Iowa’s famous POW-made Nativity

Published 10:09 am Friday, December 2, 2011

Column: Between the Corn Rows

For 67 years the people of Algona, Iowa, have taken pride in a Nativity scene that’s a real legacy of World War II.

It’s certainly very apparent the depictions of the birth of Christ can be seen in various ways all over the nation and around the world. Yet, none has quite the unusual historical background as the one in Algona.

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From 1943 to 1946 this city in Kossuth County southwest of Albert Lea was the site of Camp Algona. This U.S. Army post served as a prisoner of war camp for former members of the German military forces.

For this area, there’s a historical connection with this camp. And for the Nativity scene, there’s an even more significant connection.

At its peak, Camp Algona had about 10,000 POWs. However, these enemy soldiers weren’t just idle prisoners. During the warmer months of the year, they were sent to 34 temporary branch camps to help with food production and harvesting across Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.

In this county one of those branch camps was a mile south of Hollandale. Another was near the airport north of Owatonna. Still another was at Wells; location unknown. Other area camps were at Fairmont, Faribault, Montgomery and New Ulm. That last camp was near a city where German was then a very strong second language.

During the winter months the POWs went back to Camp Algona. That’s when Eduard Kaib and five other prisoners worked on creating the present Nativity scene. They paid for the materials they used with money earned while working in Iowa farm fields and created 60 figures of people and animals (mostly sheep).

When the war ended, the prisoners interned at Camp Algona were repatriated back to Germany during late 1945 and early 1946. The camp was closed. Yet, the creation, now known as the Kaib Nativity Scene, was left in Algona as a legacy of the World War II years.

A news release from the Algona sponsors of this seasonal religious display says in part:

“The scene will be open daily from Dec. 4 through Dec. 31. The hours are: Sundays and Christmas Day noon to 9 p.m., weekdays and Saturdays 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 31. The specially designed building housing the Nativity scene is located at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds, just off U.S. Highway 169 at Fair Street on the south edge of Algona.

“The figures were recently fully restored by a professional museum curator from Wisconsin and the layout of the scene greatly enhanced with a realistic hillside for the shepherds to tend their sheep with a new waterfall feature. This year marks the 67th Christmas season the scene has been displayed. Also available for viewing are many displays showing the POW camp at Algona and the life of the German prisoners while interned in Algona during World War II.

“The United Methodist Church of Algona is proud to continue the tradition began so many years ago by Mr. Kaib and his colleagues — that of showing the scene beginning the first Sunday in December and continuing throughout the month. There is no admission fee to the Nativity scene.”

Algona is about 80 miles southwest of Albert Lea. One way to get there is to take Interstate 35 to the Clear Lake, Iowa, exit. Then go west on U.S. Highway 18 to a city where the outstanding Kaib Nativity Scene is a seasonal and inspiring historical site. Another way is to go west on Interstate 90 to Blue Earth, then head south on U.S. 169.


Cornstalk comment

“Holy Dane-Happy Dane: My Indomitable Grandfathers” is the name of a new book with a very strong local connection. The author is Avis Evelyn Knudsen Jorgenson who now lives in Tucson, Ariz.

This book is described as being a picturesque account of childhood experiences of growing up in Albert Lea in the ’20s and ’30s.

Those two grandfathers were Niels Larsen, an area dairy farmer, and Nels Knudsen, founder of Albert Lea’s Plymouth Shoe Store.

This book is available online or in an eBook version at


With just three exceptions, Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.