- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

MARION, Ill. (AP) - After a winding, three-mile trip on a gravel road, the first of several trapezoid-shaped buildings come into focus - a reddish-brown door set into the middle of a hunk of concrete, with letters and numbers atop the doorway.

About 150 yards apart, more emerge out of what appears to be a clump of trees and thick brush in an otherwise immaculate, cleanly mowed setting. Over the years, seeds for the trees and brush have fallen atop the soil covering the domed structures, nestling into the soil and taking root.

This is the middle of the former Illinois Ordnance Plant area, a section of the 44,000-acre Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge that was created in 1941 and 1942 as a site where ammunitions for the war effort were made. It lies quietly - except for the occasional deer or workers working in their area - to the southeast of the busy Illinois 13 and 148 quadrant.

“It started out as a recreational area,” said Beth Kerley, contract compliance specialist at Crab Orchard, “and we started out with the (bunkers) and now we have both.”

It ceased to operate as a ordnance plant, making the military weapons and other materials in in 1945. On Aug. 5, 1947, the 44,000 accumulated acres were transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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A whole little community

Something heavy did happen here: For a few years in the 1940s, this part of Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge had an industry that was a “loading site for high-explosive shells, bombs and components,” according to its history.

The work started in August 1941 and by December, the plants were up and running with an abundant workforce from which to choose, said Sam Lattuca, president of the Williamson County Historical Society.

Factory workers - as many as 10,000 during the height of its production - made 500-pound bombs, 120-millimeter shells for the Howitzer guns and tank landmines before operations stopped after V-J Day in 1945.

The manufactured products were stored in the bunkers, which are now only visible to the public on the tour days on the last two Sundays in October.

That’s where visitors see the many bunkers, locked with padlock systems owned by businesses that rent them to store explosive-type items.

Kerley said there is a waiting list to rent the bunkers - she tells businesses that their wait is “indefinite.” Most on the waiting list eventually move on to find storage space elsewhere, she said.

The businesses that lease the bunkers are responsible for the upkeep of the grounds that they occupy. Some bunkers have grass that is neatly trimmed and branches trimmed, while others have more of a brambly look.

“Some people visit their bunkers often,” she said. “Some people are here every three or four months,” she said, referring to areas that needed grooming.

Kerley opens the door to one of the empty bunkers, showing off a semi-circle shaped interior with a domed roof and concrete floor and walls. Voices echo deeply inside the dark hole, bouncing off the two-foot thick cement walls.

Two other bunkers in Area 13 have been designated at habitats for bats. Inside them are wooden structures from which the bats hang.

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‘Huge’ impact in area

The ordnance plant was actually phase 2 of the government’s work in that area, Luttuca said.

A few years earlier, in 1936, the government sought to reclaim the land as part of the Crab Orchard Creek Project, partially to “aid in eliminating economic and social distress” from the Depression.

As the Depression was ending and the United States was entering World War II, the eastern part of the Crab Orchard Creek Project was transferred to the War Department, which ordered the construction of the Illinois Ordnance Plant.

“The impact of it back in those days was absolutely incredible,” Lattuca said.

In the beginning, this area had 536 buildings, with about 2.3 million square feet of space. Today, there are about 165 existing buildings, according to refuge staff.

The area had its own armed security force, three fire departments, hospital, living quarters for superintendents and others and water system.

“It was self-sustaining,” Lattuca said.

Neil Vincent, visitors’ service manager, agreed: “It was basically just like an army base.”

This area, far from the eyes of the vast majority of the public, can look like Indian burial mounds, because of the shape of each building and the vegetation growing from it. On two Sundays in October, refuge staff open the gates for the public to ride in the area and watch the fall colors and wildlife.

An occasional deer can be seen, including one that stops as it looks toward an approaching wildlife service truck, turning around to head back into the wooded area. Kerley points to the standing rows of dried corn stalks across the roadway, saying that’s where that deer was probably headed. The refuge has an agreement with farmers who farm there: The farmers leave unharvested some of their crops so the animals, like the deer, can feed off it.

It alternately is reminiscent of a cemetery, its heavy bunkers holding their goods, and a Native American mounds area, where the humps formed by the bunkers and their vegetation growing from their roofs.

Lattuca said it’s no wonder one might be reminded of a cemetery and Native American burial grounds.

A lot of families and whole communities were displaced when the government came in the 1930s to claim the place as the Crab Orchard Project: about 200 families, five churches and several cemeteries were displaced and relocated.

Another 130-some families were displaced when the government decided to expand the project and acquire 10,000 more acres, Lattuca said.

“So people got moved off their ancestral homeland,” he said.

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan: https://bit.ly/1lcrIsv .

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, https://www.southernillinoisan.com

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