The Story

            Most people who regularly drive through the woods of the August Busch and Weldon Spring Conservation Areas in southern St. Charles County give little thought to the history of the area.  After all, getting to work on time and coming home as quickly as possible are generally not activities that would cause a person to consider what happened long ago in the area he is driving through.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to notice some pretty unusual sights along the road.  At the corner of Highways 94 and D sits a lonely granite monument with a rarely read inscription.  Further along the road, apparently lost among trees and brush, is a cemetery full of old headstones.  During the spring, hundreds of daffodils and irises bloom along a mile-long stretch of highway, making up what appears to be some sort of highway beautification project.  In the midst of these flowers, five mysterious concrete steps lead from the road, up a hill, and into the woods.  If a person stops his car and takes a walk into the trees, unusual discoveries continue:  colorful splashes of non-native flowers are seen as far as a mile from the nearest road, old bottles rest in ravines, cisterns full of water appear like mirages deep in the forest, and crumbling building foundations seem to sprout from the ground.
            2010 is the seventieth anniversary of events in 1940 which ultimately led to the destruction of the villages of Hamburg and Howell and several dozen small farms in what are now the August Busch and Weldon Spring Conservation Areas.  The story of what happened there is one of national defense, patriotism, sacrifice, greed, bureaucratic arrogance, and broken promises.  It is a chapter in Missouri history that should never be forgotten.
Hamburg and Howell area in 1940
           On September 9, 1940, Congress passed an act giving the War Department authority to build up national defense by purchasing land and constructing munitions plants.  A little more than a month later, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the War Department to purchase 20,000 acres to build a munitions plant in southern St. Charles County at what is now called the Weldon Spring Site.  Residents of Howell, Hamburg, and the surrounding area read the shocking news in The St. Charles Daily Banner-News, and life for them would never be the same.  About 700 people, many of whom lived on small family farms, would be forced to sell their homes and leave.  Several families had roots in the area going back one hundred years or more.  Protests were immediate and intense.  Within days a meeting of landowners was held at Howell High School.  One reporter wrote, “Most farmers regard the transaction as one full of angles that they do not understand.”  A war department consultant arrived to work with the county farm agent in addressing landowners’ concerns, but tension did not abate even though the farm agent stated that the “problems of farmers affected by the defense program will be handled satisfactorily.”  In early November 700 persons attended a meeting at Howell.  Congressman Clarence Cannon told the crowd that the War Department would construct the plant, regardless of the protests: “Military necessity makes it imperative that the government have this land.  The government is coming in.     That has been decided and it cannot be changed.  The government wants to be exactly fair.  It does not want to take advantage of anyone.  If you want to sell, you can sign the options at a price you consider fair.  If you don’t, you can be dispossessed in five days and leave the matters to the courts to determine what you shall be paid for your land.  It’s a matter we must face.  We are sorry.  None of us had anything to do with it; none of us can stop it.”  A government representative promised the interests of the people in the TNT plant area would be protected.
            This upheaval, which would destroy communities and relationships which had existed for decades, caused incredible grief for the residents in the threatened area.  Most of the county, however, reacted much more positively.  The St. Charles Daily Banner-News wrote that local “businessmen were elated over the announcement.”  The new fifteen million dollar plant would be the largest business investment in St. Charles County’s history and would provide hundreds of jobs.  Its annual payroll was estimated at over fifteen million dollars, much of which would be spent in local businesses.  One government spokesman estimated 30,000 people would move to the area.  Homes to house the army of 10,000 workers and their families would be needed.  One investor purchased a 240 acre tract of land that straddled Highway 94 about a mile north of Highway 40.  He planned to sell building lots and call the settlement Boomtown.  The village of Cottleville also hoped to profit from the new factory by building upwards of 2,200 houses for plant employees, who would be advised to purchase homes instead of renting.  Within one month of the announcement of the factory project, hotels and apartments in St. Charles were rushed with clients.  As the TNT landowners tried to find new homes and farms, prices for land in the surrounding areas increased dramatically.  Most people hailed “the coming of a TNT plant to St. Charles County . . . as the greatest boom St. Charles County ha[d] ever experienced.”

