University of Wisconsin- La Crosse Area Research Center
Joseph Motivans had an amazing life. He was born in 1932 Latvia, a Baltic country in the Eastern part of Europe. He grew up in Latvia, became a refugee in Germany, came to the United States, worked as a sharecropper when he was only 16, was drafted into the Korean War, went to college, and eventually taught at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse. The section from his childhood to his eventual service for the United States is particularly interesting, so that is what this FFA will follow. If you are looking for a child’s perspective on being a refugee in World War II, and the immigration process after the war, then this oral history would be perfect for you!
This collection is an oral history, and is available to listen to or read. This FFA follows the typed transcript, and focuses on some of the more amazing parts of his life, like how the threat of communism forced him to leave his home. This Finding Aid is separated into its three focuses: 1) “Childhood in Latvia,” 2) “Escaping the Russians and WWII,” and 3) “Coming to the United States.” Any one of these would make a great National History Day project!
In the first portion of the interview (Childhood in Latvia, p. 1-44) Motivans introduces himself, and talks about his family, and their lives. He then describes life in Latvia, and his childhood. He also goes into detail about school, meals, summer vacation, and life on the farm. It is an overall description of the Latvian culture. In the next section (Escaping the Russians in WWII, p. 56-125), Motivans describes his experiences in World War II. He talks about how the world was so focused on Hitler that Stalin just swept in under the radar to take the Baltics. He talks about the Communist takeover, mass deportations, purges, hiding from the Russians, his family’s escape, life in the refugee camp, riots, and life after the war as a “displaced person.” He also tells how he lived in the camps. You might be surprised to learn that he got an education, and at times he had fun! In the final section (Coming to the United States, p. 125-147), Motivans talks about his life in the United States. He came over when he was just 16. He talks about how he got here, his life in Mississippi, how the WWII refugee and Black population got along, and college life.
Pages 1-11: Motivans introduces himself and gives some basic background knowledge such as: birth place and date, when he came to the United States, and where he grew up. Motivans explains the economic depression that was occurring in Latvia at the time of his birth as well. These are important pages to read for understanding his life and times.
Pages 11-17: This is where Motivans describes Latvia after World War II. Motivans discusses the political climate in each of the main countries that make up the Baltic region. Then he talks about Latvia and how there were many political parties and how communism was rising. (At the time, Latvia was independent and creating its own democracy, but the Russian threat was near.) Read these pages to find out how the Russians threatened Latvia’s new found independence.
Pages 20-33: On these pages Motivans discusses his education, and what school was like in Latvia. Motivans also talks about how he behaved in school and the corporal punishments (physical punishments) used. He also talks about sex education, and how he learned about the birds and the bees. (Oh la la!)
Pages 33-38: In this small, but important section, Motivans talks about medical care in Latvia, and about the role sorcery played. Did you know that there were not many doctors at the time and that people relied on the town “expert” who would use magical powers to heal them? Motivans pulls from past experiences to describe the time he broke his leg.
Pages 38-41: Motivans discusses social life in Latvia in this section. He talks about drinking, pastimes, and holidays. Remember being read to when you were younger? You can read about Motivans’s bedtime stories and cultural events here.
Pages 41-44: This is where Motivans talks about what the Latvian people ate. He talks about how the harder you worked, the more varied your diet became. He also discusses the meals had at certain times of the year, like holidays. Did you know that during certain holidays people had to fast?
Pages 56-60: Motivans begins with the Communist takeover in the Baltics. This was all done legally, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Read here to see what the Motivans family thought about Jewish people.
Pages 60- 69: In this section you can learn about how the Communist takeover affected every aspect of life, even language! He begins telling his memories of his neighbors being deported. He tells who was first to go, what they brought with them, and where they were sent. How do you think this affected Motivans’ daily life? Read here to find out.
Pages 69-76: Motivans talks about when his family thought they were next on the list to be deported to Germany. Their saviors were the German Nazis! If you think you have heard everything about the German and Russian armies; read here for a new perspective.
Pages 76-89: Here is where Motivans and his family escape Latvia. (They decided that being in Germany would be better than going to Russia.) Read here for the heart-racing escape of Motivans and his family.
Pages 89-98: In this section Motivans describes being transported in Germany, packed like sardines in railroad cars. Once in the refugee camp, he talks about how he and his family got supplies and survived. Read here to see what it was like.
Pages 98-102: Here Motivans discusses riots in the camp, and how they got started. Next he tells how he and his family were sent to a different camp, and almost got sent to Siberia!
Pages 102-125: In this portion, Motivans talks about what happened after the war. He and his family could not go home so they continued to travel west to another camp. He describes his education, the Black Market, gangs, books, alcohol, dental care, and what it was like living in an American Zone. Motivans talks about how he handled all the changes, the mixing of rural and urban populations, and the segregation within the camps. Could you imagine moving to a new place with a lot of different people who speak different languages? Read here to see how Motivans handled this.
