Northwest Wisconsin's Best-Kept Secret for Decades: The Barksdale Explosives Plant

By
Real Estate Broker/Owner with Madeline Island Realty 50317-90

Barksdale Works Entrance Gate 

The Chequamegon Bay area of northwestern Wisconsin has been the keeper of a secret over the better part of the past century.  Behind stone and iron gates and high fences along Highway 13, that well-kept secret was the Barksdale Works, an explosive plant owned and operated by DuPont and created to serve the wartime and industrial needs of the United States.

During the first decade of the 1900s, the DuPont corporation purchased nearly two thousand acres south of the industrial town of Washburn, Wisconsin.  Originally, this was the largest dynamite plant in the mid-United States. The Barksdale Works was situated almost midway between Ashland and Washburn, Wisconsin.  The plant itself was located less than half a mile from Lake Superior, surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire perimeter. 

Washburn became a boom town by the start of World War I, with over 9,000 residents, two-thirds of which were employed at Barksdale.  The plant became a major contributor to the town of Washburn.  Dupont built schools and a community center, maintained roads and supported the community.

During the 1920's and 1930's, the plant became engaged in the rather dangerous business of making and testing newer and more powerful explosives, including TNT.  During the era when Barksdale changed its emphasis to military manufacture, employees were selected from among the indigenous population of the area.  It has been suggested that DuPont and the government found the Chequamegon Bay area ideal for military explosives work because of its low population density and considerable distance from population centers, both of which would make detection of foreign espionage efforts much easier.

In its early days, the plant had been primarily responsible for making dynamite that could be utilized for blasting in iron mines on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in northern Minnesota.  But the Barksdale Works was also rapidly becoming the primary manufacturing source of TNT in the United States at the time, so industrial applications gave way to military purposes as World War II approached.  And, as is usual with explosive manufacture, there were accidents.

In 1920, about 30,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate caught fire and burned at the plant.  Fortunately, there was no explosion.  Another explosion in 1928 killed two men, but did only minor damage to the plant.  Then, in 1952, near the end of the Korean War, the Barksdale Works' luck ran out.  Eight men were killed in two massive explosions at the plant on October 15, 1952, fifty-five years ago.  The explosive force broke many windows in nearby Ashland, Wisconsin, seven miles away.

During the late 1950's and into the 1960's, the plant was converted to other uses, including efforts to perfect the manufacture of clad or "sandwich" coins.  The early sandwich coin blanks were created by using explosives to blast layers of metal together.  Once produced, the layered blanks were shipped to the U. S. Mint for striking.

The Barksdale Works was quietly closed in 1971.  Curiously, very little information about the plant is available on the Web or in books.  Apparently, DuPont and the United States Government worked hand in hand to make certain that the public would learn very little about activities that went on at Barksdale.

There are still a few men in the Chequamegon Bay area who worked at the plant during its heyday.  If you are fortunate enough to know one of these Barksdale veterans and you bring up the subject of the plant, you may get a rare glimpse of the colorful past surrounding the Barksdale Works.

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Anonymous #1
Anonymous
John Holman
Thanks for the information. My grandfather, Conrad Holman, was one of the two men who died in the explosion in 1928. He was only 43 years of age. My dad, Glenn Holman, also worked his entire adult life at "the plant" putting in more than 33 years there. He was probably the last employee there when it was being closed down and did much work in the process of shutting it down. I remember his telling me that in 1952 he was supposed to go and relieve one of the guys in what was called the mix house. He said he wanted to have something to eat first. He sat down and took a bite out of his sandwiche and the mixing house blew up. His job the next day was finding the remains of the blast victims. He recounted how he found a spinal column hanging in a tree. I can only guess how this affected him since his dad died in the same way. Even with such trauma he loved working there. New procedures were instituted also which made the process of making tnt safer for the workers. I recall the making of metal clads and also using explosives to produce industrial diamonds. When I drive up home to visit and go by the entry gate I often wonder how many times my dad went through that gate. Also I was always told the site was in part selected because it has many ravines which would help isolate a blast. Thanks again.
April 17, 2008 08:46 PM
Rainmaker
332,294
Eric Kodner
Wayzata Lakes Realty: Twin Cities, Madeline Island
Wayzata Lakes Realty: Eric Kodner Sells Twin Cities Homes

John, I'm honored to have you visit my blog and leave a comment!

The first time I heard about the "Barksdale secret", it was from a fellow in Ashland, Ron Beeksma, who worked at the plant as a young man.  Since then, I've met three or four area men who worked at Barksdale.  The stories they tell about the place are fascinating!  Is your father still alive?  If so, I'm sure he would have many stories of his own to tell.

It wasn't easy to do research on Barksdale for this post.  The Washburn Historical Society bookstore no longer carries a book I saw on the subject.  It is out of print now.  And there is little mention of Barksdale on the Web. 

Again, thank you for stopping by and commenting! 

April 18, 2008 12:22 AM
Anonymous #3
Anonymous
John Holman

My father died unexpectedly in 1997. He was quite a story teller and recounted many interesting tales of his work days at DuPont. He loved his work as a machinist and learned many new technologies over the years. I recall his excitement when learning about pneumatic logic control which was used with some scales, I believe. There was, understandably, a concern with electricity and potential sparks etc. Pneumatic control minimized this worry.

