International events led to the creation of the world's largest ammunition powder plant in 1941 in northwest Johnson County. The Sunflower Ordnance Works, on 10,747 acres near De Soto, forever changed that small town and the nearby communities. The site was chosen because of the area's flat terrain, its proximity to the Kansas River and a major railway (the Santa Fe), access to labor throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area, and what was perceived by the United States government to be a secure location in the middle of the nation.
Kansans had been lobbying Congress for a "war plant" at this location. When the site was chosen, the decision was welcomed and supported by many residents of the surrounding communities. Even before ground was broken on May 8, 1942, the lives of people living near the site began to change significantly.
The rapid changes were documented by the plant newspaper, the "Sunflower Sentinel," that first came off the presses in the summer of 1942. Its purpose--to share key news for the plant's staff --had a particular focus on safety. In September of that year the paper reported the adoption of a security system was newly in place --one that required all employees to display photographic badges and carry identification cards.
De Soto, Eudora, the Kansas City metropolitan area, Lawrence, Olathe, and other nearby towns benefited greatly from the plant's operation. At one point during World War II, it was estimated that half of Lawrence's working population was employed at Sunflower. Some employees came from as far away as Fort Scott, Chanute, Atchison, Hiawatha, and Butler, Mo. Plant employment peaked at 12,067 in June 1945, with 8,000 more people employed working in maintenance of grounds, roads, railroads, and buildings.
Housing needs increased as people moved into the area to take jobs at the plant. Eventually, trailer camps and the 852 housing units of Sunflower Village would serve some of the thousands of newcomers. The bustling construction during the plant's first year included a 400-unit trailer camp. The project was designed for possible expansion to 1,500 trailers.
New schools and stores operated in temporary locations while permanent facilities were built to serve the booming population. Busing and mandatory car pooling were used to transport workers to and from the plant. The commanding officer of the plant cautioned drivers to be a little more careful as "the highways and roads around this plant are taxed beyond their designed capacity." That was a particular concern with the start of the school year in the fall of 1942. Staff health needs were originally being met by medical facilities in the former Osborne farm house on Prairie Center Road -- until the new plant hospital was available in October of that year.
The Sunflower plant operated at full capacity until June 1946, when it was placed on partial standby. The plant returned to production during the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, but it never again reached the level of activity seen during World War II.
The Army placed Sunflower on standby in 1991. In 1998, the plant was declared excess property and the long process to transfer it to private hands began. That process concluded in August 2005 with Sunflower Redevelopment LLC's agreement to purchase the plant with the agreement to clean it of contamination and to transfer nearly 2,700 acres various public entities, including a 2,000 acres to the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District.
Russ Czaplewski is collection manager for the Johnson County Museum. The organization has three sites: Lanesfield School Historic Site in Edgerton is a restored one-room schoolhouse; the Museum of History, Shawnee, displays county history and temporary exhibits; also on the property in Shawnee is The 1950s All-Electric House, a house museum restored as an embodiment of the American Dream. For hours and information visit the web at www.jocomuseum.org or call (913) 631-6709.