It was the late 1930s when the surge of nationalism in Germany gave rise to Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party and the so-called Third Reich.
That nationalist movement was not limited to Europe, however. It was supported by German immigrants and others of German descent around the world, including the United States. In fact, southeastern Wisconsin was home to two camps run by an American Nazi group, called the German-American Bund.
Grafton was where the Bund’s Camp Hindenburg was located. There are few people alive today who were there the day the Bund came to town, and it’s a history few in the community talk about. But it’s a day Skip Eernisse has not forgotten.
"These Germans came marching up the street and they had the German flags flying and they were singing, 'Deutschland Lieber Alles,' I think," he recalls.
Now age 86, Eernisse was just 11-years-old in 1941 when the German-American Bund marched through town. By then, the group had already established their camp and regularly held meetings at the Grafton Hotel in town.
Word spread quickly about the march. And although Grafton only had one police officer at that time, Eernisse remembers seeing about ten officers approach the Bund marchers. "They made them take those German flags down, and they gave them an American flag and told them to get back to their camp... So they turned around," he says.
Speaking from the USS Liberty Public Library in Grafton, Eernisse looks out the window at 12th Avenue, where he remembers seeing the Bund marchers turn around and head back toward their camp. "Right there is where they threw the American flags down and they put up their German flags again, and they were singing their songs the rest of the way down to their camp," he recalls.
At the time, there were only about 1,100 people living in Grafton. When the draft started, that number dropped precipitously. While the German-American Bund remained in the area through the war, Grafton was also very involved in the war effort. "There was a lot of support by all the manufacturing in Grafton," says Nick Schanen from the Grafton Historical Society.
Many from Grafton went overseas, but many of those who stayed were busy working in the factories around the area. "They made sub-machine gun parts during the war," says Schanen, among other things.
Even the young Skip Eernisse was employed at the foundry where his father worked, thanks to a government contract. Although he's unsure what the parts were used for, the experience working there convinced him to go into another line of work. Eernisse says, "I knew that I was never, ever, ever going to work in a foundry again... I said I'd rob banks or do anything, but I'm not going back in the foundry again."