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Echoes Of America's Massive WWII War Effort Still Resound Today In Fulton County

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District / Wikimedia Commons
The engineers training area at Camp Ellis in the 1940s.

The Easley Pioneer Museum in the little town of Ipava closed this week for the season, so if you want to see the museum’s display on Camp Ellis, you’ll have to wait until the place reopens next April.

Museum founder Marion Cornelius was in the museum last month surrounded by the memories of the World War II camp that once occupied this portion of southern Fulton County, some 50 miles from Peoria.

Between 1943 and 1945, Camp Ellis was the center of attention in this rural area of Illinois with its own camp radio station and newspaper, as well as theaters and athletic fields. A prisoner of war camp also housed more than 2,000 German prisoners.

Cornelius, now 81, knew the camp as a boy. His father was in the Illinois National Guard that used the site until 1949. He makes the point that Camp Ellis was no small undertaking.

“Yes, it was very huge. There was little in the state of Illinois that was as large as Camp Ellis," said Cornelius. "One of the things that I tell people that they're pretty amazed to hear is, after it was built, it was the second largest city in Illinois. Only Chicago was larger than Camp Ellis in 1943, 4, and 5.”

Today, Cornelius said maybe 500 people live within a six-mile radius of Ipava. But back in 1943, up to 250,000 people lived in the same area. But you'd be hard-pressed to tell, looking at the former site of Camp Ellis today.

“There’s very little left there now," said Cornelius. "When they built the camp, not only were there people there, but they built 2,200 buildings in 13 months. All that material had to be hauled in by the railroad. Semis didn't really exist at that time like we know them today.”

In fact, Cornelius said all of Fulton County had only one hard-surface paved road in 1943.

"They averaged a hundred boxcar loads of material a day for 13 months to build all those buildings," he said. "And it was only used for approximately three years."

But Camp Ellis had a definite purpose, said Cornelius.

“They didn’t train people here to fight the war. They trained people here to support the people who were fighting the war," he said.

Camp Ellis trained quartermasters, engineers and medical personnel, he said.

“The hospital at Camp Ellis, when they got it built, covered 160 acres…arguably, it was the largest hospital in the United States at the time," said Cornelius.

Today, you won’t find much to indicate all that went on here during the war, but Cornelius feels it’s still important to remember.

"I kind of like to refer to Tom Brokaw. He calls it the Greatest Generation. And the more I look at it, the more I think he was right, but he was wrong. It was even more than the Greatest Generation.

"There were Air Force bases and Army bases and Navy bases built all around our country at the same time that, if you've ever read the Manhattan Project, which is about the atomic bomb, all of that took place at the same time Camp Ellis was taking place. Rosie the Riveter.

"All of those things that happened, all the machinery that was produced was just a phenomenal thing. It would be very difficult to do it again. I think that's the thing that is most important about remembering Camp Ellis--what it did, and what it was like. You have to put it together with all the other things that happened around the country that brought an end to World War II. And that was pretty important."

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.