Forced To Leave | The fight that ensued when hundreds of residents were kicked out of their homes for a war plant in St. Charles County

On the site of the current Weldon Spring Conservation and August Busch Memorial Conservation Areas once sat three towns, which were cleared for a TNT plant
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 9:50 AM CDT|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 11:08 AM CDT
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ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. (KMOV) - Near I-64 and Highway 94 in St. Charles County lie thousands of acres of land used for hunting, fishing, exercise, and bird watching.

On the site of the current Weldon Spring Conservation and August Busch Memorial Conservation Areas once sat plants that made TNT and DNT during World War II, and produced uranium during the Cold War. But before the area was a center for war production, there existed three towns.

Howell, Hamburg and Toonerville had around 700 residents, some of whom came from families that had been in the area for more than 140 years. The three towns were primarily agricultural, but the villages had residents of numerous occupations. The towns featured churches, five one-room schoolhouses, and a high school, Francis Howell High.

“From what mom predominantly told me was that people might have viewed these as small, non-descript towns, but from what she told me, they were vibrant towns,” said Bettie Yahn-Kramer, whose family was forced to move. “There were doctors that lived here, there was a mortician that worked here, there were teachers, there was music in every home. People had a very dynamic and, I would say, lively community.”

The 1928 Howell Women's Baseball Team featured Yahn-Kramer's aunt, Ruth Kessler. She is...
The 1928 Howell Women's Baseball Team featured Yahn-Kramer's aunt, Ruth Kessler. She is highlighted in the bottom row(St. Charles County Historical Society)

On October 11, 1940, landowners received a letter from the federal government telling them they had 45 days to leave, but would be compensated for their property. The government had chosen the site for a munitions plant, the Weldon Spring Ordinance Works, and initiated efforts to take roughly 17,000 acres. It was all part of the ramp-up for World War Two. Construction would begin in a few months.

The federal government chose the Weldon Spring site for numerous reasons, says Dr. Daniel T. Brown, a former superintendent of the Francis Howell School District and a historian of the area.

“First of all, it was a large area with ‘no population,’ they knew they could remove the population. It had to be a very large piece of ground approximate to a major city because the government wanted to be able to use the facilities that a large city would provide, law offices, airports, train stations, and access to the plant in a variety of ways without being near the plant,” said Brown. “A large metropolitan area, a major highway, Highway 40 at the time, could take you from New York City to San Francisco…the water from the river, the railroad, and a large number of potential employees.”

Dr. Brown says the news came at a time when things started to look up for Howell, Hamburg and Toonerville as the Great Depression eased. In 1935, the area was wired for electricity. Around the same time, the Daniel Boone Bridge, which carried traffic from St. Louis County on US Highway 40, and the Highway 47 Bridge, which carried traffic from Franklin County, were both completed.

“In September 1940, when school opened, they were feeling very optimistic,” Dr. Brown said.

The reaction of residents to the announcement was mixed. Some were happy to take an offer from the government for their home and/or land and move on. Others left reluctantly, not wanting to leave, but realized a fight with the government was hopeless. Some took solace that they were losing their home to help the war effort.

“My grandmother couldn’t read nor write, and she had to depend on her children to help her through this. I know that some of my family lived here and they held out. Finally, they decided they had to go along with it, too. It is something you couldn’t fight to get anything; they didn’t have any money to do anything with at that time either... It was just chaos for them,” said Alice Wolf, whose grandparents lost their farm.

Alice Wolf's grandparents lived in this farmhouse before they were forced to move
Alice Wolf's grandparents lived in this farmhouse before they were forced to move(National Archives)

“The predominant thing I recall in the later years, and a point she (mom) wrapped around was that it was for the greater good, but that took a long time coming to get to that point because it was just tumultuous,” said Yahn-Karmer.

The news was more warmly received in other parts of St. Charles County. A group of businessmen in St. Charles City petitioned the government for a war plant. Dr. Brown says those businessmen knew some type of plant was coming to St. Charles County, but residents in the area where it was going to be built did not.

“I would say the people north of Highway 40 all the way to St. Charles City were happy to see it come. It provided jobs, it provided security. Everybody that came to work in the plant had to live somewhere; they had to eat, all of that. All of those businesses thrived,” Dr. Brown says.

Some residents began leaving as early as mid-November and had to leave before any payment for their seized property arrived. Before they left, they sold items they could not take with them in street sales.

