Posts Tagged ‘penniman shell loading’

Was This School for African-Americans Ever Built in Pottstown?

February 10th, 2016 Sears Homes 2 comments

Update! Mystery solved! Click here to read the latest.

“Mr. W. L. Jones, chairman of the Williamsburg school board, said that he…purchased the bricks…[from the demolished Penniman smokestack] to build a public school building [in Pottstown] for the colored children” (Newport News Daily Press, December 22, 1922).

On December 19, 1922, the 250-foot tall smokestack at the Penniman powerhouse was taken down with 35 sticks of dynamite. According to the Daily Press, the powerhouse at the DuPont munitions plant cost more than $3 million to build. The smokestack sat on a solid concrete base that was 30 feet square, and 20 feet in diameter at its base. A DuPont employee told the Daily Press that the smokestack had more than 150,000 bricks.

As historian R. Wythe Davis quipped, “Penniman was not erased, it was dispersed” - right down to the bricks in the smokestack.

Before the smokestack was blown, W. L. Jones had agreed to purchase all the bricks within the stack. Pretty bold, considering that he really didn’t know how this would end.

Now I’m wondering, was this school ever built? Despite some searching, I can’t even find a Pottstown (outside of Pennsylvania) and it seems unlikely that a school board official from Williamsburg would buy 150,000 slightly used bricks to ship to Pennsylvania.

The day that the smokestack was blown to smithereens, the Daily Press reported that the bricks were bought by “Mr. Jones for the city school board to be used in the erection of a colored school building in Pottstown” (December 20, 1922).

I’m wondering, was Pottstown a community near Williamsburg? If so, it wasn’t mentioned in period newspapers (that I can find). Where was Pottstown? Surely these bricks weren’t shipped to Pennsylvania.  And was this school ever built? If it was built within Williamsburg, did it survive the restoration in the early 1930s?

Another mystery.


Penniman about 1918.

A panoramic view of Penniman - in 1918. The York River is in the background, and that's Kings Creek to the hard right. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


These photos

These old black and white photos show phenomenal detail. This is the base of the smokestack, which measured 20 feet in diameter. The concrete base was 30 feet square. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


I cant even imagine how long it would take to load 150,000 used bricks into a 1920s truck.

I can't even imagine how long it would take to load 150,000 used bricks into a 1920s truck.


Two days later, this article appeared, providing addition detail.

This appeared on December 22, 1922 in the Newport News "Daily Press."


To read more about Penniman’s dispersal, click here.


This One’s Asking For Advice on Old Cook Stoves…

March 13th, 2015 Sears Homes 2 comments

A delightful anecdote from 1921 tells us that, when the Penniman houses were shipped to Norfolk, some of the workers went into one of the houses - as it made the slow 36-mile trek across the water - and made a full breakfast, using the oil cook stove in the kitchen.

That’s the kind of story that really makes history come alive.

The article, which appeared in the Peninsula Enterprise says,

Several workmen crossed the bay on the first barge that brought the houses. They had an oil stove in one of the houses. They got hungry and cooked some bacon and eggs and heated some coffee. They enjoyed a meal cooked in one of the houses while it was being towed to Norfolk (December 24, 1921).

More than being an interesting tidbit, it also illuminates this detail: Every kitchen in every Penniman house, built by a three-party contract between DuPont, Hancock-Pettyjohn and the US Government, came with an oil-fired cook stove.

Including an appliance in each house would have substantially increased the per-unit cost. Which is probably one reason why they did this. The houses were built on a popular-WW1 program known as “The Cost Plus Plan.”

When America entered WW1, we were in such a mad rush to get these munition plants up and running that there wasn’t time to seek bids and wait for bids and open bids and investigate potential contractors, so DuPont was charged with finding a trust-worthy contractor and the government agreed to pay all expenses of construction plus 8-1/2%. The downside of the Cost-Plus Plan is that the more money the house cost, the more money the contractor pocketed. Put another way, it took away incentives for the contractor to be efficient.

But I think there was more to this than just padding the price of a house.

This was a munitions plant where there were lots of opportunities for lots of things to go boom.

And when this contract for 200 houses was signed on December 31, 1917, the realities of the danger of TNT would be very fresh in everyone’s mind.

Three weeks earlier, December 6, 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French freighter, had just left Halifax heading for Bordeaux, France, where it would deliver 5,000,000 pounds of war-time explosives. It was about 8:45 am when the Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship, the Imo. Despite the slow speed (about 2 knots), there was a resulting fire on the Mont Blanc. Sailors tried desperately to extinguish the growing fire, but eventually abandoned ship. About 20 minutes later, the drifting vessel returned to the wharf, and moments later, there was an explosion on the Mont Blanc.

