but the journey is a reward.  There’s the Pass in autumn, with morning fog rising from the slopes.

Again, observe the traffic.

I keep my eyes glued to the sides of the road for wildlife, but rarely see any. (More likely closer to home, I’ve found.) But neighbors told me there are grizzlies that hang around out here. I’ve seen their pictures on Facebook.

PassHighway022514_2A few miles along from here, the vista opens up and you see those Tetons, which so many people travel so far to admire. (They’re the white stripe at left in the image, sunlit beneath the winter clouds.)

Personally, I prefer our own Winds and Absarokas, but it’s always pleasure to see these peaks looming up as we head to Jackson. We drive into the tangle, accomplish our errands, and head gratefully back toward Moran Junction, hoping not to encounter another jam.

What’s causing this slowdown? Ah, there’s a moose over there and people are pulling off and pulling out their binoculars.

As my husband would say: High-class problem.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Fake News About Dubois, and the Facts

Groceries, grizzlies, antelope farms, and more …

Most of what follows is hearsay. In the past few weeks, several people have told me about some remarkable comments they’ve heard from visitors to town. I’ve also run across some other amusing misconceptions on my own.

I decided I should set the record straight:

Outfit1. We don’t dress this way as part of a historic re-enactment. This is really how we like to dress, and for good reason. We wear brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts for protection against the fierce sun. We wear vests because it’s just enough to keep us warm in the high-desert cool. We wear jeans because they’re comfortable and sturdy. We wear boots because they keep the rocks out. (Here’s what I might be wearing today, if I hadn’t chosen a different shirt, vest, and jeans.)

2. Whatever that person in Jackson may have said, there’s no need to stock up before heading this way. Dubois does have an amply stocked grocery store, a gas station (well, actually four of them), and many places to buy a cup of coffee (or even a latte, a cappuccino, or a chai).

3.  There probably isn’t a grizzly bear in the Town Park just now.  Our bear expert Brian does say that, in theory, except in the dead of winter, a grizzly could be anywhere. But a grizzly doesn’t want to see you any more than you want to see her. We know better than to leave trash around for her to find, and she prefers to be in the forest anyway. Everybody knows how to recognize the signs that a bear has been around, and if any had been seen recently, you can bet that (1) everybody would be talking about it and (2) it would have been taken care of long before they began talking.

Antelope_1006174. We do not “farm” deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, or other animals you may see behind fences near town. This is actually the wildlife you have come all this way to view. They come here of their own free will, probably because they like it around here as much as we do. They leap the fences, live in peace with the livestock, and like to graze our fields. (Please drive with care.)

5. We’re not all cowboys in Dubois. Indeed there are many working cowhands, retired cowboys, former cowboys, and would-be cowboys. But the population also includes (off the top of my head) a computer architect, a designer of medical devices, a lobbyist, and many painters and photographers.

stopsign6. Dubois does have stop signs.“There’s not even really a stop sign in town,” Jeda Higgs said on the video “Chasing Totality: Making the Eclipse Megamovie.” I probably would have been dazzled by the exposure too, but that was hyperbole. More accurately, there is no stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light for cars making the 90-degree turn on the highway as it passes through the center of town. They have the right of way (and locals know it). People do face stop signs as they enter the highway from many side streets in town, and there are more in the residential parts of the village.

7. Dubois is not the most remote town in the lower 48 states. I dealt with this long-held and much-quoted myth in a previous post. The following is true: Dubois is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest large towns. A remarkable proportion of the surrounding landscape is publicly owned wilderness. The nearest Interstate is about 3 hours away. On the other hand, goods and services are easily accessible and residents take the commute to big-box stores and other conveniences as a fact of life (just as people elsewhere endure traffic, which we don’t have). Besides, those “commutes” are unusually scenic. But by any published criterion, Dubois is not the most remote town in the US. Maybe the most interesting or most charming or most authentically Western or most friendly remote town in the lower 48, but not the remotest.

100_06658. Winters aren’t brutal in Dubois (generally). Last winter may have been tough, true. But in general, temperatures here are several degrees warmer than in Jackson. Most of the snow (usually) gets dumped on that side of Togwotee Pass or on the Pass itself, giving us wonderful opportunities for snowmobiling and snowshoeing. The dry climate keeps winter temperatures surprisingly tolerable. And the air is magically clean.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Watching for Wildlife on the Road

Encounters of surprise and delight (we hope)

SheepAs a volunteer, I’ve been helping the Chamber of Commerce to survey visitors to Dubois about their vacation plans. What, asks the questionnaire, have you come here to experience?

The same three words recur: Mountains. Scenery. Wildlife.

Mountains and scenery are guaranteed, but not the latter, unless visitors are willing to go out of their way and out of their comfort zone. It’s fairly rare to see creatures other than cattle near the highway (although we must watch out for deer). We don’t have an elk preserve, after all, and the bison are all on the other side of the pass.

Stay around long enough, however, and they do come your way. These encounters are often moments of surprise and delight — like the time I came upon these bighorn sheep at the base of the red rocks.

But we hope not to have any encounters of surprise and terror. A neighbor caught a mountain lion in her night camera. I once saw a lone wolf at the edge of the aspen grove from the safety of my dining room window. I have yet to see a bear up close and personal, and I do all I can to avoid it.

Here’s what turned up on the back road beside a neighbor’s house last week. My hiking companion took this picture, and showed it that evening to a friend who is a wildlife specialist.

BearScatAs we had suspected from the color and the contents: Bear scat. Probably a small bear, said our expert. All week, everyone who drives that back road has been detouring around this specimen, as if the evidence itself is dangerous.

Can we ever hike in the back woods again? “Don’t be chickenshit!” said another neighbor. “Of course you can! We’re all going to die sometime! Just make lots of noise.”

(Bear scat. Chicken shit. That night all my dreams were of animal waste. It was not a pleasant sleep.)

That day, we decided to turn away from the woods and on up the back road, where we had a reward of sorts. “Look!” gasped my companion, who is an amateur birder. “There’s a grouse!”

grouseEvery once in a while, I scare up a female in the sage–usually in the spring, when she flits about protecting a nest I haven’t seen. This one was a resplendent male.

Amazingly, the dogs didn’t even see him. He stood stock still watching us warily, and eventually decided to strut right across the road, only a few yards ahead.

That was a safe road crossing, back between the second-home cottages. Where I live, it’s a perilous passage.

Early this evening, I took my cup of tea out to the front porch to keep the dog company as he sniffed around the yard in the fading light of the day. While he was hunting up an old bone somewhere, I saw movement on the other side of the garage. I was startled to watch as a small herd of white-tailed deer emerged: two females and three fawns grown large after a wet summer.

Four of them moved slowly toward the highway, grazing. But the female at the back sensed me there, and turned. I sat frozen.

The last thing I would do would be to run back into the house for my camera! All I have to show here is the empty scene.

DrivewayI watched with some concern as the small herd headed up the drive toward that highway. Traffic is light this time of year and that time of day, but it is also fast — especially the semi trucks racing downhill toward town. And the light was fading.

What should I do if, as so often happens, one of them was struck while crossing the road? I’ve never witnessed that particular surprise and terror as it is happening.

As they neared the highway, I stood up for a better view. They stopped to graze again on the other side of the gate. Now and again the large doe looked back warily. But they had no concern as they began to amble across the highway, as if they had all the time in the world. I heard the hum of tires uphill.

A small white SUV approached from the west. It slowed, and then stopped on the other side of the highway, pulling to the shoulder. It waited there several minutes. Some lucky visitors got their wish. (Thanks to their vigilance, I also got mine.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.