The Des Moines Ordnance Plant
A Short Overview of the Ordnance Plant
An in-depth presentation about the Des Moines Ordnance Plant (1941-1945) in Ankeny.
(This is the text of the short overview video)
Ankeny in 1940 was a very different place than it is today. In 1940, Ankeny had a population of 779 people . There were 317 school children and 17 teachers in the Ankeny School district. The town contained a small business district located along third street between Des Moines street and School street. Until the 1930’s, most of the land surrounding Ankeny had been used for farming operations. The land southwest of Ankeny, south of first street and west of cherry street, contained small family farms. However, by 1940, one large corporate farm of 558 acres was owned by the F.W. Fitch Company which included a state-of-the-art dairy facility. There were three churches, a roller rink, movies shown once a week in an implement store and no bars.
During 1941, Nazi Germany and Italy were waging war against its European neighbors. Despite isolationist feelings in the United states at the time, President Roosevelt, as great Britain struggled to fight against Germany, called for America to become the “Arsenal of Democracy. The U.S. congress passed the Lend Lease Act, allowing for sale and lease of war materials and implements to countries involved in fighting the Axis powers of Italy and Germany. The United States experienced a massive buildup in industrial production of military equipment and supplies.
In Iowa however, the quiet farms and towns seemed far removed from the wars in Europe.
That changed in the summer of 1941 when farmers on the Southern edge of Ankeny began receiving notices to vacate their homes through the U.S. Governments use of eminent domain. The U.S. Government, in the interest of national security, paid the farmers for their homes and land and forced them to vacate their property. The war had come to Iowa’s heartland
“ I was drafted into the Army on August 13th, 1941, and did spend a couple of days home before reporting … My mother thought she had it pretty bad when I was accepted into the Army, and the next day they had to move to another located. In a matter of days the house was bulldozed down.” Al Dann Alan Dunn
“That was it. We were disgruntled, yes. But in those days, with loyalty and patriot tim, you figured, well somebody has to do it. You felt you were doing the right thing.” Wilbur Sargent
In the Summer of 1941, the speed at which the military industrialization came to Ankeny was surprising. Within a few weeks of the first notice, families moved, construction was underway, and the town was making plans to become a city. Plans for roads, sewer, water supplies and housing for hundreds, possibly thousands, had to be considered by city officials. To accommodate the incoming workers a vacant lot on third street just east of what is now Fire Trucker Brewery was purchased and a bath house to accommodate 80 families was built and trailer space was for rent.
Almost 45% of the workforce were women. A noisy, dangerous and complicated effort continued 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 4 1/2 years. Most of the hourly production works earned .45-50 cents an hour which in 2016 money would be equal to $7.00 to $8.00 and hour. The ordnance plant also had its own fire department and hospital.
On may 8th 1945, Germany surrendered and by July 1945 the war Department Changed the plant’s status to Standby. 10,800 employees started receiving layoff notices. The plant closed on September 1st 1945, one day before Japan signed the formal surrender document abroad the USS Missouri, ending WW2.
Today some of the original Ordnance Plant buildings still stand among the large buildings of the Deere & Company production plant. Most of the land that was vacated for government use is now part of the new Ankeny high school and Southview middle school complex as well as DMACC and the Prairie Trail housing and business development area.
Without the coming of the Des Moines Ordnance Plant and the way it transformed our small town, Ankeny might be a very different place in which to live today.