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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Forgotten History of Lakeside

Monday, December 3, 2001

For students of World War I, the names of Versailles, Verdun and Sedan may be more familiar than the moniker of Camp McHenry.

For one Lakeside resident, however, that camp's name is his link to the experience known as World War I, as memories of the military training ground which rested on land later to become the town of Lakeside have not faded from his mind.

Dick Thomas, 98, has lived in the Storm Lake area since 1912, and vividly remembers the United States Army camp and chemical plant which disappeared from the Lakeside landscape almost immediately after the conclusion of the war in November of 1918.

Hundreds of troopers trained at Camp McHenry, and Thomas said everyone in the area knew the soldiers in northwest Iowa would soon travel to northwest Europe to participate in the Great War.

"A great portion of the Rainbow Division which went off and fought in World War I trained here," Thomas said, "and it was quite something to see. I remember big trains would come in with carloads of soldiers and they were always making something at the chemical plant as well. It was definitely a very active camp."

Thomas said the north edge of Camp McHenry was located 200 feet north of the Cobblestone Inn, which was the border of the old John Edsen Farm, and stretched south all the way to present-day Birch Street in Lakeside. The east edge of the camp was present-day 120th Street on the city limits of Lakeside, and Camp McHenry went west until it hit the lake.

The compound, which Thomas called the "Swampground" due to the swampy conditions of the land in the spring and fall, began operation a few months after the United States joined the war in early 1917, and the city of Storm Lake, which had a population of 2,000, welcomed the soldiers wholeheartedly.

"The residents of Storm Lake entertained the soldiers often, and it seemed like there was a good relationship between the camp and and the city," Thomas said. "They would attend band concerts that the city put on quite often, and I think they appreciated it quite a bit."

In the middle of 1917, the Army began construction on a large chemical plant complex, now a concrete plant west of Lakeside. Thomas said the central laboratory, built by W.F. Parks, was used to house and mix the chemicals shipped into the area from Des Moines and Fort Dodge via the old Milwaukee Railroad.

A building for offices was constructed by Louis Christoffsen, and the two structures were powered by two large steam power boilers, which were energized by coal stored in an adjoining coal shed.

The chemical plant was constructed approximately six to seven months before hundreds of soldiers moved into the area at the end of the year, and Thomas remembers watching soldiers, chemists and generals pour into the area and begin working in and around the chemical complex.

"The railroad cars would come into town and bring huge glass tanks that were loaded with all sorts of military supplies and what we supposed were chemicals," Thomas said. "And everything that had military supplies on it always had soldiers on it as well. So, the plant and the camp began operation at virtually the same time."

Thomas said he and his friends, Paul Fleming and Orville Redenbaugh, were naturally curious about the activity in the plant, and the trio tried to get a closer view of the action on more than one occasion.

A fence barred any land invasion of the facility by the trio, but they bypassed the obstacle by stepping into the edge of Storm Lake and wading around the edge of the fence. The military then extended the fence several hundred feet into the lake to prevent further access by the trio and those who might follow their route.

However, Thomas said he and his friends weren't deterred, as they simply swam out to the edge of the barrier and attempted to gain access to the plant that way.

The guards who protected the plant were not amused by their ingenuity. "The guards would holler and holler at us, and it wasn't Sunday school talk at all," Thomas said. "Sometimes we wouldn't pay attention to them at all and say that we had a right to be in there swimming, but the guards let us know real quick that we didn't have a right at all.

"Well, I sassed back at one of the soldiers and he grabbed me and kicked my butt," Thomas continued. "That was the only time I ever got my backside booted with a shoe. He then told me that the next time he caught me in there he would kick my butt and then put me in jail too, so that grabbed my attention."

Thomas said he now realizes that the guards were only trying to protect them, as the residue from the chemicals mixed in the plant was placed in large piles just outside the complex, and would have been extremely hazardous to the health of the teens.

"It was just like a big pile of lime, except it was material that was toxic to the skin," Thomas said. "It was dangerous, and they were out there night and day to make sure no one, especially us kids, were out there messing around near that stuff."

The chemicals were shipped out daily in 10-foot high cars down the railroad to Des Moines. However, the contents of those shipments were not made public to Thomas or anyone in Storm Lake.

"Nobody knew what was coming out of here," Thomas said. "They wouldn't say. All we could see were the big cars going out of here all the time, and we knew they were full of something. We just didn't know what."

At the same time chemicals were being shipped out, soldiers were being shipped in to the camp, which was built to be a temporary training ground. As a result, no permanent barracks were ever built for the military personnel, but the Army set aside land next to the lakeshore for the soldiers to relax in during their off-duty hours.

"The soldiers would sleep in pup tents all along the lake, and there were a huge number of them," Thomas said. "For the first few weeks they would sleep with their flaps facing toward the lake, but then the cold weather would hit, and those flaps would be going all over the place. Let me tell you, they sure turned those tents around real fast."

The soldiers marched daily from their temporary residences on the lake down Birch Street to the makeshift rifle range, which was located 100 yards west of Highway 71 on Renshaw Hill.

Thomas said lifesize targets were constructed on sticks and people would stand in a ditch to hold the replicas of Central Powers soldiers while bullets whizzed over their heads from soldiers lying on their bellies 150 yards away.

A 14-year-old at the time, Thomas remembers walking with Fleming and Redenbaugh for several miles to reach an area near Renshaw Hill where they could watch the rapid firing.

"It didn't make much difference what type of day it was, because they shot on all days, rain or shine," Thomas said, "and they were very precise too. One group came in and shot for an hour or so, and then we'd see another group of soldiers marching in ready for their hour of practice time. It was really amazing to see and hear that target practice and just to see that many soldiers out there all at once."

In addition to rifle practice, the soldiers were also trained how to use bayonets properly. Instructors put up scarecrows with coveralls stuffed with hay, and the soldiers were required to spear the bayonets through the middle of the scarecrow, practicing a technique which they might use for real in the future.

Thomas said the bayonet practice was extremely intense, and the soldiers were pushed by a hard-nosed instructor who wanted nothing less than perfection out of the young recruits.

"They were trained to fight, I'll tell you that," Thomas said. "They had a hard old-timer who was their instructor, and I'll tell you, you could hear him for a country mile. He was a good-sized man, and he wasn't afraid to tell those soldiers exactly what he thought at all."

Camp McHenry was used until late November of 1918, when word reached those in the facility that the Central Powers had conceded victory to the Allied Powers on November 11. Within two weeks, the entire camp was deserted, as the soldiers and chemists packed up and went home to their families, leaving behind nothing but a vacated compound and a lot of empty land.

"They went out of here just like they were on fire," Thomas said. "The people of Storm Lake hated to see it go, too. They appreciated it quite a bit because they were able to entertain the soldiers, and, after the camp left, all of that land just turned into pasture."

The pasture soon turned into land for summer cottages for citizens of Storm Lake, and the town of Lakeside was born eight years later in 1926.

Much has changed in the area since Thomas and his friends watched Camp McHenry come to life in 1917 and 1918, and he said it's a part of Lakeside's history that should be remembered and treasured.

"It was quite something to experience," Thomas said. "It's something that I've never forgotten."

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