Interview by Robert C. Daniels
Elmer Rigg was interviewed in the kitchen of his apartment in Waupun. Starting at 2:30 P.M. on 30 November 2005, the interview lasted 18.26 minutes. At the time Elmer was ninety-nine years old and a very respected and well known retired principle of the Waupun Junior High School. Even at the age of almost one hundred, Elmer was very alert and articulate, and proved to be a great source of information. Elmer would live for nearly another 4 years, passing away on 15 October 2009 at the age of 103.
What is your full name? Elmer Ellsworth Rigg.
I know a lot of people born in the early twentieth century were not born in a hospital, but at home. Where and when were you born? In a home.
And when were you born? 1906, July 13th.
Who were your parents? Charlie Rigg and Mary Rigg. Mary Grismer Rigg.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? I had four brothers and two sisters.
Are they older than you? I am the middle brother. The two sisters are older.
Where did you go to school? I started at Conway in a country school in, I think that’s in Wing County, Illinois. That is my grade school. Then I went to Alvin High school. Then I went to McHenry College.
That is in Illinois? No, McHenry College is near St Louis (Missouri).
What degrees did you get? I got a master’s in Chemistry. I got a Bachelor in chemistry at McHenry. I got a Masters in chemistry at [the] University of Illinois.
What was growing up like for you? Just fun (he laughs). Worked on the farm all the time. We didn’t have much of a chance to do anything except for what we developed ourselves.
And that was in Illinois? Yeah.
What were you doing in the 1939, 1941 timeframe, basically just before the war? ‘39, ‘41? I was teaching in Vandalia, Illinois; chemistry and physics.
In the high school? Yeah.
Do you remember what you were doing when you first heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked? No.
What were your thoughts when you heard Pearl Harbor was attacked? I guess I was too young to think much about it. I just don’t even remember much about it.
What did you do during the war? Taught school. Well, taught school and ran a canning factory.
Where was that at? Here in Waupun. In fact, I moved up here. I was teaching school in Vandalia, and I was released from going into service because I was teaching. I moved up here and they took me off that release. So then I had to go to Milwaukee and get checked out. And [when] I got back, why I got a notice from Dr. Elliot from over at Fox Lake (Wisconsin) that he was on the election board, or not the election board, but whatever it is, the selection board. And he said at my age it was more important that I can food than it would be to go carry a rifle.
So how old were you then. Thirty-eight.
And what canning factory were you working at? Waupun. The Canned Food Incorporated here in Waupun.
I understand there were two canning factories in Waupun back then. At that time, yeah. Canned Foods and then the Waupun Canning Company.
Where was the Canned Foods located at? Down by the river, where the park is now.
And I understand there was a POW (Prisoner of War) camp here. Yeah.
Were you involved in that? That was up on Monroe Street. Yeah, we had the workers (German POWs) at the canning company. We’d send a truck up in the morning and get a load of prisoners and bring ‘em down, and they’d work, carrying them back at night.
What was it like? Did you have any problems with them? Good. No problem. No problem at all. Good help. The only problem I had; there was a fella here in town who could talk German, and he’d come down and call them off their work, you know, and talk German to them. Finally I had to tell him to stay away because he was interfering with business.
And how did the people of Waupun take the prisoners being here? I never heard any objection to them at any time.
Were the prisoners allowed to go up in town at all? I can’t remember that part. I remember one of them sneaked out of the prison and came down near the canning factory and met some woman down there (Elmer laughs).
Was there a lot of that going on? I don’t know. The only one I know of is that one.
We used to have a platform out [back] and the workers would be on there. This woman lived in this house on the corner and you’d see her come out with a cigarette and light up. Then you’d see that cigarette go back. This one interpreter would jump off the platform and meet her out around…(he laughs).
So how long were you part of the canning factory? Eighteen years, I guess.
Were you teaching at the same time? No. No. In 1960, the canning company was having trouble selling their goods and the schools were having a problem finding a math and a science teacher. So I made an application down in Illinois, I had an Illinois teaching license. I made three applications and got three offers. And I told Kujath here in town that I was going down to Mattoon, Illinois. He said, “Why,” he said, “we got a job over here that we’re looking for a teacher for.” So I applied on Monday, and Wednesday they called and told me I had the job. So the one (teaching position) he was thinking about was, he thought Kittell was going to leave and I could take over as the chemistry teacher. But Kittell didn’t leave. So I taught math and science for a couple of years and then they split the schools. And I guess I did such a poor job teaching, they made a principal out of me (he laughs).
