The Powder Plant

This massive, 7354-acre plant produced propellant for 3 wars, and was maintained in readiness between each, playing an important role in national defense and forever changing the regional economy and culture.

The Badger Army Ammunition Plant began life as the Badger Ordnance Works in October 1941. The name changed in 1961, the mission did not. Badger Ordnance was built as part of a billion-dollar rearmament program to prepare the United States for entry into World War II. It remained part of the military-industrial establishment that waged wars hot and cold against Soviet communism in the half-century after 1945. Popularly known as “the powder plant,” Badger produced nitrocellulose propellant that was more likely to take the shape of a cylinder than a granular powder. Propellant is the explosive that ignites inside the barrel of an artillery piece, machine gun or rifle to propel the warhead or bullet to its target. Badger also produced propellant for rockets fired from warplanes, helicopters and ground-based launchers. Badger propellant was shipped to other plants for final assembly into finished ammunition. Test rounds excepted, no finished ammunition was made at Badger. Sauk Prairie was selected as the site of an ordnance works because it met the Army’s specific requirements for location, transportation, water, soil and electric power. Badger was located at a rural site in the center of the country, hundreds of miles away from national borders and the oceans. Similar facilities were located in nearly every heartland state from Minnesota to Louisiana. They were known as “go-cos”—government owned and contractor operated. The Army owned the facility. Hercules Powder was the contractor in World War II, followed by the Olin Corporation and its corporate predecessors in the Korean and Southeast Asian periods of operation. 

A few miles away from two rail lines, Sauk Prairie met the Army’s transportation requirement. Water in abundance was present in the Wisconsin River and underground. The Prairie du Sac hydroelectric station was nearby and the prairie soil was as suited for building as it was for farming. Badger differed from other “powder plants” because it was not located in reasonable proximity to a large population center. Worker shortages plagued operations during World War II.

The first construction blitz began in March 1942. Workers from every building trade came to the site. At its peak in the summer of 1942 the work force peaked at 11,000. After 900 construction “units” were completed, the Badger chemical works began operation in January 1943. Propellant production began in May. A smaller construction blitz started in 1944 to build the rocket propellant plant and was completed just as the war in Europe was ending in May 1945.

In order to house workers recruited from out of the area, the Army constructed Badger Village across the highway from the plant. It was intended to provide temporary housing for several thousand workers but was never fully occupied during World War II. Worker recruitment drives were national except for the southern states with their large populations of African-Americans. In this era of overt racism, Black workers and their families would not be allowed to share Badger Village with Whites and were not offered jobs at the plant. Black Caribbean workers who were already employed in canning factories in the U.S. were recruited and housed in the Civilian Conservation Corps barracks at nearby Devils Lake.

To enable workers who lived within commuting range, an extensive regional bus system was established. It brought many of the roughly 6,000 plus people needed to produce propellant. Women workers were vital to operations and by the end of World War II they made up not quite one-half of those employed. The pay scale at Badger was higher than that of any other employer in the area. It was a giant stimulus package for blue collar workers especially and for the entire regional economy from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Badger was reactivated for the Korean War in 1951. Conditions were less urgent than during World War II but Badger manufactured almost as much propellant for Korea as it did for the big war. Near the end of the Korean operation, a new propellant plant was built. It produced granular “ball powder” for use in machine guns and rifles.

Badger made its greatest contribution to combat in war during the American intervention in Southeast Asia. Production of propellant for artillery, for rockets fired by helicopter gunships, and for the Army’s new automatic M-16 assault rifle surpassed that of the World War II or Korean operations. Badger is often first thought of as a World War II operation, but it was the plant’s nine years of operation during the Vietnam War that it made its greatest impact. After the United States halted combat in Southeast Asia, Badger continued to play a role in the Cold War strategy of deterrence. While the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation was the basis of deterrence, non-nuclear arms were part of the equation. Badger was prepared to supply those arms. Not until the Soviet empire disintegrated was Badger deemed expendable. The powder plant on the prairie was decommissioned as part of the post-Cold War “peace dividend” in 1997. For more on Badger’s production years, see the BHG museum and archives with its extensive collection of photographs and digitized interviews with former workers, the book Powder, People and Place, and the video Powder to the People. The Explore the Badger Lands app features photographs of former structures at many production sites around Badger.