Sunflower Ordnance Works, Population Boom, and Housing Solutions: 1940-1949

By Decade


The War Department contracted Hercules Powder Company in 1942 to construct Sunflower Ordnance Works (S.O.W.), a rocket propellant factory that provided ammunition for World War ll. Hercules took over 10,000 acres to built its plant four miles east of Eudora. According to “Swede” Everley, Eudora resident, the construction started on the north side of the plant, close to the highway and then moved south as far as Prairie Center Road, now 135th Street.

In 1943, S.O.W. was the largest producer of rocket powder in the world. The volatile powder was transported by “angel buggies.” Everley and others remember when one of the plant’s many buildings blew up, destroying everything that was in and around it including the people.

To attract workers, S.O.W. set up recruiting offices in different towns and advertised its “ideal working conditions” and “complete uniforms, including shoes.” The plant even built its own housing complex called Sunflower Village for 3,000 people near DeSoto, complete with its own grocery store, drug store, movie theater, bowling alley, Sears Roebuck catalog order department, bar, filling station, radio shop, beauty parlor, post office, school, community building, barber shop, and a 24-hour-a-day nursery caring for up to 70 children. Close by, the plant set up Trailer City to accommodate 800 trailers and houses for top officials.

At one point, more than 12,000 employees worked at S.O.W. Workers came by the revived “Plug” and government buses also brought in more than 1,100 people daily. With three shifts of workers, traffic was heavy. According to Bob Neis, it was virtually impossible to even get onto Highway 10 for at least an hour and half during shift change time. Delores Kurtz said her mother rode the bus from Lawrence to Eudora and then on to Sunflower.

Clara Montgomery, a Leavenworth native and one-time Clearview City resident, said, “It was the biggest-paying place. Everyone wanted to work there. It was an hour drive from Leavenworth , where I lived, and a lot of people from Easton [65 miles away] drove down to the plant. In the end, everyone else was better off financially.”

People came to work from other parts of Kansas and Iowa, Missouri, and surrounding states. Wrote Ceceile Culo, DeSoto historian:

“In such a short time, it seemed the whole world had gone crazy! The people living in small towns without manufacturing plants packed up and moved up their families to where plants could be found. It was a common sight to see carloads of people, their belongings piled high on their vehicles driving down the road and waving as they went by. Some of the people coming into our area had signs plastered on the side of their vehicles saying, such things as ‘ Kansas City or bust,’ and ‘Sunflower Ordnance Plant or bust.”

Former S.O.W. worker Eldon Lovett, Eudora resident, said most of the workers he knew came from Arkansas.” Most of the people came from Arkansas. Lois Neis, Eudora, said that a lot of men and women came from all over, worked for a while, and then returned to their hometowns. But others, like Herbert and Helen Miner, Thell and Beulah Dean, and Mildred Kelly Trefz's parents, Mr. and Mrs. William Kelly, Sr. came to stay.

Eudora in 1941 had no hotel, no rooming house, and only about seven or eight vacant homes. When people in Eudora first heard about the plant they were not excited. George Lothholz, mayor, was quoted as saying in the town newspaper:

“We’re all patriotic here and we’re not against anything that is bad for the country. But as for the plant doing the town any good, I don’t think it will. If they just walk off and leave it after a few years, it’s going to hurt this whole part of the country.”

Another resident said:

“We’ve read about other places that have war industries and they’re not too rosy for the towns. If you have to crowd up your schools, put up more law offices, and jam up your homes and backyards with workers, it’s a lot of grief.”

Within a few weeks of the announcement, outsiders came in and bought two houses, a brick building, and 90-day options on six other buildings.

In three months, the town population doubled from 900 to 1,800. The city of Eudora went from using 25,000 gallons of water in 1941 to 50,000 gallons of water in 1942. Trailers were parked in pastures, the yards of private citizens, and in designated areas on the east side of town north of Tenth Street, west of Tenth Street and Main Street, and on Ninth Street at the present location of the Eudora Library. Besides renting their land for trailers, people also built three-room cabins in their yards to house workers or rented out extra rooms.

Town businesses also changed. People at banks, grocery stores, and other businesses worked nights and Sundays to meet the demands of growing population. The growth caused schools to use their lunchrooms, the local theater, and the Methodist Church basement to set up classrooms for extra students.

Ammunition contracts tapered off at the end of World War II, and S.O.W. closed. In 1946, S.O.W. reopened to make fertilizer to help rebuild Western Europe. The plant went on standby basis in March 1948, but still had many employees. Once again, in 1958, the plant shut down. Of the 800 employees, half lost their jobs. S.O.W. reopened in 1965 and operated until 1971 making solid fuel pellets for rockets in Vietnam. Then it closed again. Some stayed to maintain equipment, guard the building, and supervise a $50 million dollar modernization program. In April 1998, the government announced it was going to dispose of S.O.W.

Several government officers' frame houses were moved to Eudora for private residences. Mary Nusbaum, also of Eudora, saidin 1998 that many people who moved here stayed: “I still get together and talk with people I worked with on the Mighty Mouse missile.”

