World War II took place thousands of miles from Wyoming, with many Americans fighting in Europe and the South Pacific.
As a small city in a remote state, few would guess that Douglas played a significant role in the war. But it did. The city was home to a POW camp for captured German and Italian soldiers. While Camp Douglas was in operation, POWs outnumbered Douglas residents.
“It wasn’t all Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge,” Camp Douglas, Ft. Fetterman and Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum Superintendent Mel Glover said.
Today, few visible remnants of Camp Douglas remain. One building still stands: The officer’s club.
“It was just a place to get away for the men and give them a place to relax,” Glover said.
The officer’s club’s historic significance is not only due to the fact that it’s the last Camp Douglas building standing. Inside you’ll find classic western scenes adorning the walls, painted by Italian POWs.
Renovating the officer’s club and preserving the history within has been a five-year journey. Since 2013 the building has received a new roof and HVAC system. New historically-appropriate windows were also installed.
The most recent step in the renovation process entailed removing a drop ceiling, taking out insulation and even revealing parts of murals that had been covered.
“We re-exposed the rafters,” Glover said. “It looks like the original picture . . . Boy oh boy it looks good.”
Now, after years of work, the building looks nearly identical to the way it appeared during the war.
After the war, the officer’s club went into private hands.
The Oddfellows and Rebekahs owned the building after it served as an officer’s club.
“If it hadn’t been for the Oddfellows or the Rebekahs, that building would be in a landfill,” Glover said.
While the groups maintained the building, and prevented it from falling into disrepair, they also made modifications that weren’t historically accurate. In the future, Glover plans to return bright pink and lime green walls to their original, more subdued colors. Re-doing the kitchen is also on the to-do list, and staff are always on the hunt for other period pieces, like a cooler for the bar.
Glover, Jenna Thorburn and Tione Willox said that the work done by Sheri Mullinnix and the Douglas Historic Preservation Commission was integral in the restoration process.
“I think she’s done more heavy lifting for that building than anybody else,” Glover said.
According to Glover and Thorburn, Mullinnix played a big role in getting Camp Douglas on the National Register of Historic Places.
“She’s the reason it was saved as a historic site,” Camp Douglas Curator Jenna Thorburn said.
Initially, the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources planned on weather sealing the building, effectively wrapping it up and mothballing it. Mullinnix and the Historic Preservation Commission fought to keep it open.
The beauty of the officer’s club murals first drew Mullinnix to the building. Then things snowballed.
“I don’t know what it is about it, but there seems to be something about that building and its story that virtually never fails to touch people,” Mullinnix said. “The building just kind of sucked me in . . . I love that building. I think it really does have an important story to tell.”
Glover explained that the Camp Douglas officer’s club is invaluable for the city. For one, it has inherent historical value, and helps residents learn more about the city’s past. It has economic value too, drawing tourists into the city.
“It increases civic pride,” he said. “There’s nowhere else in the world that has a building like that.”
In the future, Camp Douglas staff hope to acquire more artifacts pertinent to the building. Former POWs often corresponded with the friends they made in Douglas, and the museum would love to have letters that locals might still have.
“There are people in this town who stayed in contact with prisoners until one or both sides died,” Glover said.
Mullinnix said that the story of Camp Douglas is profound, and more than worthy of preservation.
“Not to sound too much like a Polyanna, but . . . when we take things down to the base level of dealing with one another as individuals instead of doctrines, we find out that, in general, we really like each other,” she said. “I think that humanistic part of the story is, in the long run, what touched me the most.”
An open house at Camp Douglas is scheduled for this summer.