Presentation focuses on history of KOP

Photo by Matt Fritz La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz, left, points out the particulars of a projected photo during her discussion of the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant on Saturday.

Staff writer

La PORTE — When the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant was churning out ammunition for the American effort in World War II, it saw its fair share of protestors.

But these weren't the hippies and flower children of later generations. Rather, they had a more fascist ideology.

There were multiple instances of workers finding "Heil Hitler" scrawled on the walls of the various buildings and, in December of 1941, a 20-year-old man was caught drawing a swastika above an American flag in one of the change houses. He later threatened to blow up the plant for $10,000.

Law enforcers arrested him for disorderly conduct and the FBI launched an investigation. What eventually happened is not known.

But these were just some of the details shared by La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz during her presentation on the history of the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant on Saturday at the La Porte County Historical Society Museum.

At the event she discussed the background of the KOP, its place in the country's war efforts and its effects on the community.

According to Schultz, the KOP was an ammunition production facility operating during World War II and the Korean War, and occupying what is now the Kingsbury Industrial Park, the Kingsbury Fish & Wildlife Area and some area farmland.

She said the federal government originally announced the construction of the facility on Sept. 13, 1940, acquiring some 13,545 acres at an average cost of $131.02 per acre. Schultz noted that journalists snipped the government for locating the plant in a cornfield, but the government went ahead anyway.

The first shell rolled off the assembly line on Aug. 21, 1941.

She said the KOP had nine accessory lines averaging 30 buildings apiece; more than 100 "igloos" (steel reinforced buildings based on the design of eskimo homes, and made for the storage of explosives), shops and administration buildings; 21 staff residences; three power houses; 83 miles of railroad; 60 miles of paved highways and 30 miles of fences. And the plant had a water supply and sewage system sufficient for a population of 25,000.

Its population peaked at 20,785 in May of 1942. Schultz said this was close to the size of La Porte at the time.

It had some significant effects on the community. In 1941 the population increased by some 2,000 people, rent increased 18 percent to meet the demand, and crime grew by 300 percent.

"And KOP had an effect not only on the living," Schultz said, "but also on the dead."

She said Winchell Cemetery had to be relocated, requiring the removal of many graves. News reports of the exact number varied. Some said 175 were removed, others placed the number of graves in the cemetery at 500.

Schultz, who worked at KOP for many years as the secretary to the superintendent of loading, attested that the wages were quite good.

The plant was also noted for employing those with physical handicaps, especially those with defects in the arms, hands and legs.

She said active tuberculosis was a cause for being rejected, however, but not venereal disease as long as the infected took the necessary medication to cure it. But contracting VD while on the job was a cause for termination. The VD rate at the plant was 4.5 percent.

The plant also employed people of different races and genders.

"For the first time in history black women were allowed to work at a major industrial plant," she said.

Schultz said workers had to handle many dangerous explosives too, such at tetryl and TNT.

She said TNT was sugary to the touch and innocuous by appearance, so workers were drilled to be extra careful.

Tetryl was also interesting because it turned the workers' skin yellow.

"I often wondered what effect that had on them later in life," she said. "But I haven't heard anything."

She said workers must have inhaled it during their time there, but she said she's been unable to find any reports documenting ill effects like those for Agent Orange and asbestos.

Of course the KOP was also responsible for the eventual construction of Victory City, now known as Kingsford Heights. Established in July 23, 1943, it initially consisted of 2,970 dwellings, but only 218 families moved in at the time.

"Plant workers refused to move into Kingsford Heights for a number of reasons," she said. "One was that there was no movie (theater) and another was there was only one grocery."

All but 300 houses were eventually disassembled and sent elsewhere.

The plant initially closed sometime after the end of World War II, but opened again in 1949 to support the Korean War, this time focusing on renovating and rehabilitating shells rather than making them new. It closed for good in 1960 and was eventually split up into the KIP and Kingsbury Fish & Wildlife Sanctuary. Other areas were reverted back to farmland.

For more information on the KOP, visit the La Porte County Historical Society Museum at 2405 Indiana Ave., in La Porte. The museum can be reached at (219) 324-6767, or visited online at laportecountyhistory.org.

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