The Saratoga Sun -

A puzzle in wood

 


When Mikayla Larrow started working as the director of the Saratoga Museum this spring, she inherited what would be a prize-winning artifact–and a mystery. The Wyoming State Historical Society recently named a keepsake box owned by the museum one of the Top Ten Artifacts of 2016, but questions about the box’s provenance remain.

The box is an intricately carved wooden piece in the “kerbschnit” style, which involves making deep furrows in wood with a razor or other small blade. The outside is composed of a series of geometrically-patterned grooves, and it has been darkened with what Larrow believes to be homemade stains.

When opened, an impressionist painted mountain scene can be viewed on the inside of the box’s lid. All of the minutely detailed work was done by hand.

“Everyone who’s been here (in the Valley) a while says (the painting’s) definitely not of the Medicine Bow area. So they assume it’s back home. I have a feeling it’s probably both,” Larrow said.

“Back home,” for the carver, would probably have been Germany, Larrow said. The box is believed to have been carved by a German Prisoner of War (POW), during an oft-forgotten time when POWs were held captive in Ryan Park. Larrow said, “A lot of people assume the U.S. didn’t have POW camps, that they were all in Europe.” Fewer know that Ryan Park was home to one of two camps in Wyoming, she continued.

Until 1943, Italian POWs were held in the Ryan Park camp, but as the Allies began pushing through the German front, the Ryan Park Camp was switched over to housing Germans, Larrow said. The director said the Germans and Italians didn’t intermingle during their internment, with the camp first hosting one nationality of prisoner then shifting to the other.

Area POWs were assigned several different kinds of work. Larrow said these included jobs on dairy farms, forestry projects for the Wyoming Tie and Timber Company and possibly irrigation ditch-digging.

At night, the POWs returned to their Ryan Park confinement, and Larrow said the Museum holds a number of artifacts POWs crafted. “They did these things to keep themselves busy,” she said. Larrow noted that many of the artifacts were given away as gifts to the warden at the camp, camp guards and friends the prisoners made within the communities where they worked. The POWs also sold some of the items for spending money, Larrow said.

“A lot of (the prisoners) liked it here in the States,” and stayed in the U.S. after the end of hostilities, Larrow stated. Sometimes, the POWs’ wartime employers would sponsor the former prisoners as they tried to start new American lives, and hand-wrought gifts like the boxes were given as thank-you presents, according to Larrow. She said that membership in the Nazi Party was a disqualifying factor for Germans seeking post-war American citizenship, though students of history will note that this was overlooked during the recruitment of former Nazi scientists and engineers like Werner von Braun.

“I would like to find the name of the gentleman who carved the box,” Larrow said. It was donated to the museum years ago by Avon and Ruth Brock, but Larrow hasn’t gotten much farther than that.

“I’ve got to get our collection system vamped up,” Larrow explained. “It’s a one-man-band here.” The director said taking tenth in the Wyoming Historical Society contest was an honor, and she hoped it would bring more visitors to the museum in the future.

As to whether visitors will be able to see the prize-winning box, Larrow equivocated. “It won’t be on display. Well. It might be. I’ll have to decide.”

The one-man-band marches on.

 

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