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Archive for Monday, January 4, 2010

Sunflower ammunition factory caused population explosion in De Soto

De Soto became a boom town after it was announced in March 1942 that the Sunflower Ordnance Works would be built south of the town. Traffic on the town’s main street, which was Kansas Highway 10 at the time, was said to be bumper-to-bumper for two hours at shift changes at the plant.

De Soto became a boom town after it was announced in March 1942 that the Sunflower Ordnance Works would be built south of the town. Traffic on the town’s main street, which was Kansas Highway 10 at the time, was said to be bumper-to-bumper for two hours at shift changes at the plant.

January 4, 2010

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With housing hard to find, workers at what was then called the Sunflower Ordnance Works lived in trailers, such as those parked in November 1942 in a De Soto church yard, or tents throughout the town. More than 10,000 people were employed in the construction of the plant and 12,000 worked there during its peak wartime production.

With housing hard to find, workers at what was then called the Sunflower Ordnance Works lived in trailers, such as those parked in November 1942 in a De Soto church yard, or tents throughout the town. More than 10,000 people were employed in the construction of the plant and 12,000 worked there during its peak wartime production.

— Lawrence Allen remembers fondly the De Soto of his childhood, which he said was far different from the farm town of a few year earlier or the bedroom community that would follow.

“It was a lively place. It was just a boom town,” he said. “I lived on my smarts right down there when it was going its strongest.”

Now 76, Allen moved to De Soto soon after his father closed his junkyards in Gridley to take a job helping build roads in the newly commissioned Sunflower Ordnance Works. His father, Harvey “Junky” Allen, would later open a store in De Soto’s suddenly crowded two-block downtown.

As the United States entered World War II in December 1941, a 12-year-old Walt Johnston was living with his family in Abbott Hall, a two-story limestone building dating from 1865 that remains downtown’s western anchor.

“My aunt and uncle owned the building,” Johnston said. “My dad had a blacksmith shop in the basement.”

All that was about to change as the boom overtook a town with an official 1940 population of 383.

In March 1942, the De Soto News started reporting “the world’s largest” munitions plant was planned near De Soto in northwest Johnson County, instead of eastern Douglas County as had been previously thought.

From that date, stories told of the press to get the plant built and operating by early 1943. Sunflower would employ 12,000 people during its peak World War II production, but the job rush started soon after the decision to build the plant and the hiring of the first of the 10,000 workers involved in its construction.

Early activity reported in the paper included construction of the Sunflower railroad spur through De Soto, the erection of Sunflower’s administrative buildings and the opening of employment office in De Soto.

The parked trailers of Sunflower Ordnance Works employees are shown a block south of De Soto’s downtown in this photo from November 1942. Many families lived in tents, some workers slept on mattresses in the open, and other men rented sleeping quarters on a schedule that corresponded to Sunflower shift changes.

The parked trailers of Sunflower Ordnance Works employees are shown a block south of De Soto’s downtown in this photo from November 1942. Many families lived in tents, some workers slept on mattresses in the open, and other men rented sleeping quarters on a schedule that corresponded to Sunflower shift changes.

Town transformed

As workers were drawn to Sunflower, De Soto was transformed as inhabitants and newcomers saw opportunity.

In May 1942, the newspaper reported that Abbott Hall was sold to a “Kansas City man,” who planned to convert it into a restaurant and living space for Sunflower workers.

Johnston said his family moved to a farmhouse in the Kansas River bottoms west of De Soto. With no space for a blacksmith shop, his dad would start working at Sunflower.

Other buildings also would be converted, including the car dealership/garage that was remodeled into a cafe and lodging. Johnston and Allen remember four cafes on the south side of Main Street in the one block from Shawnee to Wea streets. There was plenty of business at all hours.

“The owner of the Midway Cafe threw the keys to the building into an empty lot across the street,” Johnston said, “He said, ‘When I need the keys again, it’ll be time to close down.’ He ran it 24 hours a day.”

Among the town’s businesses were four grocery stores, a drug store and movie theater, Allen and Johnston said.

There were moneymaking opportunities for boys, too. Johnston said for a period he joined those shining shoes on Main Street.

“You could make as much money shining shoes as you could up on the plant,” he said.

The businesses served the parade of plant employees who passed through downtown going to and from work — until a bypass was built to the south later in the war.

“It was terrible bumper-to-bumper traffic,” Johnston said. “You couldn’t cross the street for two hours at shift changes. There would be traffic cops directing traffic at Abbott Hall.”

Those looking to avoid a long drive found lodging hard to come by in De Soto, especially before the first 863 apartments in Sunflower Village opened in August 1943.

A Nov. 18, 1942, story in the Kansas City Times reported on a U.S. Office of Price Administration door-to-door survey of homes in De Soto meant to ensure landlords weren’t exceeding rent ceilings. De Soto service station owner Robert Turner told the reporter he was getting constant inquiries about renting his barn and sheds as living space and that the renters of a five-bedroom home he owned had taken in 11 boarders at the rate of $2.50 a week.

