BARABOO – The nondescript windowless structure appears to be almost forgotten.
The 5,000-square-foot building surrounded by a 7-foot-high barbed-wire fence along Highway 12 is one of the few remaining structures still standing on the vast property here that for decades was home to the Badger Army Ammunition Plant.
But Building 207 is far from empty or without purpose. That’s why efforts are underway to bring it up to code, make it handicap accessible and more visible. The featureless one-story building was constructed in the early 1970s to house classified telecommunication and computer systems, but since 2010 it has been home to the Museum of Badger Army Ammunition.
The artifacts include modified tools like a pitch fork with bronze-capped tines to prevent sparking. The badge worn by Lt. Harold Norris, a security guard at the facility from 1942 to 1949, is on display along with dozens of photos, examples of propellant, and massive maps of the 15-square-mile property on the Baraboo Range.
“It’s really one of the most significant historical sites in Wisconsin, but it’s relatively recent,” said Michael Goc, vice president of the Badger History Group, formed in 1998 to collect and tout the history of the plant. “It’s not like a fur trading post, but in terms of 20th-century history, this place is the most important site in Wisconsin.”
The property, situated between Highway 12 and the Wisconsin River and at the base of the Baraboo Hills, has a storied history.
The land was inhabited by the Ho-Chunk Nation and later was a destination for white settlers who came to the area to farm. But in the early 1940s, about 100 land owners, most of them farmers and their families, were removed from the Sauk Prairie to make way for what would become the world’s largest ammunition plant. The facility, initially called Badger Ordnance Works, made propellant and employed thousands of people, many of whom lived on the west side of Highway 12 in Badgerville, today known as Bluffview.
The plant operated through World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Production ceased in 1975 and the deconstruction of its 1,400 structures started in 2004. The results of that project, most visible when driving south on Highway 12, is the return of a vast prairie that includes a network of roads, ponds, oak savannas and overlooks.
But the museum has been temporarily closed. The state Department of Natural Resources took control of the building and 3,800 acres of the property earlier this year and has dubbed its portion the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. The transfer in ownership to the state requires the building to be up to code, which is why the Badger History Group has launched a campaign to raise $35,000. The project, which could include additional funding from the DNR, would update bathrooms and improve entrances.
The DNR is creating a master plan for its portion of the property. The Ho-Chunk Nation will have control of 1,600 acres while the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dairy Forage Research Center oversees 2,100 acres. The museum building could make for an ideal visitor center and a way to raise the awareness of the property’s history.
Verlyn Mueller, a former Badger Army employee and the driving force behind the museum, said the hope is to have the museum back open with the improvements completed by next fall. Mueller, who worked at the plant from 1966 to 1976 and from 1978 to 1981, also wants the project to be a starting point for something larger that would allow more of the museum’s collection to be displayed and in a more modern way.
“I’m formulating ideas,” said Mueller, 76, of Prairie du Sac. “The people at the DNR support what we’re doing. They like what we’re doing, and they say they want us here. It’s up to us to raise the money.”
Unlike museums that showcase Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee and Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac, the Badger Army museum is run entirely by volunteers and funded by donations.
The Badger Army museum got its start in the Tripp Heritage Museum in Prairie du Sac in 1999 before moving to the plant property and into space in the old administration building in 2001. In 2010, just before the building was demolished, the museum moved into its current quarters.
This is where the museum’s exhibit hall shows off historical photos, maps and the types of bullets (made elsewhere) that received the propellant made on the property. There are display cases of tools and one exhibit about the property’s reservoirs, one of which is populated with thousands of salamanders.
Another exhibit shows off the artwork of Mary Catherine Spears, who worked at the plant during the Vietnam War. In her downtime, Spears drew on the interior walls of a powder production facility. When she worked in the rocket press area of the plant, Spears drew on discarded cardboard tags a little larger than a playing card.
“I’ve done a lot of books on a lot of Wisconsin subjects but this one is one that stayed with me,” said Goc, an author of history who lives in Adams County and wrote a book on the plant in 2002 titled “Powder, People & Place.” “This story is so significant, so compelling.”
Ultimately, Mueller and Goc say they would like to see a larger museum facility constructed on the property that would include more digital displays, interactive maps and video stories. That’s because items in the museum’s exhibit hall are only the “tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” as Mueller likes to say.
The building has two room-size steel vaults and three offices that serve as an archive for more than 30,000 images, boxes of 35 millimeter negatives, maps, blueprints, newsletters and anything else associated with the property. One of the vaults is home to framed photographs from a 1999 project in which nine professional photographers roamed the property with no specific direction. It resulted in 70 framed photographs, but only one of which is on display.
“I’d like to have all of them on display,” Mueller said. “I have ideas, but I just don’t have the money or the space.”