According to the book, Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, the resulting blast shattered windows 60 miles away, and more than 1,000 people lost their sight due to flying glass. A tsunami eliminated a nearby community.

All in all, more than 1,900 people died. During WW2, scientists working on the Manhattan Project studied Halifax because the magnitude of the explosion emulated an atomic bomb in so many ways.

Not that anyone at DuPont would have needed any such reminders. The engineers and architects employed by the company would have been well aware of the grave risks of a single errant spark.

Which also explains why each house had steam radiant heat, supplied by a central heating system. No risk of sparks from an independent residential coal-fired heating system.

Which also explains why each house did not have a coal-fired or wood-burning cook stove: The risk of embers and fire would have been too great.

Which leads me to my question: It appears that - maybe - these late 1910s oil (kerosene) cook stoves didn’t require a chimney or any venting. As my friend Milton said, they appear to be similar to kerosene space heaters (which were hugely popular in the 1980s). There’s a reservoir of kerosene, fed by gravity to a burner with a large wick. The unit produces small amounts of carbon monoxide, but not enough to cause CO poisoning.

If that’s true, why did every house in Penniman have a brick chimney?

Heat was supplied by a central heating plant. And I suspect (although I’m not sure) that the oil-fired cook stoves didn’t require venting.

Was it more evidence of the inefficiencies of the “Cost-Plus Plan”? Every house gets a chimney, whether or not it needs it? Or did the oil cook-stove need venting?

Thanks for any insights.

To read more about Penniman, click here.


Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.


These blue cylinders were called Chimneys but they were

These blue cylinders were called "Chimneys" but they were the burner mechanism for the stove.



Lighting these puppies didn't look simple.



That does look pretty hot.


This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldnt have been easy. Electric stoves didnt really catch on until the late 1920s.

This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldn't have been easy. Electric stoves didn't get a foothold in the household appliance market until the 1930s.



The last line is the best. Wow.


Bacon. Its whats for breakfast. In a barge house.

Bacon. It's what's for breakfast. In a barge house. Virginia Pilot, December 1921.


A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960.

A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960. All of these homes had chimneys, accessible from an interior kitchen wall. The question is - why?


Read more about Penniman here.

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Sadie Bowers of Newberry, SC - Please Tell Me More?

June 24th, 2014 Sears Homes 1 comment

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.

Full text of article

Full text of article that appeared on October 11, 1918 in the Newberry "Herald and News."



This is one of the shells that the women were loading at Penniman and Hayes. The image is from "America's Munitions: 1917-1918" by Benedict Crowell. It was printed by the Government Printing Office in 1919.



Picture of Sadie E. Bowers from the 1940s (from


To learn more about Penniman, click here.

To read about Sears Homes, click here.

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William & Mary and Penniman, Virginia

November 16th, 2013 Sears Homes 4 comments

After the War to End All Wars ended (November 1918), the whole world changed.

The bloom of Virginia’s youth had gone to Europe to fight in The Great War. Between mustard gas and powerful munitions, many suffered crippling injuries and many never made it back home at all. Most of the young men who saw battle were never the same again.

Returning vets got hit with two obstacles to home ownership: During the war, resources had been diverted to the front, and housing analysts estimated that 1-2 million housing units were needed immediately for the returning soldiers. Secondly, after the war, the cost of building materials soared, with prices doubling and tripling in the months following.

These were challenging times for many colleges, and William and Mary was no exception.

Due to a growing enrollment, the college needed more space for dorms, classrooms and dining areas. Perhaps someone at the college pointed out that with the closing of Penniman, there would be many buildings available for sale - cheap.

According to the Board of Visitors’ minutes from June 8, 1920, William and Mary’s Committee on Student Accommodations paid $985 for their first two “temporary” Penniman buildings, with $3,000 set aside for their re-building.

In reading the minutes I was interested to learn that the college did not merely “move” these structures. They disassembled them, and then hauled the building materials to the campus and re-assembled them, board by board. Kind of like building a pre-cut Sears kit home, but without a 75-page instruction book or numbered lumber.

On October 4, 1920, the BOV minutes stated that the, “President of the College was authorized to dismantle and bring the buildings recently purchased from the government at Penniman to the College and rebuild them here at an approximate cost of $5,000.”

I hope President Chandler was handy with his hands.

On January 8, 1921, The Flat Hat (student newspaper) reported that the “Hotel at Penniman has been bought and will be moved on the campus in the near future,” with construction beginning in mid-January.

Judging by the description, this was a large building.

One “wing” of the new building was for the Biology Department (five large laboratories and a lecture room). Another wing would be used as a dining hall (with seating capacity of 150 students) and another wing would serve as a dorm, with space for 50 students.

