Alcohol Consumption at the Kooskia Internment Camp

Hello. My name is Kelsi Lee and I’m an undergraduate student majoring in anthropology. I was just about to graduate with an English degree when I decided to change to anthropology only a couple of years ago, so this is all fairly new and exciting to me. What sparked my interest with the alcohol consumption in the camp comes from my deep seated love for beer.  I found amongst the surface collection a few similar amber-glass bottles (Figure 1) and a couple of cans with Rainier and Schmidt labels (Figure 3).

Figure 1: Amber glass bottle associated with alcohol consumption found at the Kooskia Internment Camp.

Focusing on the canteen and its functions during the internment, I turned to Priscilla Wegars’ book Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp and, in particular, the chapter Finding Freedom in Leisure. In it, Wegars states that the canteen was “a facility provided under the terms of the Geneva Convention…and included in the INS’s ‘Instructions concerning the treatment of enemy aliens,’…Detainees were allowed to run the canteen, if competent to do so; in that case, the INS required that an INS employee audit the canteen accounts.” It was originally a storage room and workshop and “sold cigarettes, gum, candy…It also stocked some slacks, sports jackets, shirts, and even slippers”.

In the collection of archival documents held at the lab I also found a correspondences commenting on beer and the camp. In the records are correspondences between two camps.  For instance, there are two letters between the Officers in Charge of the Alien Detention Camp in Missoula, Montana and the Kooskia Internment Camp. The first letter, dated June 5, 1943 was sent to Missoula by Dave Aldridge, the Officer in Charge of the Kooskia camp.  No name was used but “Officer in Charge” for the receiving end. Dave Aldridge writes, “Camp Spokesman, Mr. Yano…have approached the officer in charge with the request that when the canteen is established they be permitted to dispense beer of not to exceed 3.2 alcoholic content under controlled regulations. They cite their camp regulations at Camp Meade as precedent, stating that at the station they were permitted one bottle of beer at the end of each day…A decision is requested.”

This obviously shows that the internees were requesting beer often enough for the authorities to be reached in Missoula. The return letter dated June 8, 1943 to “Mr. Dave Aldridge”, written by Bert H. Fraser, Officer in Charge, grants permission to the “3.2% alcoholic content” and that “This office finds no objection to such permission being granted a you may decide what method should be used to control the sales to individual Japanese.”

Not everyone was so peachy-keen on the internees receiving beer. According to a newspaper article from the Spokesman-Review dated July 25, 1943 (Figure 2), a Mrs. Harvey Gumm wrote a letter to the Editor titled “Japs Get Beer; Rest Get Left:  Kooskia Cook Asks Pointed Questions About Rations at Internment Camp” requesting information as to why the internees get beer and why, she feels, the non-prisoners were left out. “Who’s paying for that beer?” Mrs. Gumm writes, “Why do the Jap prisoners get a ration and a half of food while their guards get only a ration, same as we?…Our boys in Jap prison camps don’t get treated so kindly and handled so tenderly. You know, there’s a lot of us cooks, hashers, small business men, farmers, truckers, we little people who really love our country and are glad to do what we can, but I hear a lot where I work and it sounds like we’re puzzled and resentful of some of these things. We read your paper, so if you print this maybe some man who makes the wheels go round in a government office will see it and answer us too, in some way”. This article clearly demonstrates the heightened racial tensions of World War II.

Figure 2: Newspaper article from the Spokesman-Review dated July 25, 1943.

One thing that I hope to accomplish soon is getting a tighter grip on the artifacts from the surface collection. In a personal phone-interview I had with the grandson of the old owner of the Missoula Brewing Company in the 1940s, Bill Steinbrenners, I was informed that because of the shortage of materials during World War II the Missoula Brewing Company was not producing cans or distributing throw-away bottles.  So, I figure that the Rainier cans were either an afterthought of World War II or from before.  I hope to discover more about Schmidt and Rainier in the following weeks.

I was very lucky to get in touch with Bill Steinbrenners through Bob Lukes, who is bringing Highlander beer back to the forefront in Montana. Bob requested that I add a link to his website for Highlander Beer ( Highlander beer is pictured many times in Wegar’s book with the internees and Bill Steinbrenners and Bob were more than happy to discuss the brew. Bill remembers during World War II bringing 25 cases of brew to the Lochsa Lodge only an hour and twenty five minute drive away from the Kooskia camp with his grandfather. Bob remembers visiting the same lodge years later to see old pictures with Highlander  signs in the backgrounds. Both believed that it was a very popular beer at the time in the area.

Figure 3: Rainier and Schmidt metal beer can found at the Kooskia Internment Camp.

I am extremely grateful for the information with which both Bob and Bill provided me. It is easy to look at artifacts and tell their stories for them, but to have two figures pull open their mental file-cabinets for a poor undergraduate’s research was truly a treat.

Thanks and bottoms up!

Kelsi Lee


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