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Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant

Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant

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Built: 1941 | Abandoned: 1992
Status: For SaleAbandonedPrivate Property
Photojournalist: Judi Lynn

Sunflower Ordnance Works

Starting originally as the Sunflower Ordnance Works and would eventually become the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, this plant was a city of its own. Spreading across over 9,000 acres it was to be the second large government war project to take shape in Johnson County. Work on the site was almost 24 hours a day with around 1,600 men employed to speedrun the process, it would cost almost $250 million after it was complete. A “trailer city” had to be erected on the grounds to provide housing for the huge amount of workers. Some of the businesses in town even had to be made into temporary rooming houses. The project quickly grew the town of De Soto almost overnight. Restaurants and businesses continued to pop up with the influx of population and schools prepared for a surge in enrollment.

Sunflower Ordnance Works
“A birdseye view of part of the manufacturing area of Sunflower.” KansasMemory.org, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply

Its first production line started March 24, 1943 and went until August 1945 around the end of WW2. During the war the plant produced more than 175 million pounds of powder. Peak production for the plant was the last year of the war, this plant had become the largest producer of powder in the entire US. The plant staffed over 12,000 people making it one of if not the most prominent employer in that region.

After the war, many war projects and operations such as this were closed down and no longer considered useful to the community or country for their original purpose. But not this one, it was one of 42 other war plants that would be kept on standby for emergency use. In 1947, $9,000,000 were allocated for this reactivation of the base and would be run by Hercules Powder Co.

Production ramped up in 1950 and the site was reactivated with the start of the Korean War with nitric acid, the first step of producing rocket powder. Thousands of workers prepared the plant for full-blown production. By July they were producing rocket powder that would be used to propel high-velocity aircraft rockets. But the plant known for its quick output of product had hit a bump in the road come 1953 with the unionizing of workers and demands for a new contract.

The next year brought the plant a share in a 100 million dollar increase in military contracts which would be an extension of the existing contract with Hercules Powder Co. But while this seemed to be great news for the company overall there were layoffs and cutbacks looming. Around 500 staff would be dropped from the payroll just a few months later. Again in 1955 another cutback of another 700 workers would come in the fall bringing the total number of workers to about 2,300.

To give you an idea of just how important the plant and its happenings were to the community they had their very own newspaper that ran in 1955. The Sunflower Planet was released every Thursday to detail all the news going on in the mini city. But again powder production wasnt as prominent by the late ’50s as international matters with the US died down for a time. The plant would go into a standby status in ’58 but even before that happened there were talks of reactivation to produce new fuel for defense. But it seems the bid for reactivation was not accepted and the plant sit idle.

Going into the ’60s the plant was merely a shell of its once bustling and active nature. The nearby housing project deemed Sunflower Village of almost 200 concrete housing structures was sold at auction for $311,000 to Louis H. Ensley. The standby facility was even proposed to become the new National Science Academy but that too never came to fruition. The Hercules Powder Co. contract for maintenance was extended until September 1961.

The Department of Defense deemed this and 79 other military installations unnecessary in 1962 leaving this facility to close. It was declared surplus and very soon after it was announced that the University of Kansas would receive a portion of the plant, as a gift with a clause that allowed the General Services Administration to take back over the property in the case of an emergency for the next 20 years. They were given 193 acres for the purpose of research, education and land for animal used for medical research. The rest of the property lay dormant, that is until the rise of the Vietnam war.

Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant

The US Army announced partial reactivation of the plant in 1965 bringing in about 2.500 jobs to the site once again. An initial contract of $9,312,152 was awarded to Hercules Powder Co. by the Army Ammunition Procurement and Supply Agency. Although under the same management company as before it would now be known as the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant producing roughly a million pounds of bazooka shells.

Rumors started circulating in 1971 that the plant would be shut down again. Workers in the hundreds started to protest the rumored closure. Their voices went unheard. Production had diminished as the US started to pull back operations in the country on a small scale. And it was then announced in March that production at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant would cease in July and roughly 800 employees would be laid off initially and another ~750 a year later.

sunflower army ammunition plantJust a year or two after its dormancy the plant received something unexpected, a $160 million renovation and expansion to modernize the WW2 plant. Amongst those plans was to create a sulfuric acid regeneration facility. In 1976 roughly 137 buildings were sold off that were not to be apart of the revitalization. 95 percent of the buildings were contaminated with nitrocellulose and other chemicals that would have to undergo special operations to dispose of the contaminants and the buildings entirely. This operation was still happening into the 1980s and an incinerator was constructed to help with the process.

Great news for the area came in 1982 when it was officially announced that the Sunflower plant would be reactivated once again in 1984 as the Cold War ramped up. Dubbed part of a “national insurance policy” an official dedication ceremony for the almost half-a-century-old plant was held on October 10, 1984. After 12 years of standby status, the new improvements equipped the facility to manufacture nitroguanidine which is a component for triple base propellant fueling systems. Lt. Col. Michael Neer was listed as the commander of the plant and would oversee operations. He was succeeded in 1987 by Lt. Col. James L. Frye.

Come 1990 rumors again started spreading that the plant could close within the next three years due to recent defense budget cutbacks. It was listed as a possible site for closure by the Department of Defense. This plant had been influential in numerous US conflicts and at the time of its service, it was the only plant in the country to produce nitroguanidine producing 8 million pounds annually. They had accumulated so much product that the plant had a stockpile and could be put on mothballs for the first time in its history.

August 1992 was when deactivation for Sunflower would come once again. This was inevitable after the Cold War had come to an end. Layoffs in the hundreds began but many were reluctant to believe that the plant would be done forever due to its many reinstatement over the decades. But this was unfortunately the last of many. In the following years a task force was appointed to try and find a use for the property for future development. The plan was to find uses for some of the 2,000+ buildings left on the thousands of acres instead of marketing the land itself. But the EPA had other plans wanting to list the property as one of the most environmentally hazardous sites in the entire country.

It was officially declared excess of needs in 1998 and a year later after many negotiations and talks Oz Entertainment Co. stepped in and was interested in the mini city to create a theme park oasis. During these talks Oz Entertainment made promise that they would dish out the more than $30 million to get the land within EPA standards at no risk to tax payers. They insisted cleanup was cheaper than a latter option for their $763 million proposed theme park and resort. But after nearly three years of negotiation that dream ended when the county voted against it.

With no real end in sight to solve the problem of what to do with the plant in the mid-2000’s the county created the Sunflower Community Redevelopment Authority to assist with the redevelopment of the plant. It was then that thousands of acres were transferred to numerous Kansas organizations including KU and KSU. The land then sat mostly vacant for the next 17 years.

In January 2022 Johnson County officials passed an ordinance that would create a new tax district on the plant as well as rezoning of a few hundred acres to make way for a new industrial development. According to the predevelopment agreement the TIF district will be broken down into four project areas. The first area of the development would involve roughly 1,000 acres in the northeastern portions of the site to be developed for manufacturing and warehouse uses. A month later the Board of Commissioners voted 4-2 to dissolve the Sunflower Community Redevelopment Authority. The commission also approved amending a predevelopment agreement between the county and Sunflower Redevelopment LLC (SRL).




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Emily Cowan

Emily is a two-time published author of "Abandoned Oklahoma: Vanishing History of the Sooner State" and "Abandoned Topeka: Psychiatric Capital of the World". With over two hundred published articles on our websites. Exploring since 2018 every aspect of this has become a passion for her. From educating, fighting to preserve, writing, and learning about history there is nothing she would rather do.

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dale
dale
1 month ago

Part of this plant has been sold to Panasonic, a Japanese co to build batteries,,,,kinda ironic…

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