Pages 125-130: Motivans discusses how the immigration process worked in 1948. Oftentimes when you think of immigration, you might think of Ellis Island. See how different Motivans’ experience was by reading here.
Pages 130-135: Here is where Motivans talks about his life in Mississippi. He and his family were sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. Working on a plantation was hard. Do you think Motivans still got to go to school? Read here to find out.
Pages 135-138: Here Motivans discusses the relationship between the Black population and the refugee population. He then goes into the relationship that the refugees had with the Southern Whites. How do you think refugees were welcomed after World War II? Read here to find out more.
Pages 138-147: Here is where Motivans discusses his family moving to Walls, Mississippi. Motivans talks about high school, junior college, and cultural influences that changed his life, like smoking. During the 1950s you might think about greasers and poodle skirts. Read here to find out how Motivans fit in with this!
Reviewed by: Katie Buika
Murphy’s Area Research Center (ARC)
William Koch was born in 1882 in La Crosse to a family that lived on the North Side. He left school at the age of fourteen to begin working and help support his family. Throughout his life, Koch worked many jobs in La Crosse, including at the lumber mills, the railroad, and the Pearl Button Factory. He was married in 1910 and had two children. This interview was done in 1971-1972, when Koch was about 90 years old, however, Koch speaks very clearly about his whole life and is never shy to give his opinion!
This interview touches on many many subjects, however, this finding aid focuses on two major topics discussed by Koch:
The whole transcript is typed and a total of 348-pages long! But never fear, this finding aid lists just the pages needed for the two topics above.
Pages 2-14: In this opening section of the interview, Koch describes his German immigrant grandparents and other family background. He tells what his childhood was like growing up on the North Side of La Crosse in the late 1800s, including information on his education, all of the jobs he and his family members had—including his young sisters—and interactions he had with some nearby Ho-Chunk children. Koch started working when he was 14-years-old, and his early jobs included the Milwaukee Coal Chutes, the railroad, La Crosse Rubber Mills, Pearl Button Factory, Coleman Lumber Co., and even picking potatoes in South Dakota. Koch also remembered hunting with his Dad and seeing passenger pigeons (now extinct)!
On pages 75-82 Koch talks about lumber production at the sawmills. Never one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Koch also shares is view on harvesting logs in Wisconsin, the building of a road through the La Crosse marsh, and the effect logging had on Native Americans in Wisconsin.
Pages 84-94 cover “river pirates”. These are people who stole logs right off the river from the lumber companies. In addition, Koch also brings up log jams, logging accidents, and his memories of the rowdy lumbermen in La Crosse. In this section Koch also discusses La Crosse’s Redlight district and other memories of downtown in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
On pages 95-100 Koch describes the rivalry between the North and South sides of La Crosse. He discusses other La Crosse memories as well, including farm animals and community pastureland right in town! He gives his opinion about the Ho-Chunk in the area, and why many lived on “Indian Hill.” Koch eagerly shares his opinion on the sale of liquor to local Native Americans, and the role whites played in bringing liquor and disease to Native Americans. It is important to note that during this part of the interview, he makes anti-Native American racist remarks. In your notes, make sure to put all his questionable language in quotation marks. That way, people won’t think his language is your language.
Page 122-142: In this section, Koch talks a lot about helping fight fires with the firemen as a kid—not unusual at the time. He had fond childhood memories of horses being used in town, which he describes, but he also recalled common diseases and dangers faced by La Crosse youth. (Just a hint, some of the diseases and dangers were connected to the river.)
On pages 15-41 William Koch begins to talk about his job at the Pearl Button Factory. (Most of this 348-page interview is about the Pearl Button Factory!) He describes exactly how the button factory worked: first how cutting buttons worked, then what the clam shell industry was like, then clamming along Wisconsin rivers and the Mississippi River. He also uses great detail describing how pay worked at the factory for the various jobs. He remembers workers rioting because of their pay.
Pages 42-74 covers why Koch eventually left the Pearl Button Factory. He shares information about the people he worked with, including many female factory workers. He also describes the social life of the factory, like the breaks the workers were allowed to take, and other changes that made the workday more enjoyable. In this section Koch also describes further how the factory ran, including the machinery they used. Eventually, the topic turns to how the invention of plastic helped lead to the factory’s closure.
Pages A-Z: These pages are different. They are lettered, not numbered, and are inserted right between pages 74 and 75 of the transcript. (Weird) This section is a kind of “grab bag” of a whole bunch of topics, some new, and others touched on previously. Here is a highlights list: Koch talks about how river pollution made it hard to find clams for the factory. He further describes some of the people he worked with, including his fellow female factory workers. In particular, he discuses their work roles and wages at the factory. He vividly remembers innovations made at the La Crosse factory and how these helped the button industry nation-wide. Finally, Koch also mentions attitudes towards Germans during WWI.
