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Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009 02:13 pm

County seeks landmark status for Illiopolis water tower

Structure part of WWII munitions plant

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the U.S. entered World War II, munitions plants — including the Sangamon Ordnance Plant near Illiopolis — began popping up all over the United States.

The central Illinois plant, located two-and-a-half miles southwest of Illiopolis, was built in 1942 and eventually became one of the leading munitions production facilities in the country. Sixty-seven years later, one of its key structures could soon join the list of local landmarks.

In early November, Jerry Jacobson, a member of the Sangamon County Historic Preservation Commission, recommended that the plant’s 135-foot tall water tower receive historic status. Jacobson, who joins other commission members in surveying townships for potential historic buildings and sites, chose the water tower because it’s the plant’s tallest and most visible remaining feature.

In the site’s landmark application, Jacobson notes that between April and September 1942, roughly 15,000 construction workers helped build two plants that later merged into the Sangamon Ordnance Plant. He says thousands of employees — most of them women, known as “WOWs,” or women ordnance workers — produced a wide range of munitions like high explosive and armor-piercing artillery ammunitions during the war years.

The water tower, an all-metal structure with a tank capacity of 100,000 gallons of water, was built by R.D. Cole Manufacturing Company from Newnan, Ga. It was part of the plant’s water and sewer system and sold after the war to the village of Illiopolis.

The Sangamon County Historic Preservation Commission formed at the end of 2004, and since then, chairman Chuck Pell says, commission members have been charged with promoting local history through buildings, structures and sites. The commission has so far designated three landmarks: the George Brunk homestead, the Lincoln-Van Buren Trail and the pool at the Inn of the Lamplighter.

In this case, Pell says, the commission isn’t recognizing the significance of the design of the water tower, but its significance as one of the most iconic features at the World War II munitions plant.

“It represents an exclamation point on the landscape of Illiopolis,” Pell says. “It represents this incredibly important munitions plant that has a significant place in our county’s history.”

Bob Winters, the mayor of Illiopolis, supports the commission’s decision to seek landmark status for the water tower at the Sangamon Ordnance Plant. The village already receives visits from people who once worked at the facility or lived in its staff housing as kids.

“I don’t know how people are going to stumble onto this,” Winters says, “but if it’s attached to the county or the state, it might bring people past the town.”

Commission members are still considering the draft application for the ordnance plant water tower. Abby Johnson, associate land use planner for the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, says that the final application should be submitted at the commission’s next meeting on Dec. 2.

If the commission approves the application, she says, it will most likely move on for approval by the Sangamon County Board in January.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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