EUREKA — Mary Kerr enjoys sharing stories from days gone by with children.
The retired teacher from Washington encourages an interest in the past by taking historical artifacts into schools through the Time Travels in Trunks program sponsored by the Washington Historical Society.
During one of Kerr's school visits, students became especially fascinated with information about World War II German prisoners of war who worked at local canning factories. That sent Kerr on a course of research that resulted in two books about the POWs' local experiences and how the war affected local residents' everyday lives.
Kerr will share research from her first book, the self-published 2016 "Washington's Homefront and the POWs," at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Eureka Public Library. She will discuss the role of POWs who were used by regional industries, including Libby, McNeill & Libby canneries in Washington, Morton and Eureka. To register to attend the free presentation, call 309-467-2922.
The 250 POWs who worked in the area from summer 1944 to fall 1945 had formerly been imprisoned at Camp Ellis in Fulton County, where more than 2,000 German prisoners were housed, according to Kerr.
Most of them lived at Libby canning factories in Morton and Washington, and some lived at Eureka College to be closer to Libby's Eureka plant.
The prisoners worked 12-hour shifts, Kerr noted, helping to cover the wartime labor shortage and the demand for canned foods to feed U.S. troops. The prisoners also helped at area farms, Kerr said.
The Eureka plant, which opened in 1898 as the Dickinson & Co. cannery, closed in 1960, ending the city's claim to fame as Pumpkin Capital of the World. Portions of the building recently were refurbished for use as an event center appropriately named The Cannery.
Today, only the Morton Libby plant remains open.
Among those whom Kerr interviewed was Annette Dickinson, 91, a longtime rural Congerville resident who now lives at Maple Lawn Homes in Eureka.
Dickinson, a Eureka College freshman in fall 1944, recalled how 50 POWs living in Pritchard Gymnasium on campus would go outside in the mornings to "flex their muscles" before setting off to work in the canning factory downtown. The prisoners' U.S. Army guard usually would be leaning against a tree, his rifle on the ground nearby, Dickinson recalled.
She remembered the tantalizing smell of bacon and other meats emanating daily from the POW kitchen, which upset the college students. While wartime rationing limited meat to Wednesdays and Sundays for students, the POWs were served the same meals as the U.S. military per international POW rules, Kerr said.
Robert Knapp, 85, of Eureka recalled working with several POWs who helped his father, Fred Knapp, on his farm north of Congerville, and the local children found the Germans and American soldiers "fascinating."
Despite the war, the POWs and locals "never had any hard feelings," Knapp said. "The ones who I was around didn't like the war any more than us kids did."