(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany



The Legal Machinery

The rape started with the following letter, dated October 17, 1940, from the President of the United States to the then-Secretary of War:

“The White House

                                                                                                                       Oct. 17, 1940.

My dear Mr. Secretary:

     Under the provisions of the Act of September 9, 1940 (Public No. 781, 76th Congress), and upon the recommendation of the Council of National Defense and the Advisory Commission thereof, I hereby give my approval to the following project under the War Department program for expediting production in connection with existing National Defense Programs:

Construction of a TNT and DNT Plant at Weldon Springs, Missouri . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$14,500,000.

Sincerely yours,

The Honorable, The Secretary of War.”

     This was the death warrant for Howell and Hamburg, Missouri. This letter would change the lives of all the citizens in the area. They would never be the same again. Whoever said, “War is Hell” was so right.
     The legal machinery for acquiring the land was being consummated. The following letter sets forth an agreement between the Land Optioner and the U. S. Government which I include because of the central part it played in the tragedy.
“October 23rd 1940

Attention:   Col. R. D. Valliant, Q.M.C.
                  Chief Real Estate Branch
                  Office Quartermaster General
                  War Department
                  Washington, D. C.

Dear Sir:

     R. Newton McDowell, hereinafter in this letter called the ‘Optioner,’ makes the following proposal, which, when accepted by the United States of America, hereinafter called the ‘Government,’ shall constitute a binding agreement:

     1. R. N. McDowell will undertake with diligence and promptness to use his best efforts in the acquisition by the Government of approximately 18,000 acres of land, more or less, located in St. Charles County, Missouri, in the vicinity of Weldon Springs as more specifically to be designated by the Government.
     2. The Optioner, immediately upon acceptance of this proposal will with adequate and competent force of experienced men exhaust every reasonable effort to acquire within forty-five days of the effective date of this agreement, options for the purchase of said land to be taken in the name of the United States of America. At the expiration of such forty-five days period, the Government shall have the right, upon written notice, to require the Optioner to continue his efforts for a further period to obtain options; but at no time shall the termination of the Optioner’s efforts to obtain options release him from performing all duties hereafter imposed upon him in connection with options then taken, and then or thereafter accepted.
     3. The Optioner shall diligently endeavor to acquire such options, not only within such time, but at the reasonable value of the land to be acquired, and subject at all time to the directions of the Government. The form of option contracted to be executed, and all terms, covenants and conditions thereof, shall be on the form approved by the Government, and a copy of which is to be attached hereto and made a part hereof. It is understood that the Government is to have the exclusive right to take up or reject any option to any parcel of land optioned by said Optioner hereunder, except as hereinafter provided.
     4. The Optioner will at his expense procure the services of the Kansas City Title and Insurance Company to attend to all administrative details of the closing of purchases under the options and the acquirement of deeds. The Optioner shall procure from the vendors in all cases where options are accepted on behalf of the United States, an order to the Kansas City Title and Insurance Company, to prepare certificates of title and deeds and it shall be his responsibility to see that said certificates of title and deeds are transmitted to the proper Government official for examination. The certificates of title, to be furnished by The Kansas City Title and Insurance Company will be on forms similar to the one attached hereto and made a part hereof and funds to effect closing of purchases by the Title Company will be furnished by the Government to the Title Company in form of checks payable to each vendor in the amount of the purchase price set forth in the accepted options.
     5. Duly authorized agents of the Government shall have the right at any and all reasonable times and hours to inspect and take copies of all records and memoranda of the Optioner, his agents and attorneys evidencing his transactions herein contemplated.
     6. This agreement shall not be assigned by the Optioner, in whole or in part, nor shall he part with any interest herein, it being expressly understood and agreed that the expansion of personnel, or the payment of expenses, for the purposes herein contemplated shall in no event be construed a violation of this provision.
     7. No Member of or Delegate to Congress, or Resident Commissioner, shall be admitted to any share or part of this contract or to any benefit that may arise therefrom, but this provision shall not be construed to extend to this contract if made with a corporation for its general benefit.
     8. For all services hereunder the compensation of the Optioner shall consist solely of the five percent (5%) commission in each purchase, to be paid by the vendor, as more specifically set forth in the form of option attached hereto and made a part hereof.