In June 1923, the BOV minutes reported that there was a great need for additional class room space. Mr. Bridges and Colonel Lane were instructed to run out to Penniman and “make some purchases at Penniman on the 13th of June, so that the temporary buildings may be constructed cheaply.”

Reading these minutes, you get the impression that they were running out to Penniman like we run up to the Home Depot.

It was recommended that the new building be placed behind the existing Citizenship Building “even though it may look bad to connect cheaply with the steam pipes” (that’s my favorite part).

William and Mary thought much more highly of these “temporary buildings” after they were erected on the hallowed grounds of the campus. In a document titled, “Valuation of College Land and Building,” they estimated that the value of two of their Penniman buildings (presumably the two with an estimated $5,000 outlay), to be $45,000 (June 1923).

Wow! At that kind of appreciation, they should have bought everything Penniman had to offer!

In June 1925, a fire destroyed the “Penniman Building”  (the one used as a dining hall/biology building). In 1926, the college was given a $60,000 grant (by the Virginia General Assembly) to put up some prettier buildings that did not look bad or connect cheaply with the steam pipes.

To learn more about Penniman, click  here.

To read about another interesting facet of Penniman’s history, click here.

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house with iron

According to the caption that appeared with this photo in "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia" (1924), the original tar-paper siding on this lovely building was replaced with "galvanized iron." Frankly, I think that's got to be a misstatement. Perhaps they intended to say galvanized metal. You have to wonder if the W&M folks went to Penniman and said, "Could you please sell us the ugliest structure you have on this 6,000 acre site?" Now *that* would be a believable story. And who decided to ramp up The Ugly by covering this building with metal? Did W&M have an abundance of students that liked to practice archery with flaming arrows? (Photo is from "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," William & Mary Endowment Association, 1924, with special thanks to Terry Meyers and Kris Preacher for providing a digital version of this wonderful old photo.)


house longer

Here are the Twin Uglies in their native habitat at Penniman, Virginia (1918). The vertical line is from the stitching of the two photographic images into one glorious whole. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Longer view

Longer view showing The Twin Uglies at Penniman, with the York River in the background. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)



Also shown in "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," is this building. The book states that it was moved to the college campus about 1924, which isn't right, unless you put a lot of weight on that word "about." "The College of William and Mary, A History, Volume II" states that these buildings were built at Penniman in 1914. That's also a little boo boo. (Photo is from "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," William & Mary Endowment Association, 1924, with special thanks to Terry Meyers and Kris Preacher for providing a digital version of this wonderful old photo.)


house house house

Construction on Penniman began in April 1916. Within Penniman, this was known as a "boarding house," (admittedly, a much gentler term than "barracks," the word that was used to describe these buildings in W&M literature). As built, the structure might have had as many bedrooms as there are windows (40+), with 4-8 bathrooms and a long central hallway. No need for a kitchen because there was a mess hall in another part of the village. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house house house

As you can see from this 1918 photo, W&M had many buildings from which to choose. At its peak, Penniman had 15,000 people within its borders. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Penniman Hotel

As to the 1921 acquisition, there's only one building at Penniman that resembles a hotel, and that's this long structure shown above. When "The Flat Hat" stated that W&M had purchased the "hotel at Penniman," surely they didn't mean those crummy boarding houses or one of the Twin Uglies. If so, I hope that the student that wrote that piece had a chance to travel around a bit after he graduated. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


hotel hotel hotel

A more expansive view of The Penniman Hotel. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


barge Dec 1921

Here in Norfolk, our 50+ Penniman houses arrived whole and intact (and by barge!). Thanks to Robert Hitchings for finding this wonderful photo in the December 1921 Virginia Pilot.


house house

By May of 1921, The Garden City Wrecking Company (a 1920s term for architectural salvage) was inviting the general public to come pick at the bones of Penniman. Pretty depressing, really, and yet also shows how prior generations took recycling very seriously. The same colleges that rant and rave about saving every scrap of paper don't hesitate to tear down old houses, thus sending 300,000 pounds of irreplaceable building materials to the landfill. I now have first-hand evidence of three colleges tearing down three rare kit homes in the last 10 years. This advertisement appeared in the May 1921 Virginia Gazette.


After the war, building material costs soared.

After the war, returning vets wanted homes of their own, but the cost of building materials had soared. Plus, housing analysts estimated that 1-2 million housing units were needed immediately. It was the high cost of lumber that probably inspired W&M to turn to Penniman for their building needs. (This photo came from Stereoscope cards that I found at a friend's house. The images are quite clear, given their age and original purpose.)


To read more about Penniman, click here.

To read about Penniman’s forgotten flu victims, click here.

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