Growing Up on 66 in Illinois

The following was submitted by Lyle Howard, who was growing up in the Elwood-Wilmington area of Illinois in the years before, during, and after World War II.

The house bordering the Elwood Ordinance Works.

I am 71 years old. I was born on a farm near St. Ann, Ill., south of Kankakee in 1934. When very young we moved into Aroma Park a few miles away.

I'm guessing it was 1939 or 1940 we moved to one of three houses in the Elwood/Wilmington area. The first was a 13-room home on the southern edge of Elwood, bordering the Elwood Ordinance Works. The plant fence was not too far behind our home. The reason for our moving there was that my father got a job at the plant on the security force. He rode the fence on horseback as part of his duties. I have vivid memories of him riding into the yard at lunch time and allowing the horse to graze in the very large yard.

The author (in blanket due to rheumatic fever) and his cousins in the early 1940s.

At some point during our relatively short stay at this home, my aunt, uncle and their two boys drove down from Rhinelander, Wis., to visit for a few days. On one of those days my uncle, who loved his beer, got a little tipsy and decided to go rabbit hunting. Being adjacent to an ordinance plant, rules and regulations about firearms and hunting were very strict. You weren't to own them. You didn't hunt. My uncle got lucky and shot a rabbit. Someone heard the shooting and notified the plant authorities. It wasn't long before security personnel swarmed all around the area we lived, searching the area and searching homes in the area, of which there weren't many. This was pretty much a country setting. My family, knowing the trouble they could get into, told my uncle to keep his mouth shut, hid the shotgun behind the icebox on the enclosed back porch, and disposed of the rabbit somehow.

When interrogated, all the adults in the house lied about knowing anything about shots in the area, or if they might have come from anyone in our home. They never found the gun nor the rabbit. To this day I'm not certain what would have happened had they found either the gun or the rabbit. And, I'm not certain what role my dad may have played in the drama. I don't remember if he was working or was off that day, or if he was even there. He may have been riding off in the sunset along the fence line somewhere. A close call for the Howard family on that pre-war day.

Our next pre-war move had little or nothing to do with the ordinance plants, except that my dad still worked there. The home had an interesting history, however. The stone sided home was 104 years old when we moved there. It had to have been built around 1836 or so. Like the previous house it was illuminated by oil lamps, had no electricity, and outdoor facilities served our needs. It was located on a dirt road about a mile north of Wilmington. The interesting thing about this house was that local legend proclaimed that it was part of the underground system to transport slaves to freedom. More of the legend said that there was a tunnel built from the basement to the edge of the Kankakee River not too far distant. The opening at the river supposedly had long ago disappeared or was under water. However, in our basement was an outline on the wall that distinctly outlined a door or opening of some kind.

One day my older brother and sister, five and ten years my senior, decided they were going to crack open the entrance to see what was beyond. They went to work with picks, hammers and anything they thought might help. The problem was, they didn't get permission from my dad to undertake such an adventure. When he arrived home and discovered what they were doing, I believe it was a fresh cut switch from a tree that drove home the point not to pursue any further. One of his concerns was, if it was an opening to a tunnel, there could be water on the other side which could flood the house. So, we never did find out about the truth or untruth of the legend of the tunnel. I was back in the area a few years ago. I found the location of the house. The caved in remains were overgrown with trees and brush in the middle of a woods setting. That house probably sat about a mile west of 66.

The next move, and most interesting, placed us right on U.S. 66 again about a mile or so north of Wilmington. There were (are) four stucco houses on the west side of the highway. We lived in the most southern house. Across the road from us was the fence of the Kankakee Ordinance Works. This is where the TNT powder was manufactured and stored in underground bunkers. We could see bunkers from our front porch. Occasionally one of these bunkers would explode, for reasons unknown to me. If the explosion occurred some distance away, it was merely a loud noise to us. Attention getting, but not too concerning.

We were living here when the war started. I would have been seven years old. I remember the radio broadcasts, and the concern expressed by my family.

Shortly after, we had a house full of relatives from Wisconsin staying with us. The men, I believe, were looking for work in the plants, which I think paid pretty good. In the group was my Norwegian grandfather who was just with them, being too old to work anywhere. We had so many in the house I recall us kids sleeping on the floor. One night, after all had gone to bed. an explosion occurred right across the highway from us. I recall the concussion of that explosion lifting me off the floor and slamming me back down again. The loudness of the explosion along with the concussion caused absolute pandemonium in our house. My grandfather was roaming around in total confusion uttering things about being at war, etc. Our guests were totally frightened beyond belief. We who lived there knew what it was, but it was still quite unnerving. I'm guessing there were probably twelve to fourteen people in the house at the time.

My uncle of rabbit hunting fame got a job at one of the plants. His family stayed with us for quite some time. Eventually, the government brought in many small, drab, olive-colored mobile homes, and set them up in rows just on the outskirts of Wilmington. Our relatives moved to one of those for the duration of the war.

It's my understanding that the Elwood plant property was used for military training exercises. I distinctly remember sitting on our back porch one day seeing planes to the west of us with paratroopers jumping out. I assume they were jumping into the Elwood plant property.

There is a north-south railroad just behind the house on 66 with a trestle over a creek about a quarter of a mile away. I spent a lot of time on, around and under that trestle. One day I got the crazy idea that I could cause a train wreck and never get caught. I placed a railroad spike crossways on the track just knowing it would derail a train. Then I went home and sat on the back porch to wait. I could see the trestle. It wasn't long before a northbound freight came along. I can remember my heart thumping with fright over what I had done and of what was about to happen. I was immensely relieved when the train crossed the trestle and just kept going north. I had no idea that train wheels could easily knock something like that off the tracks. This has nothing to do with 66 or the plants. Just thought I would throw it in.

I used to play with my toys under a large tree in the front yard of that property. I had no idea then of the monumental importance that ribbon of concrete, just 50 or 60 feet away from me, would play in the history of our country. Even today, I keep an Illinois U.S. 66 highway sign on the door to my office.

~~

 

Lyle Howard moved to Bloomington, Illinois, following the War. A retired law-enforcement officer, today his main hobbies include barbershop quartet singing and telling anyone who'll listen how proud he is of his Route 66 connections. Lyle now resides in Oxford, Michigan.