     If the foregoing proposal is acceptable to the Government, please so indicate by signing and returning to me one of the enclosed carbon copies hereof.

Very truly, yours,
(Signed) R. Newton McDowell

     The foregoing proposal is hereby accepted for and on behalf of the United States of America, this 23rd day of October, 1940.

(Signed) R. D. VALLIANT,
 R. D. Valliant
 Colonel, O.M.C.
 U.S. Army.”

     This letter was received by the land owners of the Howell-Hamburg area from the Land Optioner.
“R. Newton McDowell
Home Office
Midland Building
Kansas City, Missouri

Land Optioner for                                                                                                                          Telephone 1091
United States War Department                                                                                                       126 South Main
                                                                                                                                              St. Charles, Missouri

October 24, 1940

     We have entered into a contract with the War Department to acquire for the Government certain lands in St. Charles County. We are representing more in particular Col. R. D. Valliant, Chief of the Real Estate Section, Quartermaster Corps, U.S. Army. The land which we are to acquire for the Government is to be used for a munitions plant under the National Defense program. This site will comprise somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 acres.
     According to the records you own certain property within the site to be acquired. It is the desire of Col. Valliant that you be treated in a fair manner. You may be one who will be glad of the opportunity to sell your holdings. On the other hand your family may have owned this land for several generations back, and you possibly have not given the slightest thought to moving from your particular place. It is fully realized that in the latter case sentiment enters into the picture as well as values and in such cases it is regretted that families will be compelled to give up their homes. However, the National Defense program must go forward and must go quickly. Time is the essence, and as Mr. Robert P. Patterson, Assistant Secretary of War, said yesterday, ‘National defense is the paramount issue in American life today, everything else must be subordinated to it.’
     This site was chosen by the Government after an exhaustive study of hundreds of sites. The specifications for a munitions site are many, a great many factors are taken into consideration before one is finally approved. The site is developed by the Ordnance Department of the Army, it is then passed upon by a site committee of the War Department, it is passed upon by members of the National Defense Committee, and I am told on good authority that it is then approved or disapproved by the President. Therefore, you will see this site in St. Charles County has had much consideration.
     I have consulted with many owners of property within the site as to their idea of values. This was done prior to the public announcement that this area would be acquired by the Government. I have discussed values with life insurance companies and other lending agencies, and we have checked quite thoroughly land sales in this section for the past year. We now have a rather general idea of what property in this particular area is worth.
     However, Col. Valliant has advised me that it is not the intention of the Government to attempt to purchase these holdings at bankrupt sale prices. The Government desires to be fair and it is his hope that all of the owners will be satisfied, however, it goes without saying that the interests of the United States Government must be protected. The Government, as you know, under the law of eminent domain and in the interests of National Defense could go in and immediately enter condemnation proceedings on the entire tract and take possession. However, it is the desire of the Government that each individual be treated as fairly as possible, and that condemnation proceedings will not be necessary. Each individual case will be given careful consideration and shortly one of my representatives will call upon you to take from you an option to purchase, to be given to the United States of America, at a price which I trust will be mutually agreeable.
     In the meantime you might be giving this matter some thought. The time is exceedingly short as it is expected that construction will be started on this particular site in less than 45 days from now. If you have a tenant on your place it will be necessary to discuss this subject with him, so you see much is to be done on your part as well as ours. The cry all over the United States is to speed up the National Defense program, and the building of this particular munitions plant is a most vital link in the whole plan, as this country is woefully weak in its supply of T.N.T., and it is this important explosive which is to be manufactured in St. Charles County on the site of which your property is a part.
     We have just opened an office in St. Charles at the above address, there will be some one there each day and evening.

Yours very truly, —

P.S. In the meantime you might be looking up your abstract of title.”

“War Department
Office of the Assistant Secretary
Washington, D.C.

November 5, 1940.

Memorandum for the Quartermaster General
                                 Chief of Ordnance
                                 Chief of the Air Corps
                                 Chief, Chemical Warfare Service

     Subject: Acquisition of Land in Connection with Munitions Plants.