Hamburg auction
        However, as October turned into November, the landowners continued to resist.  When the War Department threatened condemnation proceedings, property owners in the TNT area began to sign contracts.  By November 22, all but two of the 700 parcels of land were under option by the government.  On Monday, November 25, three days before Thanksgiving, one hundred families who lived within the initial construction zone were ordered to vacate their homes within ten days.  All other residents would have to be gone by March 1.  Landowners forced to leave within ten days quickly arranged auctions to be held in both Howell and Hamburg within the next two weeks.  Because families had to move before they received checks from the government, many needed financial aid but could not obtain local credit, until the Farm Security Administration stepped in.  On December 19 the first checks issued by the government were mailed to two farmers, Clem Martin and Jacob Schneider.
            Over the next two months, several other individuals would receive payment.  People continued to vacate their homes.  Some were served with eviction notices.  By the end of January, Howell and Hamburg were nearly deserted.  Then on February 21, 1941, because of an investigative article published by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen in their syndicated column, “The Washington Merry-Go-Round,” the Department of Justice began to scrutinize the fees charged by the contractors it had hired to negotiate the sale of land for munitions factories.  Pearson and Allen charged that these men were not only being paid inordinately high commissions but were also charging the government questionable fees.  After R. Newton McDowell, the Kansas City contractor hired by the War Department to deal with the residents of the Hamburg and Howell area, became the special focus of the Department of Justice investigation, the government decided it had agreed to pay too much money to the TNT landowners.  By this time it had taken control of all but 200 of the nearly 16,000 acres it had purchased, but had made payment for less than 7000 acres.  Of the $2,600,000 purchase price negotiated by Mr. McDowell, the government by this time had issued checks for only about $1,100,000.  In other words, most of the former property owners, almost all of whom had already vacated their homes by this time, had not yet been paid.  When these 150 individuals were informed on February 25 that new appraisals would be completed, they were understandably outraged.  The War Department was reneging on its contracts.  Approximately one hundred of these people had signed contracts for new homes and farms, and paid earnest money, typically ten percent of the total price.  The landowners, however, were powerless.  No one else would be paid until new contracts were signed.
            On March 3 the unbelievable plight of the area residents worsened even further. U. S. District Attorney Harry Blanton recommended that the properties be acquired by condemnation proceedings.  On March 8 the government canceled all its remaining contracts in the TNT area and filed condemnation suits.  There would be no contracts for those so unfortunate as to be yet unpaid.  Nearly nine hundred farmers and townspeople attended a mass protest meeting a few days later at what is now the United Church of Christ in Weldon Spring.  Almost one hundred landowners signed a petition to President Roosevelt, requesting immediate payment for their land.  If the government condemned their properties, one man said, “We are going to move back on our land.”  Another described the War Department’s actions as “a shakedown.”  Ninety-one year old William Snyder telegrammed Secretary of War Harold Stimson: “I have observed public affairs since before the Civil War . . . but . . . [never] did I . . . hear of the United States of America repudiating sacred covenants with its citizens.”  On March 21, the War Department authorized Mr. McDowell to send the former landowners a letter which in part stated the following: “You know how badly you need money immediately.  It may be better for you to take a realistic view of this thing and determine in your own mind whether or not you can afford to carry on this legal fight or whether it would be advisable for you to offer the government a reduction on your present price.”
Rental property owned by Hattie Mades
            By this time several vacated homes had been burned by government workers; even today what appear to be rusted gas containers can be found lying next to what remains of crumbling foundations.  The government had not yet paid for some of these properties.  Government workers would pour gasoline inside the building, break the windows to make a draft, and light the fire.  Valuable materials from some homes were sold for salvage by the government before they were destroyed.  Fifty homes which had so far not been burned were occupied by government officials and employees of the construction company.
