The truly patriotic women are willing to work in the booster plants. Do not come for the money only. The compensation is not commensurate with the hazards.
So wrote Sadie Bowers, who left her home and family in Newberry, SC in 1918 to work at the WW1-era munitions plant in Penniman, Virginia. Her detail-filled letter was published in her hometown newspaper “The Herald and News.”
It was mostly women that worked on the shell-loading lines at Penniman. The work was considered so dangerous that these plants were called “The second-line trenches.”
Penniman was the only booster plant in America, and before Penniman went online, the boosters were inserted after the shells arrived in Europe.
In England, shell-loading plants, like Penniman, were called “Filling Factories,” and the section of the plant where boosters (or “gaines”) were inserted was called, “The Danger Zone.”
Sadie’s English contemporary was a woman named Mabel Lethbridge, who worked at the Hayes-Middlesex Munitions Factory (near London). Like Sadie, Mabel worked in a section of the plant where the shells were prepared to receive the boosters. Like Sadie, Mabel came from an upper-income family but felt compelled to do her part for the War Effort.
On October 23, 1917, 17-year-old Mabel was working in The Danger Zone when an explosion ripped through her building, killing several women*.
Mabel’s family was summoned with a simple message: “Mabel has been taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in a Dying Condition.”
Mabel survived, but lost her leg at the knee.
It was Mabel’s third day at the plant.
After Armistice (November 11, 1918), Sadie Bowers returned to her home on College Street in Newberry and in the 1940s, she took a job as Postmaster and was living with her mother. Sadie died in Newberry, the town where she was born and raised, in 1976.
As you’ll see below, Sadie Bowers was a first-rate writer, and according to the 1920 Census, Sadie had a four-year degree, and her father was a professor (Andrew Bowers). This well-educated woman, born into the upper echelons of society, left home and hearth to travel to Penniman, Virginia to “stuff one for the Kaiser.”
In the late 1930s, Sadie’s young niece (Martha Jane Gray Click) lived with her for a time. Many years later, Sadie’s positive influence was noted in the preface of Martha Jane’s book, “Through The Bible.”
Several weeks after I first read Sadie’s wonderful letter, it dawned on me that perhaps this woman had written more than just a single letter. Perhaps there were articles, personal narratives, unpublished manuscripts, or subsequent interviews.
I’d love to know more about Sadie and her life at Penniman.
I’ve contacted the college (two responses, but they’ve got nothing on Sadie), and the local library (no response yet) and even the Mayor of Newberry (who has been a wonderful help), but thus far, nothing has been found.
If you’ve got an insights or suggestions on finding more on Sadie, please contact me.
Thanks so much to Mark Hardin for finding this article on Sadie!
* Despite much effort, I’ve found precious little on the explosion at the Hayes-Middlesex Munitions Factory on October 17, 1917. According to Mabel Lethbridge’s autobiography (“Fortune Grass, 1934”), several women were killed in the explosion, but an exact number is not given.
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