Remembering the Cuban Refugee Program at Fort McCoy, 1980
Between May and November of 1980, the military base at Fort McCoy became a refugee compound where over 14,000 Cuban exiles where screened and detained as they awaited potential sponsorship from Wisconsin organizations and families. The "Resettlement Program" at Fort McCoy impacted the lives of many Monroe County citizens leaving them with unforgettable memories of that time.
Below are stories submitted to the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum by people who agreed to share their stories about this significant chapter in Monroe County history. (Note: the following stories may have been edited in part for length and/or clarity.)
First Name: Cheryl
Residence in 1980: Sparta
I worked at the Century Telephone Company in Sparta as a Telephone Operator. We would receive calls from the refugees and try to place them for them. It was interesting as I had just returned from Germany. So I was trying to speak Spanish, German and English to them. It was fun trying to communicate with them, to help them get in touch with their families. It was a time for all of us to work together to make the best of every situation.
First Name: James
Residence in 1980: Sparta, WI 54656
I was the foreman in the carpenter shop when word came down that we would be a center to receive Cuban refugees. This was just about a week before the Memorial Day weekend. We immediately were involved in meetings with FEMA personnel and representatives from the US Marshals office. Plans had to be made which blocks on Fort McCoy would be used, the security needed and material ordered. Once the fencing requirements were identified orders were placed for the required material, which included lumber, fencing material and a lot of concertina wire. I had to work with Human Resources to hire approximately 30 plus temporary workers. The 400 block was designated for families and numerous partitions had to be built in bathrooms and living areas for privacy. While that was being accomplished, we started erecting fencing from the 400 block down through the 700 block. Each block was fenced individually and gates were installed on each end of the roads through each block. I had never seen such speed in hiring and purchasing material. About the same time as the word came about this mission, two individuals in the chain of command between myself and the deputy engineer retired. That left me to work directly with the deputy engineer which under normal conditions would never have happened. It also made me privy to decisions I would not otherwise have been involved. It was a great experience and a lot of pressure. We ended up working 33 straight days often 10 or more hours a day. It was the best diet I ever was on as I lost over 20 pounds over that period.
Once the fences were up our job was to keep repairs up and make sure the fences were repaired as they were often tampered with. One memory that stays with me to this day was on a Sunday night around 9 or 10 PM I received a call from a US Marshall saying there were some problems with the fencing. I went out there and as I drove up to the 600 block I saw all the fences laying flat on the ground and military personnel shoulder to shoulder as a human fence. There was an eerie light from portable lighting and Cubans were sitting on second floor window sills shouting at the soldiers. As it turned out all the fences from the 500 through the 700 block were knocked down. The Marshals wanted to know how soon we could get the fences back up, but that proved to be a major undertaking and soldiers had to be used for several weeks.
Another memory that has stuck with me was the lake the Cubans made in the 500 or 600 block. I can not remember exactly which block. There was a stream running through the block and the Cubans used anything they could get their hands on, including bed parts, mattresses, scraps of wood etc to damn up the stream. This created a small lake in which everyone in the block were splashing each other and having a ball. I had to get equipment and individuals to take the dam apart and dump the items used which now were junk. I was not real happy with that group of Cubans but reflecting on that at night when I got home I could not help but smile at all the fun they were having. It was like a big kids party.
I think it is important to remember to first realize that the families that arrived at Fort McCoy were so thankful to be here that they lived in crowded barracks with little privacy always putting their children first when we came up to help them with something and never complaining to or about us. My heart went out to these people who only wanted to protect their children and try to give them freedom and all the advantages that comes with that. They wanted more for their children than living in Cuba could offer. They were quick to express their thanks to us even when living in secure and crowded conditions.
But there was another side to this bit of history and that was the ugly side of single males who were criminals and many with mental problems. I, unfortunately had more interaction with these individuals because that is where the damage to buildings and fencing happened. Going into the mental wards was intimidating and downright scary. There were a number of these individuals that were sent to federal prisons. Receiving these dangerous individuals cast a negative reaction on support staff and local populace. This was a huge disservice to the families that were dragged into the negative feelings. The families were the very ones that should have been excepted without fear but the bad element had the effect of all Cubans painted with the same brush. VERY UNFORTUNATE.