            In spite of incredible pressure, the former landowners were nearly unanimous in their resistance.  On March 27, R. Newton McDowell reported to the government that “renegotiations with unpaid landowners for lower prices had failed.”  All but two of the former landowners had refused to take reductions.  Senator Champ Clark and Congressman Clarence Cannon became outspoken critics of the War Department’s actions, with Cannon confidently predicting that the courts would correct what he called the “neglect and inefficiency” of the government.  A Congressional committee described the series of events as “a tremendous disturbance to civil life.” However, as spring gave way to summer, the government was relentless in its acquisition of titles to TNT land.  By the end of June, all TNT properties had been condemned by the government.  Months turned into years as lawyers for the TNT landowners continued to appeal to higher courts.  Finally, in early February of 1945, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, ruled in favor of the TNT landowners.  The government would be required to honor the original contracts.  Later in 1945, approximately five years after the land purchase was announced, checks were issued to the 120 landowners who had refused to accept the government’s condemnation price.  Some checks were issued to heirs since a few of the landowners had died in the intervening years.  The thirty landowners who had accepted the condemnation price before the Supreme Court decision would receive nothing further.  The victorious landowners then sued the War Department, seeking interest on their money they had not received for four years.  This time, however, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the War Department, stating that the landowners had been justly compensated.    
Portion of a letter written by Tarleton Woodson
            Incredible as it may seem, one further injustice awaited the former residents of the Howell and Hamburg area.  In February of 1947 the War Assets Administration announced that 12,000 acres of the TNT area would be “released for agricultural purposes.”  It appeared that many former landowners would be able to buy back their old properties. However, by month’s end the unpleasant truth was clear: the land was being purchased by the Missouri State Conservation Commission.  The former owners would not be given the opportunity to repurchase their land after all.  In late April of 1947, the federal government sold the conservation commission about 7,000 acres of TNT land for $225,000.  More than six years earlier, the War Department had paid nearly one million dollars for the same 7,000 acres.
            The original cause of this community disaster, the munitions plant, closed before the end of World War II. It reopened during the Cold War to be used for processing uranium, closing permanently in 1967.  In 1986 the Department of Energy initiated the Weldon Spring Site Remedial Action Project, which resulted in nearly fifty structures being dismantled and placed inside a forty-five acre disposal cell, along with contaminated sludge and soil.  The project was completed in 1994.
            By the spring of 1941, the lives of several hundred people living in southern St. Charles County changed dramatically.  In a matter of weeks, folks were forced to leave homes that, in some cases, their families had inhabited for multiple generations.  Some people lost their livelihoods.  All of these people lost their community and, to a degree, their sense of identity.  The residents of Hamburg, Howell, and the surrounding area embarked on an exodus in reverse, leaving their land of promise for dozens of unfamiliar destinations.  They left never to return, for their community was gone forever.

Sources: Allen, Robert, and Drew Pearson.  “The Washington Merry-Go-Round.”  27 Jan. 1941.  1 Mar. 2010. <>; Brown, Daniel T., Ph. D.  Small Glories. St. Louis: Howell Foundation, 2003; Fine, Lenore, and Jesse Remington. United States Army in World War II – The Corps of Engineers: Construction in the United States. Washington, D. C.: Center of Military History, 1972.  2003. 30 Oct. 2009. <>; Muschany, Donald K. The Rape of Howell and Hamburg, Missouri (An American Tragedy).  St. Louis:  Donald K. Muschany, 1978; Smith, Adam, and Sunny Stone.  Weldon Spring Ordnance Works Historic Context.   Champaign, IL: U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2005; St. Charles Daily Banner-News. 1940-1947. Microfilm.  St. Charles County Public Library, St. Charles,
Missouri; Watson, Elizabeth Audrain.  Heritage and Promise: A History of Dardenne Presbyterian Church and Its Community. Chicago: Adams Press, 1977; “Weldon Spring Site History.” Department of Energy.  2 Mar. 2010. <http://www.Im.>.