It was also reported the going rate for new arrivals to pitch a tent or park a trailer in yards was $2.50 to $3.50 a week.

Allen said when he first arrived in De Soto, he lived with his parents in a tent with a wooden floor behind a downtown grocery store while his three teenage sisters lived in a converted garage about a block away.

As Spartan as his family’ lodgings were, they were superior to those of new arrivals who slept nearby on mattresses in the open, Allen said.

Other men rented sleeping quarters on a schedule that corresponded to Sunflower shift changes. Sally Bedford, whose father started work at Sunflower in 1944, said the parents of a childhood friend rented four beds in their attic in such an arrangement.

“There wasn’t even enough room to stand up,” she said. “You slept for eight hours, and then you had to give it up to the next fellow.”

Bedford said her family arrived in De Soto in 1944 with a trailer her father bought while working construction on a defense plant in Oklahoma.

“People would live in chicken coops, sheds or anything that would give them a little bit of shelter,” she said. “We felt like with a trailer, we really had it good.”

The family first lived at a trailer village near the main gate to the ordnance plant about 4 miles west of De Soto, Bedford said. When that was closed in 1944, they moved into De Soto, parking the trailer at the Methodist Church parsonage, she said.

Overflowing school

The federal government’s focus on getting the plant constructed didn’t extend to building classrooms for children of plant employees.

Johnston said De Soto’s elementary school at the time was a wooden two-story building with two classrooms per floor. The top floor was closed off before the war, when 88 students attended the school, he said.

Elementary enrollment grew to 346 in 1942-43 and to 992 in by the war’s end.

To meet the crush, the top floor was reopened and then partitions built in the rooms to double the number of classrooms.

Bedford, a fourth-grader in 1944, said the crowding made for long days for the students of the trailer village, which the principal tried to spin as something good.

“They would empty the bus and send it out again,” she said. “The principal said because the local kids had chores to do, they would pick us up from the trailer village first. And then since we came earlier, we would get to stay late. But we weren’t that dumb. We realized what he said to us.”

The opening of a temporary school for the trailer village students helped ease the situation before the first school was opened in Sunflower Village in 1944.

Crowded schools were just one of the things that caused longtime residents to resent the newcomers, Bedford said.

“There were ones who went, ‘There’s all that trailer trash coming into town.’ But we came anyway,” she said. “We knew it was crowded, and we recognized why natives were angry with people coming in.

“But I always thought everything was fine, and I had all I wanted.”

Allen said he saw a different side of the boom years because he lived downtown throughout and because of the nature of his father’s business.

Among the cafes and bars on the south side of Main Street, his lifelong Republican father opened a business with the tongue-in-cheek name of “Junky’s New Deal Shop,” Allen said. His father ran the store in an arrangement with a Kansas City family who saw the war coming and stockpiled merchandise, he said.

Hot items were washboards and tubs for people without laundry facilities, Allen said. In a time when things were tightly rationed, the store’s black market-supplied shelves had lye and lard for soap, as well as sugar and other hard to come by items.

“He had things like rubber tires, canned peaches, red and green packs of Lucky Strikes and bubblegum,” Allen said. “Nobody had bubblegum.”

The merchandise was brought in after the store closed at night on two Willys trucks his father owned, and it was often Allen’s job to unload the trucks, he said. A basement storeroom also contained a stash of small bottles of whiskey his father gave to favored customers and was the scene of craps games, he said.

His father moved Allen and his sisters into the bottom floor of a boarding house on Main Street about a block west of the store, Allen said. His parents lived in a trailer parked behind the store so his father could keep an eye on it, he said.

Outhouses used by boarders and people living in tents and trailers lined downtown alleys, Allen said. They were also a place where desperate men who failed to find work would mug those too flashy with their cash in the bars, he said.

“I saw more than one mugging,” he said. “They were just dunks rolled for money. No one had bank accounts back then.”

De Soto’s boom ended with the war. Sunflower Ordnance Works was mothballed in 1946 — although it would later be reactivated — but De Soto didn’t shrink to its pre-war population.

Allen’s parents moved on to open restaurants in Kansas City, Kan., but he continued to live with an older sister who would make De Soto her home.

Bedford said her mother wanted to settle down and her father started working on area bridge crews. She eventually married Archie Bedford, whose family also moved to De Soto during the war.

“A lot of people moved on,” Johnston said. “But a lot of people stayed. A lot of them became important to De Soto.”

Comments

monkfellow 4 years, 3 months ago

Thanks, MyName. I know there are characters like him out there, moving among us, like avatars, but they don't make themselves known until something sets them off. He may be a clever(in his own mind) provocateur. Who knows?

