Milton Friedman is said to have quipped, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” There’s plenty of empirical evidence for that statement, some of which is actually set in concrete, in the form of ruins on a parcel of land in the southeast corner of Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area.
If you drive in the Dakota County city of Rosemount, you’ll see abandoned smokestacks, portions of concrete walls, and other sights that make you wonder “What happened here?”
What happened was that in World War II, the U.S. government seized 11,000 acres of prime farmland for use in the war effort, and the land hasn’t been the same since.
The American military was short on ammunition, and Gov. Harold Stassen, elected in 1938, believed the state of Minnesota was being shortchanged in the distribution of military spending that was going on as the nation prepared for war. Stassen sent a lobbyist to Washington, and soon the needs of both Stassen the War Department converged, first in a factory in New Brighton on the metro area’s north side, and then in Rosemount and Empire Township, on the southeast side. Some 20,000 workers were on the Rosemount site by September 1943, transforming it a factory complete with 800 buildings and structures, 60 miles of roads, 75 miles of railroad tracks, and a perimeter fence. In the process, roughly 80 families lost their homes and farms. (For several years, they squabbled with the government over the value of the land that was taken from them.)
The factory, which was designed to produce “smokeless powder,” spent more time in development than as a working facility. Its 9-month production run ended in October, 1945.
After the war, Congress passed a law for disposing of excess war property. State governments were at the top of the list in claimants, and in time John Akerman, a professor of aeronautical engineering, was a key reason why the University of Minnesota acquired the land. Akerman wanted to use the factory’s air compressors in his research; in particular, he wanted to build a wind tunnel.
So the university submitted its plans to the federal government, and ended up purchasing the land for $1. In the years that followed, the university used the land for both aeronautical and agricultural research. It also used portions of the land for research into polio and cancer, and leased some land to the U.S. Navy, which developed the forerunner of today’s GPS technologies, as a way of communicating with submarines. People have suggested a lot of other uses for the property–an academy for the U.S. Air Force, a new airport for the Twin Cities, a wastewater-treatment facility, and even an historical theme park. (The latter suggestion included the idea of selling fast food meals in the shadows of the factory stacks.)
The latest major change in thinking for the site came from a University of Minnesota committee that issued a report in 2000 that called for a “research village,” a research institute, and a planned community housing 20,000 to 30,000 people. The “UMore” property, as it is now called, has been troubled by concerns over toxic waste, urban sprawl, and other items. Given the collapse of the real estate market, what will happen to the residential side of the plans? Will the planned community, assuming it gets developed sometime, live up to its promises?
Some of the original parcel has been put to productive use, such as housing Dakota County Technical College and cross-country ski trails. When the university wanted to build a new football stadium, it sold some 2,800 acres (now dubbed Vermillion Highlands) to the State of Minnesota, which now jointly manages the land with the university.
Even though the wartime factory–Gopher Ordnance Works–has been out of business for 65 years, you can still see its ruins, which include concrete stacks, portions of buildings, and other remnants of industrial activity. Check out, for example, a Flicker collection from Bill Roehl, from whose archive I pulled the two photos that start this essay. See also this Flickr collection (lots of shots of trees growing in and around concrete), another Flicker collection (heavy on the smokestacks) and a write-up of a (probably illegal) expedition into some of the ruins, posted at Action Squad. If you look at this Mapquest map and use the aerial view, you might be able to see the “t-walls” (remnants of the “solvent houses”), standing as mute chess pieces. In addition, Dakota County has created a map of the lands as they may have looked during the war; you’ll need a Windows Media Player.
The University of Minnesota has grand plans for UMore. It envisions a “new, sustainable community [that] integrates environmental, socio-cultural and economic opportunities with a specific focus on innovations in renewable energy, education and lifelong learning, health and wellness, the natural environment and regional economic development.” [Statement from the front page, copied on 6 July 2010]
If that all sounds rather vague and new age-y, the U has some rather nineteenth-century plans as well: It wants to build an asphalt plant, a concrete plant, and a gravel mining business on more than 1,700 acres, which should make UMore a cash cow. The university expects to extract 120 million tons of sand and gravel over a 40-year period. Other gravel operations are already in place a few miles to the west.
You can find lots of information on UMore and the Gopher Ordnance Works. I got intrigued by it first by driving by and then by reading at Roehl’s website, Lazy Lighting, which focuses on south-Metro happenings. Among the links of interest from his site:
- Gopher ordnance plant, 8/26/06 (short introduction with many of the links I’ve included above; 50+ comments)
- UMore Lands Still Contaminated After EPA Report Says Otherwise, 3/10/08
- UMore Utopia? 6/15/08
- UMN’s Public Forum on UMore Development, o6/23/08
- UMN VP of Resource Development Loves UMore, 5/11/09
- UMore 2030 Vision: What Do You Notice?, 11/28/09
- Larry Laukka to Lead UMore Lands Development, 3/2/10
The official university website has lots of information, as you’d expect. This timeline from the university is a good place to start. If you’d like more details, there’s an official history (100+ page PDF) that goes back to the first European explorers (and even earlier).
The Gopher Ordance Works, a wartime project, is one more example of how a government action can have long-lasting effects. World War II, in fact, may have done more to shape our lives over the long run than any other government project. For example, during the war, the U.S. government instituted income tax withholding, which has contributed to the expansion of the size and scope of government.
In addition, much of what is wrong with health care financing finds its root in the fact that employers, but not workers, can get a tax break for buying health insurance. That particular practice arose as a business reaction to wage and price controls.
You know, maybe a theme park isn’t such a bad idea after all.
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