Wednesday, April 8, 2020

WWII Land Seizure

This is about WWII land seizure in Maynard, MA. This site on federal eminent domain mentions 20 million acres seized nationwide during WWII:

A bit more than one-fifth of Maynard was seized by the Federal Government via eminent domain in the spring of 1942. Residents were given as little as ten days to vacate their houses and farms. The land – 3,100 acres in Maynard, Sudbury, Hudson and Stow (800 in Maynard) – was taken to create a munitions storage and transfer site. Years after the war, the land was turned over to the “Natick Army Labs” for product field testing, then to the Army’s Fort Devens for training exercises. All this became an Environmental Protection Agency “Superfund” cleanup site before its transformation into a national wildlife refuge.

Children at a scrap metal pile, part of the WWII effort in
Maynard, MA. Site is currently AVIS rent-a-car.
Working backwards in time, the visitor center at Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge opened October 2010, which was five years after the 2,230-acre Refuge was opened to the public. There was a five-year preparation period before that, starting when the site was turned over to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2000. The refuge's specific objectives include the conservation and management of migratory bird species; the restoration of wetland, grassland and forest habitats; and natural resource related education. Public use of the refuge includes wildlife observation, photography, environmental education, hunting, and fishing.

Prior to the release of land from military control it was most recently the Fort Devens-Sudbury Training Annex (1982-2000), before that the United States Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (1958-82), and before that, first the Maynard Ordnance Supply Depot and then the Maynard Ordnance Test Station (1942-58). Fort Devens was involved in 1990 when this was categorized as a “Superfund” cleanup site because of contamination with volatile organic compounds, arsenic, pesticides and other chemicals. Arsenic compounds had been used as herbicides to keep the railroad tracks clear of weeds during the time of munitions storage. Extensive EPA-supervised Army clean-up efforts included removing over 15,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, removing hundreds of buried 55-gallon metal containers filled with chemical waste, covering a two-acre landfill with a water impermeable cap, and monitoring ground water. Afterwards, as the land and waterways were still too contaminated to allow residential or commercial development, a decision was made to create a wildlife refuge.

Natick Army Labs contributed to the contamination problem during its tenure. Its function is the research and development of food, clothing (including flame-retardant clothing tests), shelters, airdrop systems, and other servicemember support items for the U.S. military. Laboratory waste was buried in a landfill pit.

The initial taking of land in 1942 had been for the creation of a munitions transfer site. Railroad tracks were created from the west, leading to the doors of 50 widely spaced bunkers. Each of the bunkers, officially referred to as “igloos,” has inside dimensions of 81x26x12 feet. Sides and roofs were mounded with dirt for extra protection and disguise. Convoys of trucks would convey munitions to the harbor for ships heading to Europe. Today, from all but the door end, these bunkers resemble small hills, complete with a forest of trees growing on top. After the war, transfer activity stopped, but the Army chose to use the site for munitions testing rather than return land to former owners as had been verbally promised.

Click on images to enlarge
As to those owners, it was March 1942 when surveyors showed up and started the process of expropriating land held by more than 100 land owners, mostly farmland, some of the homesteads dating back to the early 1700s. A Boston Globe newspaper reporter came out and interviewed several of the families. Quotes such as “It’s the least we can do.” and “It’s a small part to play in helping to win the war.” were attributed to displaced homeowners. The reality, gleaned from post-war interviews with some of the same families, was that they were in shock, told they had to get off their land without even knowing how much they might get paid. Their abandoned houses and barns were not used, either immediately demolished or left to decay, torn down later.

When our government takes land through eminent domain, “…it has a constitutional responsibility to justly compensate the property owner for the fair market value of the property.” There were claims that the evicted peoples received ten cents on the dollar for property value. There is no documentation for this. True that people were forced to hurriedly sell or auction furniture, farm equipment and farm animals, much at below true worth, but payments for land may have been closer to market value. One example cited as documenting the unfairness was the Suikko family being paid $5,700 for the 46-acre farm that had purchased 23 years earlier for $6,500. However, this time interval was one of deflation rather than inflation, so the land may have truly been valued at less than when it had been purchased. Payment, even if fair or close to fair, did not mitigate the pain of being forced off one’s land on short notice and without recourse, nor any subsequent opportunity to return after the war. 

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