Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Badger Army Ammunition Plant

I was going to be giving a history talk in Baraboo on January 11th at the Badger Ammo Plant Museum.  (Because of bad weather and wintry roads, my talk was postponed.  Hopefully it will be rescheduled in the spring of 2018.  I will be talking about the La Farge dam project history with an audience interested in comparisons of the Kickapoo Valley project with the current conversion of the old ammo plant grounds at Merrimac over to public lands.  The Badger History Group, an organization that is preserving the history of the former U.S. Army ordnance facility, is sponsoring my talk.
            As I prepare my presentation, I have been thinking about the connections between the Badger Ammo Plant and the community of La Farge.  Over the years, lots of people from the La Farge area worked at Badger Ordnance and the effects of those paychecks and jobs were significant.
            The Badger Army Ammunition Plant was built during World War II and became the largest munitions factory in the world at that time.  Besides the factory that was located on nearly 10,000 acres of prairie south of Baraboo at a place called Merrimac, the operation also included a village where workers and their families could live.  “Badger Village” included a school, recreation center, child-care facility, cafeterias, and a transportation system.  The village housed up to 8,000 workers and their families during the war.  By 1948, all munitions production had stopped at the plant and the Badger Ordnance Plant was deactivated.
            In 1951, when the war in Korea spread to include American troops, Badger Ordnance was reactivated and the Olin Corporation took over the operation of the plant.  During the Korean Conflict, the Badger plant produced ball powder, rocket propellants, smokeless powder, acid and oleum that were used in a variety of weapons.  Olin continued to create munitions at Badger on a limited basis after the war in Korea ended, finally going on stand-by status for the plant in 1957.
            When the United States became involved in the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, Badger Ordinance was once again put into full production.  Beginning in 1966, Olin operated Badger at full capacity again and continued producing munitions at the Wisconsin facility through the middle of 1975.  In 1997, the U.S. Defense Department declared that Badger Ordnance was “in excess of its needs” and plans were made to return the facility to state and local control.
            At the heights of production during the various war years, Badger Ordnance employed as many as 12,000 people.  The need for employees at the Badger plant reached out to all of the communities of southern Wisconsin, including those in the Kickapoo Valley.  Many workers and their families relocated to Badger during the various war years of peak production.  Here is what I wrote in Volume I of my history of La Farge when the Badger munitions plant began during World War II,
            The construction of the government powder plant at Merrimac, south of Baraboo, in 1942 and 1943 had an immediate impact on employment for La Farge men and women.  Bob Kennedy was one of the first from the village to work at the munitions plant, called Badger Ordnance.  His brother-in-law, Merton Calhoon soon joined him when he resigned his positions at the bank and as village clerk in La Farge and started work at Badger in April of 1943.  Merton moved his family to Pardeeville to be closer to his new job at the powder plant.  Others car-pooled to work at the new plant.  By the spring of 1944, there were seventeen from La Farge working at Badger Ordnance and Harry Lounsbury; village board member sought a bus to stop at La Farge to carry the workers.  A bus wasn’t available at that time, but the La Farge workers at the munitions plant were given extra gasoline rations to make the drive, while others caught the bus to Badger at Hillsboro.  Eventually the bus line to Badger Ordinance was extended to La Farge to carry the workers to and from work.  A village with temporary housing was set up across from the Merrimac munitions plant and some from La Farge moved there.  The “Badger Village” started its own school and Clarence Krumm, former school principal in La Farge, was the first principal at the new school.  Many women from La Farge worked at the Merrimac plant, some working away from home for the first time. (From page 136)
            I remember one lady from La Farge telling me that her first good-paying job was at the Badger Ammo plant during WWII.  After the war was over and her job at Badger was eliminated, she was determined to find another job.  She did not want to return to her home to become a “housewife” – a term she used with derision.
            Later in Volume I, I wrote this about the connection between La Farge and Badger Ordnance during the Korean War,
            Another impact that the Korean conflict had on the village was the revival of operations at the Badger Ordnance powder plant in Baraboo.  Once again thousands of people were needed to work at the munitions plant and many would come from the La Farge area.  Daily bus service was begun from the village to the war plant, carrying workers from La Farge and the surrounding area.  The good paying jobs at Badger
Ordnance further increased the bustling economy of the village.
(From page 154 – there is also a photo of the Badger Ordnance Works in 1942)
            When Badger Ordnance was cranked back up to full production during the Vietnam War, many from La Farge once again worked at the munitions plant.  A daily bus line once again ran from La Farge to Merrimac to carry workers back and forth, stopping in Hillsboro and Union Center along the way.  In 1969, I occasionally rode on that bus as I worked at Badger that summer.  Bob Kennedy, who was back working at Badger Ordnance for a third time – this time as a production line foreman, got me the job.  Although I was still planning to return to LaCrosse that fall to finish up my college education, the ammo plant needed workers badly that summer.  Bob told me to not mention about returning to college in my Badger Ammo job interview – that way I would get a job.  It never came up and I was soon working on the “Air Dry Line” at Badger Ordnance along with David Mick, another college student from La Farge who had started work there a couple of weeks before me.
            We worked a “swing shift” that summer – one week we would work days, then the next week it was the 2nd shift, followed by the graveyard shift the week after that.  Since the bus lines did not operate for the night shifts, we had to drive a lot of the time.  I think back now that some of my classmates from LHS – Rudy Hamilton, Ben Rastall, and Danny Thayer to name a few – had served in Vietnam before I even started working at Badger Ordnance.
            The summer of 1969 was also when the Army Corps of Engineers, in an entirely non-war related enterprise, began purchasing property north of La Farge for the dam & lake project. 

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