First Name: PAT
Residence in 1980: 516 MILWAUKEE STREET
I was on the city council at the time. This gave me the privilege to drive thru Fort McCoy to see first hand all of the Cubans in their yards outside their barracks. My husband Tom and I lived along side the railroad tracks. This is the route the Cubans used when they would escape Fort McCoy. They would follow the RR tracks out of Ft. McCoy to explore. We also lived by the Sparta Municipal Golf Course. At one time, the Cubans robbed the golf course. They stole hats, candy and cigarettes. They returned to Ft. McCoy and handed out the golf hats. It was pretty funny to see so many Cubans wearing golf hats as I'm sure they didn't know what the hats said. We never locked our doors. I came home and the money in a huge jar sitting on top of our refrigerator was gone along with a red vest I had hanging by the door. They must have just entered the door, see what they could steal and take off. We "assumed" it was the Cubans and we now started locking our doors as many local people did the same. One time, my 2 nieces were visiting. We had a swimming pool. I looked out my deck door and saw a Cuban walking towards the pool where my nieces were swimming. They were swimming and not paying any attention to their surroundings. I got a gun and yelled at the girls to run to the house. I pointed the rifle at the Cuban and when he saw the gun, he took off. The girls came running into the house and I called the police as I didn't know where the Cuban went. I don't know the outcome.
During this time [the Government] was looking for sponsors [for the Cuban refugees]. Several families did this. I had a friend, a hairdresser who sponsored 3 Cubans. In some cases, the woman of the household left their families to go with the Cubans. I remember 2 distinctively as they were friends of my parents. It shocked us and many Sparta people the amount of women who would leave their families for Cubans. I never knew where they ended up. But I remember the shockwaves it created at the time. We had a racquetball club across the street from the Market Bar and when I would come or leave work, several Cubans would hang outside the bar and whistle and yell at me. It wasn't just me. It was any woman who they saw. I remember being so uncomfortable and afraid. I was in my 20's. As a member of the city council, I was very vocal about the "unknowns" as to why Castro would ship his "worst" prisoners to the United States. I was quoted (I remember it well). "If President Carter wants these Cubans in the United States, they should work on Carter's peanut farms." I was criticized by the local churches for that comment. However.....Sparta flourished economically during this time. We had property and with housing being short for government people coming to work at Ft. McCoy, we raised our monthly rent 500% as we knew the government would fund it. We were not alone. If you had rental property, everyone increased their monthly rates. Some local businesses profited as well. I remember Hanson's Clothing getting the bid for denim jeans. The surrounding areas put bids in for shoes, clothing, etc. I only remember Hanson's benefiting. So it was good for local businesses.
First Name: Jane
Residence in 1980: Sparta
In all the years I worked at Fort McCoy the only time I remember having my vehicle inspected when departing (not entering) the installation was when the Cuban refugees were there. I think they were inspecting vehicles to make sure no Cuban had stowed away in the vehicle.
First Name: Barb
Residence in 1980: West Salem
In the summer of 1980 I was working at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital, La Crosse, in the Kidney Dialysis department. Shortly after the first Cubans came to Fort McCoy, 6 young men were admitted to our unit in critical condition. There would be two more Cubans admitted in September. Somehow all eight drank anti-freeze. As far as I know it was not decided how they got the anti-freeze—whether they drained it out of vehicles or if it had been given to them by someone else (tossed over the fence?) and told it was alcohol. Most of them were very tattooed on their bottom inner lip, which I think meant that they had been in a prison of some kind. They were happy to be in the U.S. They knew three words in English: “USA,” “Barb” (my name), and “Coca-Cola.: They never caused any trouble while in the hospital and all survived.
First Name: Jim
Residence in 1980: Monroe County
While on regular patrol during the time the Cuban refugees were housed at Ft. McCoy we were advised to be on alert for individuals who might use the highways to escape the area. We were made aware that there was a criminal element among them. One afternoon when I started my shift I was advised to report to the State Patrol Academy which was then located in old military barracks on Ft. McCoy. Upon arriving at the Academy I was advised that another trooper and I, along with one academy state member, defend the Academy from intrusion. The refugees were uprising and the Academy was a possible target. During the evening there was noise coming from the [refugee] housing area. At one point it was quite loud, then later it calmed down. We had no attempted intrusion and then we all returned to our normal patrol.
First Name: Kate Rice
Residence in 1980: Monroe County
I was a reporter with the Tomah Journal and I remember interviewing refugees. They could bring NOTHING with them. One young father, there with his young family, turned over the waistband of his pants to show where he had written a phone number of a relative already here, they couldn't even bring notebooks! And THEN, there was the plight of unaccompanied minors and how vulnerable they were--and the heroic efforts of both civilian AND military staff to get them protection from the state of Wisconsin. Some real heroes there. And of course, there was my dad, Jim Rice, who was judge at the time and had already prepped for their arrival. So that the Wisconsin legal system could protect the vulnerable.
First Name: Douglas
Residence in 1980: Tomah
I worked at the Fort with the refugees in the mess halls. When they asked them what changes they wanted to the food, we had to add 5 # of lard to a very large pot of beef stew to meet their recommendations. They had a very different culture from ours. Very interesting to an 18 year old of the time.