Dale Says

March 27, 2012

Remembering Sioux Army Depot

Filed under: Historical Article — Dale @ 2:51 pm

They stand like lonely outposts, vestiges of a bygone era, and from a distance on a clear day they look like an enormous prairie dog town. The 801 ammunition storage igloos at the former Sioux Army Depot are nearly forgotten now, lined up in the wheat fields outside Sidney, Nebraska as far as the eye can see. Once used to store weapons needed to fight wars, they are now filled with grain, farm equipment, and junk.

This vast and largely-deserted former Army depot once served a vital service, and it was home for many area residents. In the war-torn years of the 1940s, it was a vibrant and thriving community. People worked at the depot and some lived nearby in a community called Ordville. The jobs weren’t glamorous and life in Ordville wasn’t luxurious, but workers were happy to have work and their families were happy to have homes.

The Depot’s Mission

In March of 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army picked a site near Sidney to provide additional storage for ammunition being used to fight World War II. The decision was based on Sidney’s dry climate and its location: near a major rail line and central enough to allow easy shipping to both coasts. In all, there were four munitions plants in Nebraska during World War II at Hastings, Mead, Grand Island, and Sidney which collectively employed as many as 17,000 employees. Construction of the 36-square mile depot 12 miles northwest of Sidney began in the summer of 1942.

The mission of the Sidney Ordnance Depot (the name was later changed to Sioux Army Depot) was to receive, store, and issue all types of ammunition and military supplies.

Construction of the depot was completed in less than a year, and the first shipment of ammunition was received in December of 1942. It operated continuously for the next 25 years, serving the U.S. during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The depot occupied 19,771 acres and included 801 ammunition storage igloos, 22 general supply warehouses, 392 support buildings, 225 family living quarters, 51 miles of railroad tracks, and 203 miles of roads. It employed between 625 and 2,161 civilian employees, who worked alongside a small number of Army personnel.

Displaced Farmers

To build the depot, the U.S. government purchased farmland north and west of Sidney, in the process displacing thirty-five families. The farmers received fair value for their land, but they were given very short notice and asked to immediately move off their farms. Many were naturally reluctant to give up the land and buildings that were their homes.

Pete and Carrie Beyer were typical of the families forced off their land.

“The first we knew anything was up was when we saw the surveyors out taking their sightings,” their son Leonard told the Sidney Telegraph. “My dad went out to talk to them and 30 days later we were gone.”

(Note: Leonard lived and worked on that farm from a very early age. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and returned to the farm after the war, purchased his family home from the government, and moved it out of the depot. He and his wife lived in that house until his death in September, 2011).

Sidney Transformed

Construction of the depot transformed Sidney from a quiet farming community into a 24-hour boomtown. During 1942, construction workers and depot employees more than tripled Sidney’s population, from 3,300 to over 10,000. Workers poured into Sidney and every available spare room was converted to housing. But it was not enough. A trailer camp was set up at the county fair grounds on the west side of Sidney to provide temporary housing, and a second encampment was established on the east side of town.

The influx of people overwhelmed Sidney. Every vacant living quarter was occupied, and in some cases rooms were rented on an eight-hour basis. Cafes ran out of food and closed their doors, and all types of businesses were swamped with demands for essentials that were in short supply because of wartime restrictions and shortages.

During the summer and fall of 1942 depot payrolls exceeded $200,000 a week. On paydays, workers lined up outside Sidney banks to cash their payroll checks. The hourly wage was $0.89, which was not exactly a fortune, but worth a lot more than it is today, and high enough to attract workers.

Additional Housing

More housing was needed in Sidney, and the Federal Public Housing Administration provided assistance by contracting with local developers to build an additional 150 homes. A contract for the first 44 houses was acquired by a construction company in Omaha, and by late summer of 1942 plans were announced for three additional housing projects, including duplexes in the Trognitz Addition, and houses in two locations near city park.

In addition, an apartment complex called Sioux Villa was developed to accommodate depot workers. Those apartments still stand in the northwest section of Sidney.

