Feb. 13, 2003 – The mention of Prairie, MS, doesn’t even ring a bell with most Mississippians. But 60 years ago the now floundering little village on Highway 382, between Highway 45W and Aberdeen was a bustling place.
Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II, an air base was established at Columbus, MS, and a munitions plant was established on some 6,000 acres surrounding the then floundering village of Prairie.
“The Gulf Ordnance Plant, 1942-45” was the title of a special edition of the Tombigbee Magazine, published by long-time writer and editor for the Aberdeen Examiner, Clyde Wilson.
Detailed accounts of the construction and operation of the plant were gathered by Aberdeen Police Chief Brent Coleman recalling the three-year operation of the plant.
Almost overnight, it seems Procter and Gamble acquired the land and built the plant with an appropriation of $30 million according to a press release attributed to Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo.
On construction employment during the operation of the plant ranged from 6,000 to 10,000. Dormitories, homes were built and other structures were acquired to accommodate the workers.
The company also ran a fleet of 25 buses from as far away as Pontotoc County and into northeast Alabama.
Some of the concrete “igloos” spaced over the property to confine any accidental explosion to that facility still stand.
The company originally loaded three sizes of shells, 20mm, 40mm and 75mm on five production lines. However, the 20mms were dropped from the line, and the workers loaded only 40mm and 75mm.
Later the new “A-1-A” was added to the 40mm lines.
Housing continued to be a problem and from time to time many workers were essentially “camping out,” according to the story.
Communication at the plant was augmented with the publication of a newspaper called “The Gulf Tracer.”
By late 1943 most production problems were solved and the plant began loading a number of Tracers for the Navy.
Coleman’s account includes a number of personal notes from workers and officials at the plant, which included thousands of women, many joining the work force while their mates were in the armed services.
Copies of the publication are available from GOP Special, PO Box 105, Aberdeen, MS 39730, for $4, which includes postage.
It is a good read, which gives me a new appreciation for that part of the Mississippi Black Prairie, where only the eroding remains of the many structures and an occasional gas well mark the horizon.
It is also a stark reminder of the fragility of many of our smaller town and communities.
Nothing can be taken for granted, as we are learning here in Bruce, where the namesake industry, is now in the process of closing the hardwood mill.
It and the town were founded in the 1920s and the mill was later sold to Memphis Hardwood.
Memphis Hardwood was not the largest employer, but it was a good industrial citizen, and the historical and human ties, like the death of a parent, remind us of our own mortality.
It is not a time to give up, but to resolve renewed efforts to better support and show appreciation of the remaining operations, which include two Fortune 500 companies.
As a footnote to the Prairie story—a 1,800-acre tract established as a super-industrial park has been established on a portion of the old Gulf Ordnance Plant.
•Political talk is heating up as we enter the every four-year marathon to fill county and state offices.
Last weekend we enjoyed a visit from former Rotary District Governor Tom Patterson of Southaven, a native of Calhoun, who was here with DeSoto County Supervisor John Caldwell who is running for North Mississippi Highway Commissioner as a Republican.
To date the only other serious candidate is Sen. Bill Minor of Holly Springs. With the resignation of veteran commissioner Zack Stewart expectations were for more candidates, but it is a large district and an expensive undertaking.
•We attended the funeral last week of an old and highly regarded friend, Bruce Oakley, who came here with the Bruce Mill in the early years.
He has been retired for several years, but until ill health stopped him was an avid history student, concentrating his efforts of postal history—primarily in the days before stamps, when postmasters wrote the name of the post office and other information on the upper right hand of the envelopes.
Called “covers” he had a extensive collection and published at least two books on the subject.
Citizens of his intellect and interests don’t come along very often in a sawmill town.