Students from the Owatonna Area Learning Center recently had an up close and personal experience with what it means to help build a better life for someone right in their own community.
The students got involved in a number of projects both inside and outside of the homes that are being constructed on Linn and Mosher avenues in Owatonna through Two Rivers Habitat for Humanity.
Daikin Applied and Climate by Design International, both manufacturing businesses located in Owatonna’s industrial park, donated a total of $100,000 for the building project on Linn Avenue. It will benefit a single father from Owatonna and his three children once completed. The Mosher Avenue home is sponsored by Thrivent Financial, which donated $95,000, and will benefit a family now living in Oronoco.
But it is the sweat equity of volunteers like the ALC students that really make the impact needed to turn the project into a home.
Several of the students worked on installing flooring, painting window trim, and getting the kitchen area ready for cabinets to be installed inside the house on Linn Avenue. Others worked on putting up siding on the Mosher Avenue house’s exterior, and according to Construction Manager Alfonso Burton, once the sod arrived, it was all hands on deck laying it down.
Liz Morsching, social worker at the Owatonna ALC said the students were excited, but also slightly intimidated at first as the staff for Two Rivers listed the different projects they would be working on that day.
“When they arrived, everyone was excited and having a great time working and learning to use different tools and the procedures involved in the various projects,” Burton said. “Once all the sod was laid down, some of the kids had a rolling race down the hill. It was great to have their help, watch them learn and have a good time doing the work.”
Burton praised the students’ dedication to learning about the various processes to cut wood, lay flooring and sod, and other projects.
Burton said organizers for the project reached out to Young Life Owatonna, which is a Christian-based organization dedicated to partnering with different schools in Owatonna and getting students involved in various community projects. Young Life was able to connect Two Rivers crew with the Owatonna ALC and the project got started.
“The students got to choose which project they wanted to work on,” Morsching said. “Some of them were very excited to get their hands on some power tools.”
Morsching got to work alongside the students on laying down the flooring. She said it was difficult for her and the students at first because all of the pieces had to line up and match, once they got the hang of the process, they celebrated together having mastered their new skill.
“It was so great watching the kids gain confidence as the day went on in the skills they were learning,” Morsching said. “Many of them were disappointed when the day wrapped. We are hoping that we will be able to organize another day for the students to help out at one of the homes again.”
Two Rivers has been busy this year in Owatonna constructing the two homes, raising funds and finding volunteers to complete the projects.
In a previous story, Ken Quattrin with the marketing and communication department for Two Rivers said local businesses like Alexander Lumber have been a “blessing” to work with on these projects, especially with the high material prices. He said employees from Alexander Lumber were dropping off materials when needed and assisted with the design planning.
He also said that Deml Heating and Air Conditioning in Owatonna would assist with both homes when that time comes. Beyond the financial donations from CDI and Daikin, Quattrin said they’ve also provided Two Rivers Habitat with new tools and offered to install HVAC systems on both properties. Typically, Two Rivers Habitat homes don’t include air conditioning.
The groundbreaking for the two homes took place in April, and Quattrin said the houses are rapidly approaching completion. The first home dedication is scheduled for Nov. 30 at the Mosher Avenue site.
The current workforce shortage isn’t Minnesota’s first rodeo.
In the latter years of World War II, the United States found itself with 425,000 prisoners of war (POWs) from Germany, Italy and Japan. They ultimately were used to help alleviate the nation’s labor shortage, which was acutely felt on farms and in rural factories.
Colleen Gengler’s parents, who had a 400-acre farm 10 miles south of Owatonna, were some of the farmers who used POWs to help with their harvest.
“I’d imagine it would be between sweet pea harvest and sweet corn that the Owatonna Canning Company made the prisoners available to farmers who needed the help,” Gengler said. “So my dad would go to the camp in the morning, pick up two prisoners … [and] the rules were they were supposed to be returning in the evening.”
Another rule was that the prisoners, who were given a sack lunch which “wasn’t very good,” according to Gengler, were not to be fed. Gengler’s parents broke that rule, as did many others.
“Most of the farmers or farmers’ wives fed them,” she said.
Gengler, who volunteers with her local historical society in Murray County, Minnesota, and enjoyed a 38-year career with the University of Minnesota Extension, presented on POW camps in Minnesota during World War II on Saturday at the Fillmore County History Center in Fountain, Minnesota. This, along with her family memoir “Under Minnesota Skies,” which Gengler co-wrote with her sister Bernadette, is Gengler’s attempt to inform people on a chapter of Minnesota’s history Gengler said many do not know about.
Among what she teaches is the fact that Owatonna had the longest continually running POW branch camp in Minnesota, from March 23, 1944, until Dec. 21, 1945.
To illustrate the context for the use of POW labor in Minnesota, Gengler explained that munitions factories, which were running to help the war effort and were located in cities, drew rural workers away from farms and small-town businesses with the promise of better wages. This, in addition to young men being drafted into the selective service to serve their country at war, created a severe labor shortage.
