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Local News

Midewin saves arsenal's past while restoring prairie

A short walk goes past farmsteads, bunkers and bison

WILMINGTON – Preservationists are saving more than prairie at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Even many of the ammunition bunkers left behind from the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant days will be kept as the U.S. Forest Service that oversees Midewin tells a story of the transition of the land through

It’s a story that includes the natural prairie of prehistoric time, the Potawatomi people whose word “Midewin” provides the site its modern name, the farmers who came in the 19th century and drove hogs to market in Chicago along an old dirt road that remains, the Joliet arsenal that was built to produce ammunition for World War II, the historic Route 66 highway that cuts through it, and the modern effort to restore 18,500 acres of prairie.

“It’s a perfect circle of time,” Midewin archaeologist Joe Wheeler said while surveying the foundations of an old farmstead that dates back to the Civil War era.

Pointing to the dirt path that once was part of Blodgett Road, Wheeler told how Midewin visitors can walk over the same foundations as part of a hike that takes them past the old arsenal ammunition bunkers and to the bison that have been brought in to recreate an environment that existed hundreds of years ago.

Now, much of the past is left to the imagination.

“We always thought this was a trough,” Wheeler said of one stone outline of a former structure. “Then we started doing some more research. This was a cooling tank for the dairy.”

The preservationists at Midewin don’t plan to rebuild the farmsteads from the foundations that remain.

However, the preservationists do plan to equip visitors with enough information – by sign boards, brochures and mobile phone apps – so people can take self-guided tours through the history that Midewin provides.

Prairie Supervisor Wade Spang pointed out that Midewin’s Iron Bridge Trail crosses over Route 53, which is part of the historic Route 66.

“We have Route 66 and this – all in a 15- to 20-minute walk,” Spang said. “When we get this all up and running, it’s going to be pretty neat for people to come and walk and learn about Midewin and the area and nature and all its grandeur.”

Bunkers or igloos

Some of the more recent history is being destroyed to make room for the deeper past.

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is one section of the old Joliet arsenal that has been converted for new uses, including the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and
CenterPoint Intermodal Center in Elwood.

About 300 old ammunition storage igloos still remain, even after 59 have been removed. The storage igloos commonly are called bunkers, but officially are called igloos by the U.S. Army. The area still has more than 50 other buildings, including old load and assembly plants.

The concrete storage bunkers shaped like igloos were built to store TNT and are made of thick concrete walls.

Most eventually will be removed as part of the prairie restoration

“We have lots of buildings and bunkers ... that we need to remove to establish a tallgrass prairie,” Spang said.

Taking them down takes time. Only 17 were demolished in the past year.

“That’s the most we removed in one season,” Midewin prairie engineer Bob Hommes said.

Arsenal history

Hommes is familiar with arsenal history. His mother, Genevieve Hommes, worked at the Joliet arsenal during the Korean War.

One of the Midewin projects has been to collect oral history of the arsenal from the people who worked there – and it’s not always an easy process.

“When she worked here,” Hommes said, “they weren’t really supposed to talk about what they did here. I told her that we took oral history from people, and she still didn’t want to talk about what she did. It was so ingrained.”

Midewin does “Ghosts of the Ammunition Plant” tours during the spring and summer, when people are shown the storage igloos, go through load and assembly plants, and hear the history of an explosion in 1942.

In one igloo, the staff has collected artifacts such as ammunition boxes, gas masks, old arsenal signs and other items that give a sense of how the then-arsenal looked during World War II.

“This was state of the art,” Spang said, pointing to a manually operated troubleshooting map lined with numbered switches that manually would be flipped on to light up a building that needed attention.

Although most of the igloos eventually will be removed, Midewin plans to keep a group of them near the Iron Bridge Trailhead that will be part of the “Circle of Time” walk that goes through two farmstead ruins and the bison.

“We’re keeping them for the public to see what a bunker field looks like and what an igloo looks like,” Spang said. “They’ll be able to go in and enjoy and learn about that part of the history here.”

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