     1. The policy of the War Department in connection with land acquisition for munitions plants is to secure the good will of the community to the maximum extent possible, consistent with fair prices and the availability of the land at the time and in the location needed.
     2. In carrying out this policy, it is desired wherever possible to cause the least hardship and inconvenience in moving the tenants off the site. In existing and future projects, it is desired a plan for each project be worked out by the Quartermaster General and the interested Supply Branch. This plan should, in so far as practicable, delay the moving of tenants when such delay is desired by the tenants. For example, in explosive plants, where there are tenants living in the safety area surrounding the actual operating and storage area, it might be practicable to delay moving such tenants until the plant is nearing completion.
     3. Also, in carrying out the above mentioned policy, wherever the land is being acquired by a contractor, the Quartermaster General should have a representative in the vicinity whenever possible. Such a representative in addition to indicating an active interest in the welfare of the tenants by the War Department could materially assist the contractor in authorizing minor changes when such changes would be to the best interests of both the War Department and the landowners or tenants.

Robert P. Patterson,
The Assistant Secretary of War.”

     I next want to offer part of a letter to all landowners. It is dated Howell, Missouri, November 9, 1940, and reads:
“Dear Friends:

     This letter to all of the farm owners, farm tenants and business men within the Weldon Springs T.N.T. Plant Area has been prepared in consultation with the members of the Committees announced in a letter dated October 26, 1940 from Mrs. Clinton, Home Demonstration Agent and Mr. Langenbacher, County Extension Agent.
     It will be recalled that the letter sent on October 26, 1940, to all of you announced that a local committee had been selected to assist and advise you in the taking over of the land for the T.N.T. Plant Area. This letter also announced that the State Land Use Planning Committee would be asked to cooperate in a survey to determine the character of the assistance that might be needed by farm owners and farm tenants in getting located elsewhere.
     The two Committees represented by Mr. E. M. Miller, Mr. Claude Muschany (sec), Mr. Geo. H. Hackmann, Mr. L. E. Wackher and Mr. R. H. Sincock for the community and Mr. J. D. Monin, Jr., Mr. Ross Silket, Mr. J. W. Burch, Mr. S. H. Hughes, Mr. D. C. Wood, and associates of the State Land Use Planning Committee at Columbia met together in St. Charles on Monday Afternoon, November 4, Tuesday the 5th, and again in Howell on Wednesday the 6th including conferences with Mr. R. N. McDowell purchasing agent for the War Department.
     It was the purpose of the public meeting on Wednesday night in the High School at Howell to give a report of the work of these two Committees and to give the farm owners and farm tenants an opportunity to ask questions. The committee invited Mr. McDowell to be present at this public meeting in order that he might answer questions on behalf of the War Department that might be asked by the farmers.
     Those of you who were present at the meeting know that so much time was taken up in discussion by others who were not connected with the Committees that there was insufficient time for the farmers to present their problems. Because of this the undersigned farmers who have had the opportunity to talk directly with the members of the two Committees feel that in justice to our Government and our community that we should make the following statement:

     1. We believe that the Government, through Mr. McDowell, the purchasing agent for the War Department, will pay a fair and just price to the farm owners and to the farm tenants;
     2. We understand that a fair and just price includes, the fair current market value of the land and the improvements and a just additional amount to pay for some of the extra costs and losses due to leaving your home on short notice, perhaps before opportunity to locate elsewhere. This extra amount will also include a fair and just sum to pay for the rights of the tenant. Thus the amount stated in the option will be the gross sum for the sale of your farm. This sum will include the net amount you will receive, less any encumbrances; the amount to satisfy the rights of a tenant; the legal costs and the commission to the War Department’s Agent;
     3. The Committees have given Mr. McDowell their suggestions on the items that they think should be considered in determining the payment to the farm owners and to the farm tenants. Mr. McDowell, subject to the War Department’s instructions, has promised to give all possible considerations to these suggestions. For example, it has been suggested that a fair and just payment for the land sown to wheat would be to pay for the number of bushels (this was within less than a month after the wheat was sown) that would be paid for under Government crop insurance and at the current price for wheat;
     4. We therefore believe that it is in the best interest of our Government, our community and the farmers themselves to negotiate directly with the War Department’s purchasing agent at fair and just prices without unnecessary delay. We feel that if there is unusual delay the Government despite what was said at the meeting at Howell will undertake condemnation proceedings. Under condemnation proceedings the Court no doubt will award a fair price. In a legal settlement for land, however, that price may not include items for costs and losses incident to relocation.”