Ordville

Near the depot, the Federal Public Housing Agency laid out streets and constructed rows of apartments for workers. This housing, called Ordville, started in February of 1943 and by the end of 1943, eighty-five apartment buildings had been completed, containing 215 bachelor units, 99 one bedroom units, 111 two bedroom units, and 17 three bedroom units. Total capacity was 1,360 people. These one-story apartments were arranged on a diagonal and constructed of concrete block. They originally had flat roofs that were changed to gables in 1957.

The Ordville complex was not part of the depot itself, but was self-contained housing outside the depot. Life at Ordville wasn’t luxurious. The streets were dirt, the apartments were small, and heating and cooking was from coal, stored in bins outside the apartments. Lila Dearing lived there as a 7th-grade student, and she remembers that although the apartments were small and rather plain, people in those days were happy to have them, and they made their apartments into homes and took good care of them. She also remembers that Ordville became a community and there were “jillions” of other kids to play with and lots to do. There were a few services for the housing itself, including a gas station, grocery store, barber shop, post office, and a housing office. Residents could also go into the depot and use their facilities as needed, which included a base exchange, a doctor (and later a hospital), cafeteria, soda fountain, dispensary, bowling alley, and movie theater.

Initially, grade school students were bused to Brownson, but later an elementary school was operated at the depot. Older children were bused to school in Sidney.

Because of its location, Ordville and the depot were subject to wind and snow storms, and they were greatly impacted by the Blizzard of ’49. Carl Farmer told The Scottsbluff Star-Herald that his family of eight was in Ordville when the blizzard hit. Temperatures reached 17 below zero with two feet of snow and winds as high as 70 miles per hour. Ordville lost electrical power during the storm and Carl’s father had to work around the clock to keep depot roads open. An airplane from Lowry Field in Denver dropped a load of food supplies and other necessities, and Carl used sleds to help transport the supplies to the grocery store, where they could be distributed to depot residents.

Depot Workers

Depot employees came from the local area, nearby towns such as Dalton, Gurley, and Lodgepole, and from across the U.S. Many Sidney residents took jobs at the depot, filling a variety of roles.

Kay Fehringer was one of the Sidney residents who worked at the depot during World War II. She stayed at an apartment in Sidney, and each morning she walked to the corner of highway 30 and 15th street and waited along with other depot workers for a bus to take her to the depot. Kay worked in the Mail Department, which was in the basement of the Administration building. Colonel Preble, depot commander, and other high-ranking staff had offices on other floors of the building. Along with around seven others, Kay took care of mail, messages and made copies. Other depot workers did bookkeeping, recording, filing, and operated a teletype machine to send and receive messages from all over the country. They were instructed to immediately deliver messages that came in for Col. Preble.

With the war in full stride and many local men and women in the military, it was difficult to find enough local people to fill the available depot jobs. At one point, buses were sent to Denver to recruit labor among the unemployed, but by the time the busses arrived at Sidney many of the men had usually disappeared. Those still remaining would typically work for a week or so and then leave without notice (and sometimes without even picking up their checks).

At one point, the Army recruited Nisei (Japanese-Americans) who had been relocated to internment camps during World War II to help fill the labor shortages at the depot.

And the Army also used prisoners of war (POWs) to help with the work. When overseas POW camps reached capacity, the government moved some prisoners to ammunition depots in the U.S. where they could be kept under guard by personnel at the depot – and help with the work. At one point in the spring of 1944, Sioux Army Depot had as many as 600 POWs, roughly half Italians and half Germans.

Prisoners were not forced to work, but most were eager to do something, and those willing to work served as laborers, engineers, carpenters, automobile mechanics, typists, cooks, etc. They were sent to various sections of the Depot where they labored alongside civilians and Army personnel.

When not working, the prisoners still had plenty to do. For recreation, an athletic field was built inside the stockade and the POWs enjoyed sporting events there – especially soccer. They were also allowed to go to the movie house, and they played cards, and sang. Most of their songs were from their native land, but they also learned and sang American songs.

Although prisoners were not allowed to touch civilians at the depot, it did not keep one homesick Italian POW from writing notes to a young American girl who worked at the Depot. Nor did it keep young Italian prisoners from establishing relationships with American girls which, in one case led later to marriage.