Business boomed during the early 1940s to keep up with the tripling population of Eudora. For food, people shopped at the Gerstenberger’s, John Kazmaier’s, and Daugherty’s groceries. Allen Olive ClarkWesterhouse built a grocery store beside the station, too, which was replaced with a double-car garage. They ate at Ernie’s Café, The Grille (co-owned by Oliver Clark seen in the photograph), Green Tavern, White Spot, Cottage Tea Room, Martin Café, Johnnie’s, and Central Café . They ate at the Victory Theatre, too, and in its upstairs apartments, a United Services Organization for organized recreation was held in 1943. Originally in the Lothholz Hall, it was operated by Alice Moe, Edna Holmes, Minnie Jones, Minnie Edelbrock, and others. Harry Hagenbuch still ran the Eudora Ice Plant, Howard Wilson and Jack Howard sold general merchandise at the Clover Farm Store, George Bichelmeyer processed meat, and Fred Papenhausen worked as a paper hanger and painter.

However, a January 11, 1944 letter written by Henrietta Schubert Fuller about the estate settlement of her family’s downtown property supports in part Lothholz’s prediction: “We are having lots of things going on in Eudora these days however not nearly so much as a year ago—really you would not think it the same town anmore—things are so dead again—the picture show has closed down the U.S.O. is about to close and the beer parlor in our building has closed its doors and the barbershop building—our old Bld’g. has never been rented since we sold it—the A.O.U.W. Bld’g. is empty after having been rented for ony 5 months or so and all the expense they were to remodeling it—too bad—the Robinson store Bld’g. is empty and the Lotz Café is about to fold up—so with it all am certainly glad that we are rid of all this proerty of ours for afterall even tho we do not get much out of it—would have been glad to have turned the building over to Billy Z. at one time for what had in it. The goings on I mentioned in the first part of the paragraph was the dances at U.S.O and the Rebekah’s—last Sat. night Frank Green and another soldier boy were the only soldiers there—ain’t that something?

On October 15, 1945, two hardware businesses opened on the same day. Al Colman and his father, Lee, ran one store together until 1955, when Al took over sole ownership. Herbert Miner, a blacksmith and welder, who came from Niotaze in 1942 to work at the Sunflower Colman HardwareOrdnance Works plant as a welder on the double water lines and radiators, bought Bill Zimmerman’s shop at Elm Street and Seventh Street in 1943 and set up a welding shop. Two years, later, the Miners went into partnership with Raymond and Fern Long and rented space in the Victory Theater building for their Eudora Cash Hardware store.

Fern (Kasson), a former waitress who married Raymond Long, who worked at Sunflower Ordnance, moved to Eudora from Lawrence to open the Eudora Cash Hardware, which the Longs co-owned from 1945 to 1959. Active in the Eudora Methodist Church (Fern taught Sunday School for more than 50 years), the Longs' four children, all born in Lawrence were Anna Luella (Hayes), John Edward (an electronics professor at St. Phillips University in Texas), William Atwood, and Mary Elizabeth (Beem). In 1947, Miner bought an old blacksmith shop on Main Street for Eudora Cash Hardware and also opened Miners’ Bargain Center in the same building. Two years later in 1959, the Miners and Longs dissolved their partnership, and Frank’s Automotive Parts (1959-1961) took over the space.

Bartz adOther businesses during this time were: Fred Schellack’s automobile service, Elmore-Minot Motor Co., Bartz Radio, [Herman] Trefz Plumbing, Trefz Cleaning, Farmers’ Elevator, Burgner-Bowman-Mathers Lumber, J. K. Wilson Lumber, Seiwald’s and Schehrer’s Eudora Oil, Smith and Katzfey service station, Joslin Radio, Hawkins Garage (“two blocks north blinking light on Highway 10”), J. Shirk’s Home Oil, Alf Oleson’s Rexall, Eudora Mills, Rothberger Garage, [Don] Pierce Garage, Berenice’s Beauty Shop, Eudora Department Store, Victory Theater, and others.

Mary Nusbaum, originally from Marysville, moved to Eudora from Valley Falls with her husband, Robert, to operate a grocery store on the north side of the Pilla building. (Olive Clark had a restaurant on the south side of the building.) Robert Nusbaum, who was the store’s meat cutter, removed the center stairway, lengthened the room, and tiled the floor. Mary Nusbaum said they always hired a couple of clerks, delivered groceries, and had their stock delivered from St. Joseph, Missouri, once or twice a week. They stayed open most nights, especially on Saturdays.

As the ammunition plant started slowing down production, new arrivals still flocked to Eudora. Raymond and Ethel (Strepp) Scott came to Eudora in the fall of 1948 from Sunflower Village. They had lived there while Raymond attended plumbing and electrical training obtained through the army following World War II. Raymond had been born in Loring southwest of Bonner Springs. His family (including the Stevensons, Dennys, Smiths, and Wilbers) had lived there since the late 1800s.

Ethel, born in Alpena Pass, Arkansas, in 1916, came to Kansas as a baby with her family in a covered wagon. They lived many places along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad, her father’s employer. She married Raymond in 1943 after first meeting him when he helped unload her family’s belongings from a boxcar by his grandparents’ grocery in 1933.

When the Scotts moved to Eudora, they had two sons, John, 4, and Larry, almost 2. (Third son Gary was born in 1955). At first, they rented the lower floor of the “Rock” building at 731 Main Street (that has since been torn down and was located where the Kaw Valley Bank ATM machine is.) Their electrical and plumbing shop was in front with living quarters behind a partition. Raymond and Ethel slept in a shed on the rear side of the building, and in winter, sometimes woke with snow on their bed. They then moved into the north side of their adjoining buildings and ran the business until 1981.

Copyright 2010. Higgins, Cindy. Where the Wakarusa Meets the Kaw: The History of Eudora, Kansas. Eudora, KS: Author.