It’s safe to say that if not for war, Midewin wouldn’t exist. A hundred years after pioneers swept away the prairie in favor of soybeans, corn and cattle, the US Army swept away farmers in favor of the largest and most sophisticated munitions complex in the world.
On the eve of the United States entering WWII, there existed only six munitions plants in the country. To ramp up for the war effort, the federal government would build 77 more.
In September 1940, farmers in the Wilmington area were more or less compelled to sell their land for $1.25/acre with 60 days to move out. The government would eventually buy about 450 parcels totaling nearly 37,000 acres of prime Illinois farmland.
On the east side of Route 53, the Kankakee Ordnance Works set a record for producing over one billion pounds of TNT. On the west side, the Elwood Ordnance Plant packed that TNT into nearly a billion bombs, shells and mines. (Later on, the combined works would be known as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.)
To accomplish this mind-boggling output, the Army erected nearly 2,000 structures and employed about five times as many people.
Attending today’s “Ghosts of the Ammunition Plant” tour, there’s a couple who worked at the plant in the 1960s. They, like the rest of us, have come to see what’s left of the old arsenal buildings.
Our tour guide for today is Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Association. Every historic site should be so lucky to have a Lorin – an engaging walking encyclopedia of all things arsenal (and pioneer and cemetery) history.
Leading us through old arsenal buildings and igloos – massive, earth-covered, concrete bunkers where ammunition was stored – Lorin regales us with facts and stories about everything from how bombs were constructed, to the softball leagues the workers organized on site, to the 1942 explosion that took 48 worker lives.
One by one, the old arsenal buildings are being torn down as prairie restoration continues. If I were a religious man, I might be tempted to point hopefully to Biblical passages about beating “swords into ploughshares.” (A ploughshare being as important a tool to prairie restoration as it is to farming.) But elsewhere in the Bible, it’s all about the reverse: beating “ploughshares into swords.”
We’ve certainly experienced both at Midewin. And it seems good and right to remember and honor both. Even as so much of the world appears hell-bent on war at the moment. A fact that is never far from mind as the carillon, and Taps, and 21-gun salutes from the adjacent Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery often can be heard across the former farmland, the former arsenal land, the once and future prairie land of Midewin.