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Portage Pathways: Ravenna Arsenal began operations 75 years ago

by ROGER DIPAOLO | RECORD-COURIER EDITOR Published: August 24, 2016 1:00 AM
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A milestone in Portage County history came and went with little fanfare 75 years ago. That's because those most closely associated with it were too busy to celebrate.

Just one year after the announcement that the county was to become the site of a massive munitions loading facility, the Ravenna Ordnance Plant -- better known as the Ravenna Arsenal -- began production. Moving down the first loading line were 75-millimeter super-charged rounds for field artillery guns.

A new era was dawning Aug. 18, 1941, as the county's largest employer went into operation, but it was on a "business as usual" basis, minus any celebration.

"Production began without the fanfare, speech-making and patriotic programs arranged for similar occasions at other defense plants," Evening Record reporter Loris Troyer wrote.

"'Serious business' best describes the atmosphere as one of the vital links in the national defense program began producing goods for the defense of the United States of America."

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Plans for a public observance of the start of production had been canceled, Troyer reported, "because the War Department felt it imperative that operations begin at the earliest possible moment."

There also were concerns that a crowd of bystanders in the load-line area would create a safety hazard.

The plant, which sprawled across four townships in eastern Portage County, was described as "the biggest shell-loading plant in the world." Its price tag was $46 million -- about $750 million today.

Production had begun just 10 months after groundbreaking for the munitions facility on the former Pearl Thomas farm north of Paris Township School. The arsenal site encompassed 22,000 acres in Charlestown, Windham, Freedom and Paris townships.

BUILDING the arsenal from the ground up on land that had been farmed for generations was an around-the-clock proposition for the Hunkin-Conkey Construction Co. of Cleveland. It took about 15,000 construction workers.

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Those crews were still on the job in August 1941, working on the other three planned load lines.

The Atlas Powder Co. of Wilmington, Del., had the War Department contract to operate the shell-loading plant.

The initial load-line shift included men who had trained for their jobs for eight months and were to serve as the nucleus for a workforce expected to reach 9,000 when the plant reached its peak operating capacity.

The coming of the arsenal transformed Portage County like no other event in its history. In less than a year -- Troyer broke the news of the War Department's plans in August 1940 -- the equivalent of a small city came into being.

"The change occurred with the speed of a cyclonic storm, leaving in its wake myriad problems," Troyer wrote.

The facility displaced residents whose families dated to the pioneer era of the Western Reserve. They received a cash settlement from the government, with no right of appeal, and were given 30 days to relocate.

Farms that had been in operation for more than a century were abandoned; crops were left in the fields. Some who were uprooted were unable to recover from it; at least two suicides were reported.

The county gained about 12,000 new residents in less than a year; thousands of others commuted daily to work at the arsenal.

The newcomers found housing hard to come by. Rents rose as high as 100 percent. The government resisted calls for public housing, eventually relenting and approving "temporary" housing at Maple Grove in Windham, which opened the door to decades of postwar blight.

News of the arsenal spurred a boom in jobs that began as soon as construction was announced. Hunkin-Conkey posted armed guards at all highways leading to the arsenal in October 1940 to keep hundreds of job seekers from interfering with the project.

ONCE HIRING began, it created an unexpected backlash -- a shortage of labor in other fields. Working on the arsenal project was more lucrative than working as a machinist, farmhand, waitress or domestic. Actual crop acreage in the county fell by about 12 percent.

The arsenal project had priority status with the War Department, which pushed for its swift completion, but labor problems delayed work intermittently as skilled and unskilled laborers staged strikes, usually demanding better pay.

There were social costs as well. Newcomers had difficulty assimilating. Housing remained in short supply. Schools were strained. Public health issues increased.

Racial segregation spurred a squalid "shantytown" for Negroes -- using the term common at the time -- who lived in deplorable conditions on the outskirts of the arsenal in a settlement that became a setting for prostitution, crime and several murders.

"Minds of most Portage County residents are confused," Troyer observed in August 1941. "They can't comprehend the incessant whirl of events which so rapidly thrust a conservative county into a new 'day.'"

Despite the biggest boom in its history, Troyer reported, "Portage County is taking the period of prosperity in its stride," in part because of a wariness about the Ravenna area becoming a ghost town "after the nation settles back to normal."

Despite being on a wartime footing, America was still a nation nominally at peace when the arsenal opened. Pearl Harbor, however, was only four months in the future.

"Small wonder that the county's citizens are dazed," Troyer concluded. "But through the maze of problems which they are taking squarely on the chin, they hope to someday find a still better community with permanent good times."

Until then it would be "serious business" at Portage County's newest and largest employer.

Email: rdipaolo@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4164

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