Making Way for War--Part 1
Construction of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps Area Training Center began in early December of 1940. The camp was to encompass 65,000 acres. It would include 55 miles of road and 1,500 buildings. It was projected to employ about 13,000 workers during construction and cost about $10 million. About 25,000 soldiers would be billeted there when the project was complete in the spring of 1941.
The initial figures were quickly revised upward. The training center, which would come to be known as Fort Leonard Wood, ended up taking 93,000 acres out of southern Pulaski County. It employed about 15,000 workers, cost about $30 million, and was not completed until the late summer of 1941. About 37,000 Army personnel were eventually quartered there.
The immensity of the project overwhelmed local residents. “Everybody was stunned that something so big could happen around here,” one former resident of the area told this writer for a 1998 Ozarks Mountaineer article. “We were just backwoods country people.”
The local people were not just stunned. Some of them were angry. They would have to vacate land that, in many cases, had been in their families for a hundred years. The uprooted property owners were paid, on average, about $25 an acre for unimproved land, which was a fair price 75 years ago in the Ozarks. The catch was that they wouldn’t get their money immediately because of government red tape, and many of them didn’t have the ready cash for a down payment on a new home. Besides, some of them just didn’t want to move.
Most, however, eventually accepted the idea as their patriotic duty.
Work continued on the fort at a feverish pace throughout the winter and spring of 1941. Pearl Harbor was still almost a year away, but rumors of war infused the project with a sense of urgency. Work went on around the clock, seven days a week. Five hundred applicants a day passed through the Missouri State Employment Service for referral to contractors in charge of the project. The mostly unionized workers earned, counting overtime, as much as $75 a week, an excellent wage in 1941.
The tremendous influx of workers caused housing shortages as far away as Lebanon and Rolla. The population of Waynesville ballooned from about 400 to about 3,500. New businesses sprang up overnight.
In the immediate area of the fort, some workers rented rooms from local residents. Some stayed in barns. Others slept in tents or makeshift shelters fashioned from cardboard and other materials.
An unusually wet winter and early spring turned the area into a quagmire and hampered work on the army base. Truck after truck got buried to their axles in the mud, and loads of plywood had to be brought in just so workers would have a place to walk without sinking to their knees.
Construction of Fort Leonard Wood wiped villages like Bloodland, Cookville, Palace, Tribune, and Wharton off the face of the map. The largest of these was Bloodland, with a population of about 100. When construction of the fort began, the town had two general stores, three filling stations, a post office, a couple of churches, and a high school.
Cemeteries such as the one at Bloodland are about all that remain within the bounds of Fort Leonard Wood to suggest the area was ever used for anything other than a military base. For many years, former residents returned to those cemeteries on Memorial Day to decorate the graves of deceased loved ones and to gather in reunion. Now, even that ritual has virtually died out, as very few former residents remain.