On pages 176-190 Koch remembers how the Pearl Button Factory ground up extra shells and sold them to be used as chicken feed. He again describes the machine he designed, his career at the factory, and manufacturing at the factory.
Pages 209-214 give more information about the making of buttons.
Pages 237b-242 address Koch’s memory about unions, strikes, and labor organizers at the Pearl Button Factory.
Pages 302-304 return to the subject of the Ho-Chunk. This time Koch mentions their role digging shells for the Pearl Button Factory.
Reviewed by: Jennifer DeRocher
Family of Robbie Moss
Robbie Moss was an African American woman that lived in La Crosse from the 1930s through to her death in 2004. She was born in Mississippi in 1912 and moved to La Crosse when she married Orby Moss, the grandson of Zacharias Louis Moss, one of the first Black American settlers in La Crosse. He settled here in 1852 and opened a barbershop. (This was just two years after La Crosse became established as a town, making the Moss family one of La Crosse’s pioneer families.)
Robbie was interviewed by Dr. Gretchen Lockett, a professor at UW- La Crosse, who is also African American. In the interview, Moss and Lockett talk about their experiences being African American in La Crosse between the early 1940s and 1982. They also cover major national and local events, such as WWII, workers’ strikes, and the Muriel Boatlift. Prejudice – theirs and others – and segregation is addressed throughout. There is also a fair amount of discussion about the relationship between La Crosse’s African American and Native American communities. Overall, this interview is a great window into what life was like as a minority in a small Midwestern city during the middle part of the 20th century. Although Moss and Lockett are the main “voices” in this oral history, there are others who speak as well, and everyone in the room has different experiences and different opinions about the racism they faced.
This oral history interview was recorded in 1982. It consists of two cassette tapes, each an hour long, but there is also a written transcript of the interview, which is 68 pages long.
There are many people talking in this interview. The interviewers are Dr. Gretchen Lockett, a professor at UWL, and an unidentified student. Robbie Moss is the primary person being interviewed, however her granddaughter and at least three other people are in the room as well, and they all talk. Because of this, the transcript can get confusing. Many times it lists people as, “GUEST,” “GUEST 2,” or “?????.” The person who typed the transcript often mixed up who was speaking. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you listen to the interview while you read the transcript. As you listen, you will begin to recognize the voices, making the whole interview much clearer.
Pages 1-7 are the part of the interview where Lockett and Moss talk about the Moss family and Robbie’s childhood. In addition, she talks about her experience being one of the few African Americans in La Crosse. In particular she remembers being refused service at places of business, segregation signs during World War II, Black soldiers at Fort McCoy (previously named Camp McCoy), and a La Crosse woman that was involved with in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Especially interesting is the part where Moss reflects upon her own prejudices against Native Americans.
On pages 10-22 the other people in the room begin to talk more. They share common experiences of racial discrimination. In particular, Moss remembers Black American soldiers being refused service in downtown La Crosse, which she compares with her own experience being turned away at a La Crosse drugstore. In addition, this section covers a number of very important local and national events. For example, Moss remembers the time during the 1980s when there were Cubans (many who were Black) in La Crosse due to the Mariel Boatlift. She remembers community backlash against Black Americans and Native Americans, and the La Crosse Telephone Company Strike of 1977. When the workers went on strike, the company responded by finding replacements – Black and white – from the South willing to come up and work. Robbie shares her theories of La Crosse’s prejudices at this time.
A very interesting part of this interview is the conversation about Black organizations in La Crosse, like the NAACP, the Black church in La Crosse, and Black settlements around the region, such as the one near Hillsboro. Nathan Smith is mentioned. He was a prominent Black American in La Crosse in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Pages 23-37 are all about racial attitudes and behavior in La Crosse and the Midwest. The group discusses their personal experiences and theories about race in La Crosse, but also the difference between racism in the Midwest and racism in the South. (This subject is especially interesting because for many white Midwesterners, northern racism is a subject they may have never considered. Here you get to learn about it by someone who directly experienced it.) They also talk some more about the racism Cubans faced in La Crosse in 1982, why they could not find jobs, and how the media reported about them.
On pages 37-50 Robbie Moss’s granddaughter shares her views and experiences as a Black American college students in La Crosse (mostly Viterbo, where she went to school). This turns into a discussion about religion and racism in the community. Moss weighs in as well, telling what it was like for her children in terms of school, dating, going to events like prom, and all the other typical things children do in general. This section also returns to the subject of the hardships for women of color, and what it was like to live in such a prominently white community. Robbie Moss’s memories of what it was like when famous Black musicians came to La Crosse is really interesting! (By the way, Duke Ellington, Peaches & Herb, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Louie Armstrong – whom Robbie and her son met – all came to La Crosse during Moss’s lifetime.)
Pages 50-66 return to the subject of Black churches in La Crosse and employment challenges. Moss remembered not being able to get a job at Trane Company and the National Gauge and Register Company. They voice their different theories on the subject of jobs.