Minnesota’s governor at the time, Harold Stassen, attempted to address the shortage with an ambitious 11-point program. It included, among other things, deferments for young male farmers until the completion of harvest and the extension of the school day to keep children in school while parents worked longer days. These, and other measures, were not enough.
‘Glad to be captured’
According to Gengler, the POW situation in Minnesota “worked out well.”
“There were no violent, extreme things that happened, primarily because these were young men, not party officials,” she said. Those who used their labor “saw how hard they worked.”
The POWs were also paid — though not well, since most of their “pay” went toward the food the government supplied them — and guaranteed entertainment, including painting supplies, movies and religious services from local pastors, said Jerry Ganfield of the Steele County Historical Society.
“You gotta keep them entertained or they might have a revolt,” Ganfield said, laughing.
Since the majority of POWs were German and Gengler’s father spoke some German, they also had easy communication on the farm. Gengler said her mother would likely have brought out the laborers morning lunch and afternoon dinner while they were working. Her older sisters also might have taken food out to them.
Although Gengler’s family did not have an extended relationship with the POWs who worked on their farm, she said there are many stories from that time of prisoners writing to the family they worked with after they were returned to their home country. Given how difficult things were in Germany after the war, many German POWs also wrote to ask for care packages or money.
As the later years of the war dragged on and Germans began to suffer greater defeats, the German military population shifted from primarily 18- to 25-year-olds to younger teenagers and older men. These later groups of soldiers, who had a clearer vision of how the war was going, knew things were not going well for Germany.
“There’s lots of references to prisoners being glad that they had been captured because things were so dire in Germany,” Gengler said.
The thing that surprises Gengler the most about the World War II POW situation, she said, is the amount of collaboration between different parts of the U.S. government — public schools, businesses and the military — to solve huge, unprecedented problems.
“It’s amazing to me,” she said.
The city of Owatonna has a variety of ways it communicates with the public. There are Facebook pages, email blasts, newsletters, press releases, public hearings and open forums.
But there is not one cohesive plan, which has resulted in a lack of consistency.
That is where Deanna Sheely steps in, who says her pstrategy will be to get the city departments “singing from the same songbook.”
“Each department has been doing an amazing job of communicating about their different projects,” said Sheely, who has been in her new role as the city’s communications manager for one month. “But without one coordinated effort, it is creating a bigger burden, and things are being missed.”
Greg Schultz, chair of the Owatonna City Council, agreed with Sheely and said the missed opportunities to connect with the public were exactly why leaders decided to find an individual to head up the communications. Sheely is Owatonna’s first city communications staff member to Schultz’s knowledge.
“It’s exciting, and I think it’s a good move for the city. We’re certainly big enough, so we agreed that it was time,” Schultz said. “There’s a lot we have going on in the city that is hard to get out sometimes to the public and she will be able to do that … Now we can get the word out to more people. The more they know, the better off we all are.”
Experience in the field
Sheely has a long background in her field, dating back to receiving her bachelor’s degree in mass communications from St. Cloud State University. Parallel to the role she has now, Sheely held a similar position at the city of Red Wing for eight years.
“I was able to help [Red Wing] develop their communications plan from the ground up, which was a lot fun,” Sheely said. “It gave me the opportunity to help the community and really opened up dialogue and engagement between the community and the city.”
One of the most impactful projects Sheely said she was involved in during her time with the city of Red Wing was the restoration of the historic council chambers, something quite similar to the project the Owatonna City Council has been mulling over for a number of months. The project was financially substantial, and Sheely said it was important that city explained to the community why it made sense to invest the dollars in a restorative project versus building something brand new.
“The opportunity to reinvest in the historic part of the community was a big win, plus it created an environment that was accessible and inviting for more engagement between the community and the city,” Sheely said. “Now that city has a beautiful building for the community to come and engage with the decision making.”
Following her time at Red Wing, Sheely went on to work for Excel Energy for seven years and with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities for another five. Following her husband’s retirement as a police officer, the couple moved to their lake home in Kilkenny on Hunt Lake. Thinking she was ready for retirement, Sheely said she couldn’t help but feel drawn to the job posting from Owatonna,
“I saw and thought it was time to get out of the city and in an environment where I could really contribute, in my field, and give back to a community,” Sheely said.
Vision moving forward
Sheely’s first day with the city was Sept. 30, and since she said it has been a nonstop crash course on all things Owatonna since. Most recently, Sheely had a tour of the parks system, to which she said she was simply astonished.
“The recreational facilities in Owatonna are amazing and a perfect example of the many private-public partnerships here,” she said. “The community has an incredible trove of benefactors willing to give back one way or another, and the growth here is incredible.”
Sheely has already identified a handful of projects to lead communications, including the “Love Your Sidewalk” campaign, where the city will be promoting businesses along the downtown district to use salt-free grit on the new concrete being poured. She also has her own “mission statement” on what she would like to accomplish while in her role.
“I want to implement integration and strategy to help identify and fill the gaps in the communication to the community,” Sheely said. “To be good stewards of the community, we need to advance how we communicate and let people know about the opportunities they have to engage.”