When you're driving down highway 94, headed to wine country, have you ever noticed the random cemeteries off the road? Most notably, Thomas Howell Cemetery is right at the intersection of Highway 94 and Highway D. Down 94 a bit further; if you're looking, you might notice another gated cemetery on the left, Friedens German English Evangelical Cemetery. It's strange to see cemeteries in what appears to be untouched rural areas. You also probably noticed that huge rock pile on the right or old-looking bunkers if you've ever fished in Busch Conservation. These strange things we drive past and the two small towns of Howell and Hamburg, Missouri, are related to one of the most unique and hardly ever talked about stories in American history.
Thomas Howell settled into this area in the early 1800s. He was a sergeant under Captain Wherry and Lieutenant Callaway, who had volunteered to protect General Clark, headed up the Missouri River to build Fort Osage. Howell had claimed his 750-acre tract of land before the Missouri Compromise. He built a beautiful brick house on his property and lived there until he was laid to rest in 1869. He was buried just yards from his home, later becoming Thomas Howell Cemetary. By 1940, the area had developed into two main towns, Howell and Hamburg, Missouri. Mostly farm families, about 1,000 residents were living in the area, a lot of which had been there for generations.
Home of Thomas Howell, Photo provided by TheTNTStory.com
In 1940, with World War II wreaking havoc in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged the country to prepare itself for war. He said before Congress, "In my opinion, it is necessary now that the people of this nation and their representatives in Congress look at the problem of the national defense with utter dispassionate realism." FDR believed the threat to our country was imminent, and we needed to be ready for war. He told Congress we needed to do the following: Naval Expansion so our navy could handle any hostile naval forces, procurement of nearly 20,000 planes for the Army and Navy, and to create enough tanks, guns, artillery, and ammunition for a land force of 2,000,000 men should we need them. The need to create a reserve stock of supplies for our soldiers called for new manufacturing facilities.
On October 22, 1940, it was decided the United States War Department was to acquire 20,000 acres in St. Charles County, Missouri, for a TNT production plant. To the residents of Howell and Hamburg, Missouri, they were pretty shocked to read in their local newspaper that the United States government needed their land to build a new TNT plant. Could this happen? In America? By October 28, landowners were getting knocks on their doors by government workers with options for their property. Some neighbors were told they had to pack up and leave immediately. Other people heard they had 30-45 days to go. Some residents living in the "safe zone" (This area would not be used to construct the plant but would eventually need to be cleared of all homes in case of an explosion) were informed they could stay until March 1, 1941.
The residents called for a meeting to ask questions and address their concerns with all of the confusion. On October 29, around 800 landowners from the area packed into Francis Howell High School to have their questions and concerns addressed by R. Newton McDowell with the Kansas City Title and Insurance Company. The United States War Department hired McDowell to help acquire the 700 tracts of land in St. Charles county. He assured the people in attendance that landowners would receive a fair price for their land, they would promptly receive payment, and that he would try to give the residents of the area preference on the first jobs available at the plant.
Perplexed, a handful of people who lived in Howell and Hamburg signed their options as they had no other choice. Many residents wanted a better price for their property and land. McDowell even explained to the St. Louis Star-Times, "Figuring the actual value of the land involved has been a difficult problem. A large number of St. Louisains have purchased land along the riverfront for its scenic value. Sentimental values also enter into the picture. Your family might have owned this land for generations back and possibly have not given the slightest thought to moving from your particular place. However, the national defense program must go forward and go quickly."
By November 25, 1940, all but two of the 700 or so tracts of land had been obtained by the United States Government, and on this date, just two days before Thanksgiving, those living in the immediate construction zone were given ten days to vacate their homes. In Hamburg, a large town auction was held on November 30, 1940. The residents were selling antiques, farm equipment, and many personal possessions. Even if they had signed their option, no one had received payment for their land, so people had to do whatever they could to make the money they needed to move. Four thousand people crowded the towns for the auction. Richard and Robert Delaloye brought their pet goat, Duke, to sell. They attached a cart to Duke strolled him up and down the street with a sign that read, "For sale, give me a bid." the goat and cart sold for $3.25.
In early 1941, the towns of Howell and Hamburg were practically deserted. The Government had acquired all but 200 of the 20,000 acres but had only made the payments for 7000 acres of land. Most of the residents that had already moved had not been paid yet, and it was at this time the United States Government determined they had spent too much for this property. In February of 1941, The Government informed the residents that their properties would again be appraised. Anyone who had not received their payment would have to wait until new contracts were drawn up. And then, the worst news of the whole ordeal, in March of 1941, the US District Attorney suggested the Government acquire the rest of the land through condemnation proceedings. All remaining contracts were canceled, and condemnation suits followed.
The TNT plant was only in operation until 1945, and in that same year, checks were finally issued to over 100 landowners who had refused the condemnation price. Many landowners had passed away in those five years, so their money was given to their heirs. From that first town meeting regarding the construction of the new plant, most of the residents were not paid a fair price, they were not paid quickly, and area residents did not get a preference to work at the plant. This decision changed many lives of those living in Howell and Hamburg. Some never financially recovered from the whole mess.
The red houses were homes that were destroyed to make way for the TNT plant.
Next time you drive into wine country, take your time and look around. You might notice the foundation of an old house, non-native flowers, or an old cemetery, and when you do, take a moment to thank those that made such a huge sacrifice for our country—even those who did not wear a uniform.