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sandysslick 4 years, 3 months ago

It Does not sound like any of you know where 90 percent of the munitions made at the plant during World War 2 went! I had a unique position there....most of you are arguing the wrong point.

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MyName 4 years, 3 months ago

@monkfellow:

I think the once and future troll (Arminius/Jacob123/*lolwut) has been banned (again). And, while I'm sure there are similarities between what he was saying and other luminaries from the far right, the only redeeming thing about is he seems to have his own unique view of history. Kind of like a special yellow snowflake pattern someone drew on your back porch or something.

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monkfellow 4 years, 3 months ago

um, you need to read "Unmasking Administrative Evil" by Balfour et al, before you try to equivocate the value of joining with Nazi Germany to "defend Western civilization". Read the chapters having to do with the rise of National Socialism and Hitler's siren song of "German greatness" sung to a war-weary, and anti-semetic population.You must be a Pat Buchanan disciple; he's pulled out the same argument that we should have locked arms with the Third Reich and gone after Stalinist Russia, because, while millions died in Nazi concentration camps, millions more died under Stalin's rule, ego, the lesser numbers are not as missed as the greater numbers of dead.By your reasoning, having England, France and Italy under the Nazi flag would be of lesser consequence than the presumed ability to defeat the Soviet foe. I don't know what history books you've read, son. Not the same ones in my studies, that's for sure.

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Jacob123 4 years, 3 months ago

That is not my decision. They won’t because the US won the war. Had we lost they might have faced trial.

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monkfellow 4 years, 3 months ago

um, yes, do you think the 80 somethings who worked at the Sunflower plant and who were "only following orders" should face an international war crimes tribunal?

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Jacob123 4 years, 3 months ago

Um………Ok do you have anything of value to bring to the discussion?

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CWGOKU 4 years, 3 months ago

Jacob, you are too stupid to insult.

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Jacob123 4 years, 3 months ago

Crimes where committed by all sides, all things being equal why did we ally with imperial Britain and communist Russia? We should have joined Germany to defend western civilization instead of helping destroy it for money. The US showed our true character and it is embarrassing, we are just a bunch of unprincipled money grubbers.

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Jacob123 4 years, 3 months ago

By your logic the children of the Desoto workers would have been acceptable military targets.

I am concerned with the crimes committed by my country and the reasons behind them. Nothing can justify bombing women and children in non military areas despite your obvious dislike for Germans.

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Esq2eB 4 years, 3 months ago

Jacob123: I was going to argue with you, but then you cited Wikipedia. Just when I thought your comments couldn't get any dumber, you went and proved me wrong. Did Wikipedia also tell you how many people were killed in Concentration Camps in Germany? That the vast majority of German citizens knew their government was killing innocent men, women, and children; and in turn did nothing about it? Or how many English children were killed by German bombs as they huddled in bomb shelters in London? Those German bombs being made by the parents of the children who were huddled in the German bomb shelter which you spoke of. Anytime a child is killed, it is a sad tragedy for man. But if you are to weap for German children, then you should weap equally for the Polish, Russian, French, and Austrian, etc children who were killed by the German war machine.

Fed the troll. It's a slow day at work:)

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Scruggsy 4 years, 3 months ago

Can you imagine people today migrating to a place and living under those types of conditions just for the opportunity of a paycheck?

Maybe line up at the welfare or unemployment office, but probably not for a job...

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75x55 4 years, 3 months ago

Jacob123 should ask what the Poles and Russians think.

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Jacob123 4 years, 3 months ago

The greatest generation helped kill 600,000 German civilians at the behest of their British overlords and to the benefit of communist Russia.

From WIkipedia, Casualties Overall, strategic aerial bombardment claimed the lives of over 160,000 Allied airmen in the European theatre,[116] 60,595 British civilians and between 305,000 and 600,000 German civilians.[5]

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Marty_McFly 4 years, 3 months ago

Jacob123 (Anonymous) says…

How many of those munitions killed school children in Germany while they huddled in bomb shelters?


I give up. How many?

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vjr0512 4 years, 3 months ago

I lived in Sunflower during the late 60s thru the mid 70s. My father worked at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant (as we called it). Went to school there through the 5th grade until they moved everyone out to make it into a retirement community and tore down the school. I stil have the yearbooks and fond memories of childhood games. I have gone back a few times since and nothing much has changed.

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RidgeRunner 4 years, 3 months ago

Here is a page thats been found with a bit of old info and pics from Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant. Maybe someone you have/had known is pictured.

http://kawbsd.net/SFAAP/index.html

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Flap Doodle 4 years, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Jacob123 4 years, 3 months ago

The Greatest Generation! …………..Of opportunists.

How many of those munitions killed school children in Germany while they huddled in bomb shelters? Well as long as they got a good paycheck who cares.

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Marion Lynn 4 years, 3 months ago

A wonderful article and a fine tribute to The Greatest Generation!

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