And that was for the junior high school? Yeah.
Now, when you said they split the high school, that’s when they built the new high school? Yeah, that’s when they built the high school which is now the middle school.
How long were you at the junior high school as principle? Ten years.
Did you retire from there? Yeah.
When was that? 1972. So I have been retired for quite a while.
Yes, you have (realizing that it was now 2005 and Elmer was ninety-nine years old). Do you remember if anything changed in Waupun during the war or beforehand? I didn’t notice any.
Do you remember when the word was put out that the war was over with, what happened? Was there any excitement, anything like that? No. I just don’t remember any of that.
Have you ever been married? Yeah.
When did you get married? 1937.
What was your wife’s name? Gertrude.
What was her maiden name? Etheridge.
Does she come from the same area or does she come from Illinois? She came from Alva, Illinois.
Did you have any children? I’ve got one. Boy. He is working for Saint Briar College in Virginia (most likely Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia).
Did he go into the military at all? Oh, yeah. He was in the Navy. I think he retired as a commander.
When did he go in? Do you remember? That would be 1972, I guess. About the year I retired.
Did he go in as an officer? Yeah. What did he go in as? I know when he first started he was planning meals, because he told me he thought the corps might like rabbit some time, so he ordered a meal of rabbit. And he said, “We discarded most of it” (laughing).
So he retired from the Navy? He retired…, well, I guess. He’s not in the Navy anymore, anyhow. I guess you’d have to say he retired.
Is there anything else you can remember about the wartime or anything like that, anything that happened in Waupun during the war? The only thing that I can remember is that one of my jobs as superintendent of the plant and the boss, we graded peas every morning. We dumped them out and we’d check for defects and tenderness and stuff like that. And the German prisoners liked to eat those peas. When we got through checking them, they wanted them. One morning we had some peas with thistles in them, and one of them came around and said, “Those black peas aren’t as good as those green ones” (Elmer he laughs).
Do you remember the rationing and ration cards? Yeah. I’ve got some of them, I think.
Do you remember using them and what they were used for? Oh, yeah; oh, yeah; oh, yeah.
Can you tell me what they were used for? We used them for food. And we used them for gasoline. They were the one thing that kept the canning factory going ‘cause people had these ration cards and they’d go down and they’d want to use them before they were out, you know. They’d go down and buy a can of peas and put it on the shelf someplace. Well, then when the war was over, stuff wasn’t rationed, then they’d eat those off their own shelf and we didn’t sell anything for a long time.
Did you have a Victory Garden? No.
Did a lot of people in Waupun have Victory Gardens that you know of? I don’t know. I’d said no, I tried it once. We had a strip down along the canning factory, along the railroad track that came in there, a strip along there that wasn’t used. So I had it dug up and plowed up and put a garden in there. And the day before the canning season started I had one of our guys go out and clean all the weeds out of it. He went out even with a spatula and dug out all the…, there wasn’t a weed in the garden. Well, then I couldn’t get back to it for a couple of weeks, and I couldn’t find the garden (laughing). The weeds were so high, I couldn’t find anything. So I gave up on gardening.
Is there anything else you would like to say or you can think of? One thing. I don’t know if it has anything to do with here or not, but I was teaching in Vandalia when the war broke out, and we had a teacher in there that had been in the tank corps. He got a letter one morning asking him if he’d be interested in going back into the tank corps. He wrote them or called them or something about he was teaching now and wasn’t interested in the tank corps. He got a telegram back the next day [saying], “Whether you are interested or not, you report to Fort Knox on such and such a date.”
Were there a lot of teachers that were called up? Yeah. We had another one that came in one morning. He said, “Well,” he said, “this will probably be the last time I ever see you.” He said, “I got to go into the service.” And he was killed on D-Day.
You were the principal at the junior high school after the war. Were there a lot of teachers that taught at Waupun that had been in the war? I don’t know about Waupun because I wasn’t teaching in Waupun until after the war. But in Vandalia where I was teaching at the time, there were quite a few of them taken.
I mean, afterwards, did you know any of the teachers that had fought in the war, that had served in the war that were teaching in Waupun later on in the ‘60s and ‘70s? I don’t know. I don’t know about that.
Thank you very much. You were a great help. I hope I answered your questions.
Last updated on 27 Jan 2013 .
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