"REMEMBERING CAMP ELLIS"
 

by Jan Van Doren
 

 

Before the arrival of Camp Ellis, I was just the little blond girl who wandered freely around the square in Table Grove. My parents, Oliva and Bert Bradford, had lost an automobile agency in the Depression and were trying to recover by selling hardware and having a garage in our building, the old hotel on the northeast side of the square. We lived in an apartment above the business and my grandmother lived in another apartment in the building.

 I must have been a favorite of the storekeepers. I know I visited Koehler’s drugstore, next door to our store, a great deal. When someone would help me across the “hard road” I visited other businesses, such as the harness shop, the bakery, and the newspaper. The creamery was also fascinating to a young child. You could see the baby chicks and watch the nice lady who owned the place candle eggs.

First memories of the war were collecting grease and having a barrel in our store to collect old phonograph records. It was great fun to smash the records to compact them.

Since I was quite small in 1941, I don’t remember the rumor stage of the camp. I certainly do remember the construction period. First and foremost was the effect of a new tavern just two doors away on the square. Two incidents stand out.

The first is the fire in the tavern. I can still identify with the smell of the burning tavern in the night and of being rousted out of our home. People gathered and quickly moved all our household goods to the street. Fortunately, the fire never spread, but the danger was real as evidenced by a later fire that devastated the south side of the square.

Second was the incident that finally convinced my parents we must move away from the center of activity on the square. A couple of construction workers got into a brawl in front of our store. My mother was running the store. She let one man in and locked the other out. Eventually the first man left through the back door.

During the construction period my parents rented out my brother’s room since he was in college. I know my mother was concerned about the rather elderly engineer who roomed with us. She would prepare hot chocolate for us all when he returned from work, very tired and muddy.

The second thing of great interest to a child was comic books. One of the unions had rented the building across the highway as an office. That building did not have running water so the union officials used our restroom. The boss bought, read, and then passed on to me, quite a few comic books.

Although the details are vague I know my parents were not happy to have a 9 year old girl exposed to the experiences of the construction period. At some point they seized the opportunity to lease our building to be the USO in Table Grove. This meant we had to find alternate housing. It was almost impossible to find. However, we closed out the store and my parents both went to work for the Army. The building was remodeled, and a major event for the town was the drilling of the deep well in the back yard.. That apparently was a first for Table Grove.

The summer of 1943 we lived northeast of Table Grove in what was literally an abandoned farmhouse. When I went to bed I could see stars through the cracks in the walls. It was a great summer for me. Eldon Dilworth lived nearby and we explored the territory thoroughly, including the camp itself which came practically up to our door. In the unpopulated area of the camp we found underground concrete bunkers that probably were meant to store munitions. My brother came home from college and worked for the farmer before he too went off to war. We searched for another place to live. I remember my parents even considered going as far as Rushville where my grandparents still owned a home. I was actually scared to be in some of the houses we looked at. In one, my white anklets were immediately covered with fleas. Eventually, a friend of my parents offered us a beautiful house in Adair. It was a magnificent home with cherry woodwork, a true library and a back stairway which I loved. We stayed there for three years and I finished grade school there.

In Adair we also had roomers. The only one I remember was an Army doctor and his wife. On one occasion they shared Thanksgiving dinner with us. My mother asked the doctor to carve the turkey and he slid the bird off of the platter.

My mother, who worked in an office at the camp, would also bring WACs home for the weekend on occasion. As I remember it, she felt very sorry for the conditions they had to endure at the camp. The other significance to me of my mother working was that she would trade her cigarette allowance for big Hershey chocolate bars which I loved. My father, since he’d been a storekeeper in the Navy in W.W.1, went to work very early in the life of the camp as a warehouseman. He was one of the last workers to leave.

His work gave me opportunity to be around his warehouse. There I met German prisoners and have positive memories of them trying to learn English by conversing with the little blond girl. After the war my parents, at his request, sent some “white material for a wedding dress” to one of the prisoners who wrote saying there was nothing to be had in Germany after his return. My father had some involvement in monitoring the prisoners who were working on truck farms and he sometimes took me along when he did his checking.

In the last stages of the camp’s life my Dad helped with disposal of the buildings and he told me about finding feral cats occupying them. Apparently the soldiers had just left the cats which adapted to the wild life.

In the later years of the camp, we returned to Table Grove and our building, Once more the building was returned to apartments with retail space on the square. I remember visiting the stable on the west end of the camp by walking from town. I have vague memories of riding with the soldiers, but I can’t imagine my parents actually allowing it. During the National Guard era at the camp, probably the summer of 1948, I worked at the PX that was opened for the guard. We would open the PX around 4 in the afternoon and keep it open until about 10. We sold all the expected candy and sundry items, and lots, and lots of beer. I remember sitting on the back of a truck with a cash register while another clerk handed out the beer from the truck. My mother was the bookkeeper for the operation. One morning she discovered my cash register was $1000 short. She called me out of bed and I had to confess that I’d been playing with the full keyboard register and had accidentally rung up $999.99. Needless to say I still remember the rebuke I received.

During the guard era the daughter of the colonel, Gloria(?) Stephenson, attended VIT High School and her photo is in my 1950 year book as a sophomore. That would indicate the guard still had professional soldiers there at that time.

VIT High School was started in the fall of 1947, consolidating the three schools into the Table Grove High school building. Our need for additional space was solved by bringing in old barracks from the camp area. I know one barracks building served as the cafeteria and the band practiced in another one.

All things eventually come to an end, and so did Camp Ellis. My father received a commendation and recommendation from the camp commander in December 1949 and moved to the Joliet arsenal for a short time. In the spring of 1950 I apparently did typing for a meeting of school superintendents when they met at the camp. I don’t remember this, but my mother had saved a thank-you letter from a field representative of the Federal Security Agency.

In the Fall of 1950 I started college. Camp Ellis was no more. But years later my husband was amazed that I knew all the insignia for the Army military ranks - a legacy of my growing up with Camp Ellis.

 

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