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Crailsheim's McKee Barracks closure led to land redevelopment

CRAILSHEIM, Germany -- At the end of World War II, the city of Crailsheim became home to thousands of American soldiers. Stationed at the McKee Barracks on the city's western side, the U.S. Army troops numbered as many as 3,000 during the Cold Wa...

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Axel Huss, a former exchange student to Worthington, is now a developer in Crailsheim. He designed the McKee Company building behind him, which includes a mix of retail and office space, on the former McKee Barracks ground. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)
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CRAILSHEIM, Germany - At the end of World War II, the city of Crailsheim became home to thousands of American soldiers. Stationed at the McKee Barracks on the city’s western side, the U.S. Army troops numbered as many as 3,000 during the Cold War, from 1947 to 1991.

Their presence drew mixed reaction from the people of Crailsheim. They realized the economic importance of having an American base, and appreciated the protection during the Cold War, but at the same time, the roar of the Army’s large trucks and tanks reverberated through the once relatively quiet town. Meanwhile, the children loved to coax food and treats from the American soldiers.

Axel Huss, who served as the 1986-1987 exchange student to Worthington, recalls fondly his childhood days of trying to enter the barracks to get candy and chewing gum from the soldiers.

“Crackers, peanut butter, cans of sausages” - those were the foods Huss said he remembers getting from the U.S. Army troops.

“They sold American ice cream out of the truck,” Huss recalled - something mentioned by other Crailsheimers as well. They’d never had ice cream that tasted that good.

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Huss said his interaction with the soldiers helped expand his English vocabulary, and at age 50, he can still repeat the first military chant he learned: “I don’t need no teenage queen; I just want my M-16.”

By January 1994, though, the barracks were quiet. The soldiers moved out and the trucks and tanks moved on. The once bustling community within a community was gone, and it seemed a barren wasteland to the people of Crailsheim.

The property went to the German government, and the city of Crailsheim had an opportunity to purchase some of it, most notably some of the buildings that housed American troops. Several of the buildings were renovated into private apartments. Meanwhile, many of the remaining buildings were demolished to clear the land for development.

Today, just a couple of smaller pieces of land are unoccupied, but will most likely be for expansion of existing businesses.

Huss, who returned to Crailsheim after his year of study in Worthington and became a successful businessman in real estate and development, purchased some of the land that was once part of McKee Barracks. Three years ago, when a contingent from Worthington visited Crailsheim, Huss hosted a grand opening of the McKee Center, as well as an unveiling of the sister city bridge sculpture that stands in front of the complex.

“About six years ago I had a vision for the building on this site,” said Huss, sitting inside the backerei (bakery) that takes up a portion of the main floor of the McKee Center. He liked the location because it was bordered by Bürgermeister Demuth Allee, with Martha McCarthy Strasse nearby.

“Demuth was there (in Worthington) as mayor when I was the exchange student,” Huss shared. “I thought this was a piece of property I must have.”

He purchased little more than 5,000 square feet of land, securing both the backerei and metzgerei (butcher shop) before the building was built. Both were located on the ground floor, with offices for local lawyers and accountants filling in the top (fourth) floor. In between, Huss wanted to attract service-oriented businesses. There, people can see a dentist, a physical therapist or get a massage. The remaining space is filled by advertising agencies and offices for salespeople.

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One of the ground floor spaces that hadn’t been occupied since the building’s opening in December 2013 is currently being prepped to house a kickboxing studio.

“We have the world champion of kickboxing in Crailsheim,” Huss said. “He’s moving in here and will have a training center here.”

Approximately 120 jobs were created with the completion of the McKee Center.

Huss designed the building to be flexible, with the potential to move any of the interior walls, with a focus on energy conservation. The building uses approximately 100,000 kilowatt hours of heat per year - the equivalent of two or three homes.

As one of the last pieces of land once home to the McKee Barracks to be developed, Huss wanted to share the story of the Worthington-Crailsheim sister city partnership with visitors to the McKee Center. A pictorial display inside the front entrance to the building tells of the packages sent from Worthington to Crailsheim after World War II, and shows the progression of development of the McKee Barracks land.

Huss said the time he spent in Worthington changed his life. He’s open to other people and other countries, and has joined in service organizations because of what he experienced abroad.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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