The plant was eventually dismantled with buildings being demolished, equipment burned, and much of the paper work and records also burned. I remember him telling me that the personnell record cards were burned. He felt they were such a valuable record of all the men who worked there over so many years and should be saved. He was ordered, however, to burn them. Aspects of the plant closure seemed somewhat strange and secretive at the time. My dad also returned to the plant site a number of times for "cleanup" of tnt contamination and other chemical issues. I recall, when the plant was operating, the plume of nitric acid vapors that would emanate from one plant stack. When we were out in our boat on the lake you could see this yellowish vapor extending all along the horizon. I would say to my dad that DuPont should clean that up along with the dye that went into the creek that flowed through the plant and into the lake. My dad and I would get into some vigorous "discussions" about this pollution. He felt it was not a serious problem. My perception was that questioning the way DuPont did business was not seen as being very wise. You do not bite the hand that feeds you. DuPont, however, has provided for my mother via my dad's pension and other benefits for many years. She is now 90 and still doing ok and lives at our home in Washburn. When I was in high school I assumed I would also be working at Barksdale. If your dad had seniority you could usually get a job or possibly start an apprenticeship, which is what he had done. During World War II he remained working at the plant. I believe he received a deferment due to the plants military importance. He was actually ready to leave for military service with his buddies and was disappointed not to ship out also. His best friend was killed during the invasion of Europe.

I think that Northland College may possibly have some information about the Barksdale plant. Northland was a thorn in DuPonts side due to their protests over the pollution issues. Some in town blamed the college for the plant closing, saying that DuPont did not want the bad publicity. This may have hastened the inevitable, but DuPont was mostly out of the explosives business by 1971. As I said in my earlier posting, I often think about the thousands of men who went through those gates, my dad and grandfather being only two. I wish there was a concise history of the Barksdale Works also. If I come upon any "mother lode" of information, I will let you know.

Thanks again,

John Holman

  

June 07, 2008 10:22 PM
Rainmaker
376,114
Eric Kodner
CRS, Madeline Island Realty, LaPointe, WI 54850 -
Madeline Island Realty

John, if you would contact me offline at my email address (you may click on the "Email me" link below my photo at the top-right corner of this page), I would love to carry the discussion about Barksdale history further.

Thank you!

Eric Kodner

 

June 12, 2008 03:42 PM
Anonymous #5
Anonymous
xs4

It is really a very nice and informative blog.I was searching on internet.

Thanks for posting such nice article.

Addiction Recovery Wisconsin

July 26, 2008 05:18 AM
Anonymous #6
Anonymous
Janet Booker

Dear Eric,

I am writing my autobiography and part of it includes that my parents moved as newlyweds to Barksdale in 1937 when my father was sent by the DuPont Company from DuPont, Washington, to Barksdale to work in the explosives plant.  My father had just graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chemical Engineering.  I was born in the Washburn hospital (which seems not to exist now) in 1939.  My father's memoirs state that he was the TNT supervisor at Barksdale during World War II and the shift supervisor before that.  In about 1946 he was transferred to DuPont's Seneca plant in Illinois.

Also what is most interesting in another article I found entitled "Northwest Wisconsin's Best-Kept Secret for Decades: The Barksdale Explosive Plant" is a comment that in the 1950's and into the 1960's the plant made efforts to "perfect the manufacture of clad or 'sandwich' coins.  The early sandwich coin blanks were created by using explosives to blast layers of metal together."  This fact completely concurs with information given to me at my parent's 50th wedding anniversary, when two of my father's co-workers in the higher echelons of the DuPont Company told me that my father was responsible for the modern day quarter coin.  I was surprised, but then my dad had never been one to tell about his work life.  During that period he was still with the Explosives Department but now at the Louviers office in Wilmington, Delaware.

As my parents died in the early 1990's, I was thrilled in trying to discover some of the history of Barksdale to find your website.  Hooray for the internet!!!

Thank you so much for the information you have posted.  Incidentally my father's name was Francis (Frank) Kenton.

Janet Kenton Booker

June 16, 2010 10:39 AM
Rainmaker
376,114
Eric Kodner
CRS, Madeline Island Realty, LaPointe, WI 54850 -
Madeline Island Realty

Janet,

Thank you for your comments!  I knew a couple of fellows who worked at Barksdale.  John (Jack) Wroblewski was a plumber and sanitary system expert on Madeline Island who passed away a couple years ago.  Jack used to tell me stories about the DuPont plant.  I knew another guy, Ron Beeksma (who also worked at NSP/Xcel Energy in Washburn until his retirement four years ago) who worked at Barksdale.  I believe he is still living in the area.  There are very few Barksdale veterans still around.  I'm glad to know you are writing about this fascinating piece of Chequamegon Bay history from the 1900s!

July 01, 2010 09:58 PM
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Rainmaker
376,114

Eric Kodner

CRS, Madeline Island Realty, LaPointe, WI 54850 -
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