Welcome to the Camp Breckinridge Museum & Arts Center
Camp Breckinridge was an infantry training camp for WWII. They had construction crews working around the clock to get the camp built in 6 months. There was not ample housing for the construction workers in Union County. Men used barns, garages, tents, and even hen houses for their homes. The camp opened in July of 1942. It took in 36,000 acres, most of which were in Union County, the remaining were in Henderson and Webster counties. We here at the museum will be more than happy to help you find your families names.
The original plan was to keep the property for 5 years and then to give the original owners a chance to buy their property back. Instead, the Korean War followed WWII, and the camp was reactivated for training. The government ended up retaining the property for about 20 years.
The camp cost 39 million dollars to build, and the structures were only meant to be temporary. All the buildings were built on pillars and hand no insulation. There were 1,800 buildings. The buildings included: a 2,000 bed hospital, theater, bowling alley, 10 churches, post office, barracks, mess halls, water and sewer treatment plant, laundry facility, restaurants, stores, and many more. The current museum building was one of four service clubs of Camp Breckinridge. There were two in the heart of the base, this one, and a “black club” in Tilden Kentucky.
During WWII, the current building was and NCO club, and during the Korean War it became an Officer’s Club. Perhaps the switch was to keep the drunken officers off the streets.
A service club is a place for the soldiers to relax, dance, dine, and drink. They wanted to enjoy themselves as much as they could before going off to war, for they did not know when, or if, they would be able to again.
When the camp was the busiest there were 55,000 people living on the base. This was a problem because Union County did not have a high enough female population so that each soldier could have a dance partner. To prevent fights among the soldiers, buses of females from Henderson and Evansville were brought in on dance nights, these ladies became known as “bus girls”. Many of the “Bus Girls” have stated that this was a time of their life that they will never forget, and that they would even get into covered army trucks in their finest clothes to keep from missing a dance.
The dances were chaperoned. If a girl came on a bus she was not allowed to leave the building during the dance. Soldiers were not allowed to ask for a first dance. Soldiers lined one wall, while the ladies were lined along the other. They were partnered based on who they walked up the stairs with. One can only imagine the comments among the dancers: “Let me in front of you” “I really need to be back three”.
The large hall was the dance floor. On one side there is a sign above the door that says bar, the dining room is where the museum is currently at, and the kitchen was in the far back. There was a sliding glass window that was used as a sell point for a liquor store to go, but that was in the 40’s where most people did not have cars and drunk driving was not as large of a concern. By the 50’s these stores were no longer in buildings due to the increase of vehicles, as we were informed by the President of the Historical Society Mr. Larry Strehle.
After the United States entered the Geneva Convention to house and set a standard of treatment for Prisoners of War (POW’s). Camp Breckinridge housed 3,000 POW’s during WWII. Our government had to house, feed, and give medical treatment to the POW’s. Most POW’s came to Breckinridge with Malaria due to coming from combat in North Africa.
One of the most astounding facts that have been learned by the museum members, is the number of POW camps in North America. There were only 4 states at the time that did not house POW’s. There were over 375,000 POW’s in the U.S. by June of 1945.
Most POW’s at Camp Breckinridge were from the European Theater. This meant they were young men taken into the German Army as the Nazi’s took over their countries. Most of them surrendered to the United States. These POW’s were kept apart from others so it would cost less to guard them and to have less troubles in the POW camps.
When the POW’s first arrived at the camp they were sort of disgruntled because they liked to stay busy, and there wasn’t much to do in this part of Kentucky. Our government intended for them to work while they were here, and wasn’t expecting much time for them to get bored, especially with so many people away at war. There was a baker in Henderson that felt sorry for them, and purchased the POW’s paints and carving tools. They began to paint on the walls of the mess halls and barracks.
One summer we had an interesting visitor. Friedrich Fuchs, a former POW, had his son bring him back to the museum from Germany.
He first said, “I wanted to return here before I got too old to travel and say thank you to anybody and everybody I see.” He wanted to tell everything about his life at Camp Breckinridge, “We had plenty to eat, especially corn. The U.S. government gave us 10 cents a day to buy toiletry items and we were paid 10 cents an hour for working. Our wages could be held for us and we could be paid when we were released. This would give us some money to start out on when we returned home. We worshiped in the churches, ate in restaurants, played games in the field house, watched plays in the theater, and bowled in the bowling alley. We were treated well! I always tried to work for a farmer because many times the farmer’s wife would let us eat at the table with their families. Many times they would have small children and it would remind me of being home, for I was the oldest of many children. The worst thing about being a POW was, of course, being homesick. But it was that you knew you were getting more to eat than your sisters and brothers.”
When the work program began the soldiers asked Daniel Mayer to paint on the walls of this club, the NCO club. He, a soldier in Czechoslovakia was drafted into the German Army when Nazi’s took over his homeland. He was twice wounded before he was sent to North African front. Here, he was again wounded, he was in very poor health when arriving at Camp Breckinridge.
Daniel Mayer painted in the club for nearly three years. We cannot credit him entirely for te artwork because he had a younger helper in the building. It is said that Mayer would start a mural and let his assistant work on the painting, checking in on him from time to time.
Daniel wrote letters to his wife, Hermine, while at Camp Breckinridge describing some of the paintings. He would speak of his homesickness often in the letters as well, stating “I read your letters again and again, and if another doesn’t arrive soon, I read them all over again and again.” He even described his murals, the largest being the 20 by 30 foot mural of the Castle of Werneck located in Franconia, which took him 15 months to complete.
While painting the mural Daniel struggled due to his health. He was aware at that time that he would never step foot again in his homeland because he was so ill. He completed the mural in the summer of 1945, laying his brushes down for the very last time. He died shortly after, in September of 1945. The real castle in Franconia still stands today and is used as a museum and a children’s hospital.
Unfortunately, his wife never saw his works. His daughter, Martha Bolg, and her husband, came from Germany to attend our dedication ceremony in April of 2000. She was only 6 when her father died. She never knew him, but her mother told her all her life that her father painted pictures in Kentucky somewhere. Martha was overwhelmed by the size of the paintings. She was expecting pictures in frames, not murals on walls. She now can see his passion and talents, and she says she can relate the murals to him.
Our County Fiscal Court bought the building and during 1999 the building was renovated. The Museum was granted 1.3 million dollars from the Kentucky Historical Society. The purchase of the building was prompted when a man from Canada wanted to purchase the murals from the walls. Also the Union County Historical Society had a small museum downtown that had to be torn down. They were looking for a place to go. County Judge, Jimmy Veatch, was in the office at the time and saw the need to keep the building intact. Many in Frankfort thought he had lost his mind when they approached the building and saw its bad need of repair, but upon entering and seeing the murals they too saw that it must be preserved.
The Union County Arts Council is housed in the former bar. They host a changing art exhibit all through the year. The private dining room is now the genealogy department. The ballroom is converted into a stage three times a year so the local drama group, the Unicorn Players, perform plays. If you have never attended on of their performances, you should come to one of their dinner theaters. A lot of hard work goes into each show and you’ll have a wonderful dinner too. We rent the ballroom for receptions, meetings, and parties to generate funds to pay the needed bills of the facility.