Most places I visit aren’t designed to explode,
but here is one that is…
Welcome to Kingsbury Ordnance Works.
Built sufficiently far away from any population centers to limit potential disasters… but close enough to the Chicago to attract labor, Kingsbury represented one of the foremost cogs in the American war machine through World War II. On a swath of 13,000 acres, nearly 21,000 employees worked factory lines every hour of the day measuring and pouring explosives into artillery shells, bombs, land mines and grenades of all shapes and sizes.
Making Kingsbury, and Making it Work
As it seemed more certain that the United States would become involved in World War II, the War Department began seeking locations for ammunition production. To meet the demand, Kingsbury was slated for construction in November 1940 to be one of the principle shell-loading facilities. After the plant was announced locally, it was revealed that 250 families would be displaced by the plant’s new footprint; they were given 30 days to move and $113 for each sacrificed acre. Though it may sound unreasonable, this methodology was not uncommon (nor unchallenged; see Gopher Ordnance Works of Rosemount, MN).
The plant’s design would be slightly different than earlier explosive-handling plants—it would be specifically designed to explode. Kingsbury’s buildings have very strong inner walls of poured concrete and concrete blocks, whereas their roofs and outer walls were simple corrugated steel and plastic. This meant if an explosion occurred in a building it would blow outwards, hopefully leaving the equipment (and perhaps some of the people) inside intact.
In August 1941 Kingsbury’s first shells were loaded and en route to the front lines, before the ammo facility was even complete, and just as the Germans began their siege of Leningrad. Construction completed in late February, 1942 and the plant was soon operating at full capacity, but not everyone got along.
The first Black workers were hired in April 1945 “after careful negotiations between management and workers to overcome the local tradition of segregation,” says one mid-90s Army document. It might be more accurate, however, to simply admit that very strong local racist tendencies made very clear they didn’t want any Black workers to reside near them.
Needless to say the “local tradition” was hardly “overcome,” but a working agreement was found that allowed for the Black workers to safely earn their living while sustaining the last push of the American war effort by working at Kingsbury.
Tillie the TNT Girl
Women workers were abused less than the Blacks when they came to work at this rural Indiana ammunition plant. As one reporter for the Binghamton Press noted in his visit in 1943, “For there, as a conveyor brought up [40mm anti-aircraft shells], were half-dozen white-gloved girls pouring TNT from rubber buckets into the open end of a projectile.” Pouring TNT and other explosives was a common job at the plant for WOWs, or Women Ordnance Workers, as men were typically assigned “heavier work,” the Binghamton article concludes.
As a direct response to “Rosie the Riveter,” the WOWs of Kingsbury Ordnance Works invented their own mascot: “Tillie the TNT Girl.” Tillie followed their labor through the end of the war, at which time about half of the plant labor was female.
Post V-J Day
After Japan surrendered, Kingsbury almost immediately went into standby. In 1951 shell production resumed for a short time to fulfill the needs of the Korean War, but by the end of the 1950s its services were no longer needed. The plant was permanently closed and sold off in pieces, much of it returning to its original state as farmland.