Layout of the Depot

The magazine area covered the largest area of the depot. To the east were the ammunition packing, receiving, and shipping buildings. Located approximately one mile east were two rows of magazine buildings, constructed of clay tile with full length loading platforms. Roads connected those buildings to the rest of the depot and ran along the north.

Igloos

The remaining magazine areas contained 801 earth covered ammunition igloos – domed structures of concrete and steel designed to store ammunition. A small grouping of twenty igloos that housed more volatile ammunition was isolated from the others, located to the southeast of the main area.

Today, there are 801 storage igloos at Sioux Army Depot. Local farmer, Ray Franzen, said there were originally 802, but there was an explosion in one as ammunition was being handled. According to Ray, two workers were preparing to move bombs from the igloos and the bombs “didn’t look right.” As the workers were trying to decide what to do about it, one of the bombs blew up, killing one of the workers and throwing the other onto a conveyer belt. That worker survived, but the igloo was never re-built.

The igloos were designed in a rounded shape so the force of an explosion would be directed upward rather than outward. They were made of reinforced concrete with thick front walls and floors and heavy latched metal doors. Each was around twenty feet high and fifty feet in diameter (about the size of a small house). The roofs include air vents and are covered by earth, to camouflage the igloos from the air. Between igloos, earthen bunkers were built to help deflect material in case of an explosion.

East-west roads connected individual igloos separated in groupings of approximately 100. North-south roads at the edges of each of these groupings connected them to each other and to the receiving and shipping areas. The railroad tracks that ran along the eastern edge of this area are gone, but some of the buildings that served as a transition from rail to road transportation remain.

After World War II

Work continued at the depot after World War II. In 1946 the mission of the depot was modified to include identification, classification, and sorting of bombs and supplies returned from overseas.

A property disposal unit was established at the depot, and returning ammunition and supplies were accepted, processed, and stored. A year later, much of the post-war processing had been accomplished and the number of personnel at the depot was reduced.

When the Korean War ended in 1953, a second demolition area was set up at the depot to handle returning ammunition, and during 1954 the depot operated at full strength. The depot also took on additional life as two oil companies began drilling nearby for oil.
In 1964, it was announced that a federal manpower retraining program would be housed at the depot under the supervision of the Sidney Public Schools. The Sidney Occupational Training Center officially began classes on December 14, 1964 with an enrollment of over 120 students. . Occupational training was provided in auto mechanics, auto body, tractor mechanics, office clerk, porter, pastry baker, and assistant restaurant manager.

Deactivation

After 25 years of continuous operation, Sioux Army Depot was deactivated June 30. 1967. It was a sad day for the remaining depot workers, and a sad day for Sidney. Jimmy Phelps told The Sidney Telegraph he was the last employee to leave and when he clocked out at 3:30 PM he took the time clock off the wall, packed it, and shipped it to the government.

Since the depot closed, the Army and the town of Sidney have tried several options of using former depot facilities. The Western Nebraska Vocational Technical School (later renamed the Western Nebraska Technical College) occupied part of the depot, and some of the property has been leased to industrial and retail organizations. Today, Adams Industries has several buildings at the former depot, and other buildings are operated by Cabela’s and Glover Industries.

After the depot was deactivated, a group of local farmers banded together, formed a non-profit company, and bought igloos and land from the government. One of them, Pete Beyer, was among the 35 farm families that were originally displaced when the depot was first developed. Today, some of the igloos are used to store grain and farm equipment, while others are rented out for storage.

Ghosts of a Bygone Era

These days things are pretty quiet at the Sioux Army Depot. The railroad tracks are gone and the administration buildings are time-worn. There are some signs of life – a couple of industrial concerns, a store, and a few restored apartments. But most of the former depot is deserted and deteriorating. Some of the igloos store grain, which is the lifeblood of this part of the country, but many of the others sit empty. The depot served a gallant purpose and helped Sidney flourish in another time. Now most of the buildings, like the igloos, are ghosts of a bygone era.

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