Johnson County Museum volunteers help us tackle numerous projects, particularly the largest ones. Inventories of photograph collections have been among our most recent efforts. One such inventory project has documented the images present in a collection acquired by the museum in 2005. The Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant collection consists of over 55,000 negatives—images that record nearly fifty years of the ordnance plant’s operation. Located south of De Soto, the plant’s contribution to the war effort during World War II had a major impact on the area economy—particularly in housing, and transportation resources.
Common subjects among the collection are portraits of staff—individuals joining the staff or taking new positions, receiving awards, retiring from service, or transferring to another ordnance plant. Group portraits are also common found—they recognized departments or smaller groups within departments for safety milestones (years without a lost time accident, etc.). A few plant-wide occasions—changes of military commander, visits by high-ranking military officers, or honors awarded the staff—are also found among the images.
There is a technical side to understanding an overview of such a large collection. It was found that the negatives have three sizes—4” x 5”; medium format; and 35mm. The 4”x 5” format was the dominant negative size from 1943 until 1966 and accounts for 36.4% of the 55,000 negatives. Another 47% of the collection is of the 35mm size. Color negatives became common in 1974 and progressively a larger portion in the following years.
The 4” x 5” negatives account for the collection’s oldest images—some dating back to 1943. The World War II-vintage views are unusual in that unlike the post-1950 images—these were not meant for publication in the plant newspaper, The Sunflower Sentinel (later called The Sunflower Planet.) At the time the views were taken the plant paper did not print views of the sprawling facility. Views documented phases in production and there was great concern for secrecy and protection of these vital home front industries. It would not be until October 1945 that a special illustrated edition of the plant paper carried numerous views of plant operations. Victory over the Axis powers had relaxed security and brought to light images from the busiest years ever to be experienced at the plant.
Our recent Citizen Soldiers on the Prairie exhibit, on view at the Johnson County Museum from September 2, 2013 – August 23, 2014, provided an opportunity to review the massive collection of images and some of the best views were digitized. Some were reproduced in the exhibit while others provided clues to better understand the plant’s history. All help record an unusual industrial chapter in Johnson County.
Russ Czaplewski, Collection Manager