Fort Niagara State Park is many things to many people.
One role it played during World War II will be remembered Saturday at a conference on a unique episode in the history of the Niagara Frontier.
This was the scene, circa 1944:
Niagara County farmers in trucks would drive out to the park early in the morning, pick up their workers for the day and head back to the fields and orchards for a day of toil.
Each truck carried an armed U.S. soldier riding shotgun.
The farm workers were German prisoners of war housed in dozens of buildings in the state park.
Saturday's conference is being organized by the Axis Prisoner of War Coalition, a group of several local historical associations.
The prisoners made an important contribution to the dwindling Niagara work force between 1944 and 1946, said Gretchen Duling, vice president of the coalition and program chairwoman of the conference.
People from all over Western New York have registered to attend the daylong conference. The group reached its maximum registration of 200 people last week, said Ann Marie Linnabery, assistant director of the Niagara County Historical Society, one of the members of the coalition.
Many people are coming from towns that had satellite POW camps affiliated with the camp at Fort Niagara.
Among the out-of-towners is John Bland of Shippenburg, Pa., a member of the Cumberland County Historical Society.
The highlight of the event will be an oral history of a mural painted more than 60 years ago by POW Ernst Wille on the wall above the entrance of the former ballroom in the Fort Niagara Officers Club.
Two months before his death in 2004, Niagara County Historian David L. Dickinson received Germany's highest civilian award for helping preserve the mural.
The conference will be dedicated to Dickinson.
Laurene Buckley, director of the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University, will present an art historian's perspective on the mural.
POW artifacts will also be on display.
The keynote speaker will be Arnold Krammer of Texas A&M University, a leading scholar and author on World War II POW camps throughout the United States.
Krammer will speak in First Presbyterian Church, 100 Church St., at 10 a.m. on the overall history of the camps and their impact on society.
During the war years, prisoner of war camps in 48 states housed 382,000 Germans.
In Western New York, Fort Niagara was a main POW camp, with regional branch camps in Attica, Dunkirk, Hamlin Beach, Letchworth Park, Medina, Sodus Point, Newark, Oakfield, Geneseo, Marion, Westfield, Naples and Brockton.
Oral history presentations, including taped video clips of people across Western New York who remembered the POW camp years, will be given Saturday in St. John's Episcopal Church, 110 Chestnut St., between 1 and 3 p.m.
"It has been a steep learning curve for the oral history team," Duling said.
A walking tour of the former POW camp site and Old Fort Niagara will follow the oral history presentations.
A shuttle bus will transport participants between St. John's and Fort Niagara.
More than 1,800 German prisoners of war were brought to Western New York to help fill a wartime manpower shortage.
"Fort Niagara was a major POW camp during the war," said Suzanne Dietz, historian for the Town of Porter, who helped coordinate the event.
The number of POWs across the state increased dramatically, from 800 in 1943 to 5,800 in 1945, said Dietz, a published historian who is working on a book about World War II.
In January 1945, there were 1,810 enlisted men, 11 noncommissioned officers and five officers at Fort Niagara, Dietz said.
The officers didn't have to work, but the others labored almost exclusively in the agricultural and food processing industry, she said. Some worked in canning factories.
In the Town of Porter alone, up to 45 farms contracted to use the POW labor during the war years, she added.
The prisoners had an obligation to escape, and some did try to escape, but at the end of the war, only about a dozen prisoners of war were unaccounted for, Dietz noted.
"One of the key things we emphasize is how we treated the prisoners," Dietz said. "We followed the Geneva Convention and treated them well. Our government was very concerned about how our soldiers were being treated in Germany. There was a big difference between how they were treated there and how we treated them here."
Many of the German prisoners of war forged friendships with the local farmers, and a few came back after the war and settled in the Niagara area.
The prisoners of war who died while in the camp, most from natural causes, were buried in the Modern Post Cemetery at Fort Niagara, Dietz said. In 1949, their bodies and those of another 70 people buried there were reintered in Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira.
The prisoners of war are long gone, but their toil in the fields and factories of the Niagara Frontier has not been forgotten.
The Axis Prisoners of War Coalition was formed a year ago and consists of members of the historical societies of Niagara County and the towns of Porter and Wilson, Old Fort Niagara, the Province Archives of Stella Niagara and the Historical Association of Lewiston.
The group met regularly over the past year solely for the purpose of planning and holding the conference.
The free conference is being funded with a grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, with additional funding from the Baird Foundation of Buffalo, the Town of Porter, Village of Youngstown and the various organizations in the coalition.
Axis POW Coalition Conference
Two-hundred people will gather Saturday at several sites in Youngstown to learn more about prisoners of war housed in Niagara County from 1944-46. The conference is free but all available slots for attendance have been filled. Highlights will include:
Keynote speaker: Arnold Krammer, of Texas A&M University, a leading scholar and published author on the subject, will speak at First Presbyterian Church on the overall history of POW camps in the United States.
Mural history: Laurene Buckley, director of Castellani Art Museum, will relate the history of a mural painted on the wall of the Officer's Club in Fort Niagara by POW artist Ernst Wille.
Oral history project: An update will be given at St. John's Episcopal Church by three members of the Axis POW Coalition on efforts to preserve the history of the POW camp at Fort Niagara.
Tour: A walking tour of the former camp will be given from 3:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. in Old Fort Niagara.