“I know my grandparents sold all their livestock; they never took anything; my grandparents never took any livestock with them at all,” said Wolf.

Another group of property owners met several times to discuss what they could do to change the government’s mind. Some petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt and also asked if local schools could remain open until the end of the school year.

From January 1, 1941, onward, residents were increasingly moved out by the government. The last landowners and residents left in July 1941, with some literally having to be carried out of their homes. Buildings and homes were burned.

“I remember the story of Penny Pitman, talking about that when the day came, it was the last day, and her grandfather was sitting on the porch of his home in a rocking chair, and he was refusing to leave. They picked up his chair with him in it and carried off of the porch, set it down in the yard, and set the house on fire; she (Penny) has that rocking chair,” said Yahn-Kramer.

This painting dramatizes when Elton "Buck" Pitman was carried off his front porch before the...
This painting dramatizes when Elton "Buck" Pitman was carried off his front porch before the house was set on fire(Bryan Haynes/Penny Pitman)

Highway 94 was closed from Highway 40 to Highway DD to traffic for five years, and a seven-foot high barbed-wire fence was constructed. Only those who had business with the Weldon Spring Ordinance Works were allowed in. Francis Howell High School could continue classes, but activities that required bringing in outsiders, such as basketball games and dances, were barred until the end of the school year in the spring of 1941.

Some fought with the government over compensation for their land. Offers were made on, but deals had not been closed on, a remaining 125 parcels of land when media reports circulated that the government was offering too much money. As a result, the government reassessed its offers and a Congressional investigation was launched. A Congressional committee determined the government’s original offer to property owners was within fair market value.

Despite the investigation’s conclusions, the federal government decided it would still pay a lower amount. Affected landowners then took the matter to court. A lower court sided with the property owners before an appeals court sided with the government. In 1945, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the landowners in Muschany V. United States. However, the property owners were not paid interest on the original amount they were offered.

Only around 1,000 of the roughly 17,000 acres were used for the Weldon Spring Ordinance Works, the rest was a buffer zone for safety. After World War II ended and the initial plant closed, several farmers who lived on plots of land not used for bomb production petitioned the government asking to return, but they were rebuffed. Much of the land was eventually transferred to the State of Missouri.

“There was a period of time when the government was considering what to do with the land, and a number of farmers did petition the government. The government set up a scale of who could purchase the land. The first priority was the federal government, the second was the state government, all local governments were next; finally, at the bottom were previous owners. It never got beyond the state government level,” said Dr. Brown.

In 1956, the US Army transferred about 205 acres to the Atomic Energy Commission to create the Weldon Spring Uranium Feed Materials Plant. Materials were shipped from the plant to other sites across the country; it closed in 1966. Clean-up on the site started in the 1980s. Much of the land is now used for hiking, biking and nature walks. It includes a giant disposal cell, which visitors can walk up, and a museum and education center, the Weldon Spring Interpretative Center.

Despite the burning and destruction of buildings, there are still signs of the towns that occupied the site. Types of non-native flowers planted by residents in their gardens are still there.

“My grandmother had planted bulbs, she had a large garden, and when the bulldozer came in (to demolish the house), they bulldozed those bulbs and spread them, and in the spring, the flowers that would come up would be gorgeous. We would bring my mom up and pick a bouquet, I guess we weren’t supposed to, we’d pick a bouquet and take it home with us. It was kind of fun going up and walking around, and my mom could tell me where this was and that was, and it was kind of a neat thing, sad but good too that she could remember and tell us about the different things,” said Wolf.

Some building foundations can also be seen along some of the hiking trails. A monument was erected for the families who were evicted and lost their homes; it can be seen at Thomas Howell Cemetery on Highway 94 near Route D.

In the early 1960s, a group of former Howell, Hamburg and Toonerville residents formed the TNT Area Reunion Group. It now includes descendants and still meets.

“I think a real concern that we have is that this story not be forgotten and a lot of the younger folks aren’t interested in it, and that’s a shame. It was a pivotal point for St. Charles County and pivotal point for the nation, and I think people are losing site of that,” said Yahn-Kramer.

The story was also told in a book entitled “The Rape of Howell and Hamburg,” published in the 1970s. The book is no longer in print. The residents’ plight was the subject of the documentary entitled “The Glimmering Landscape.”

The saga is also profiled at