In 1938 residents in southeastern Indiana continually saw strangers driving around and around the country roads. The people wondered. Little did they know how their lives would soon be forever changed, their farms, homes, schools, cemeteries and churches moved. In December 1940 an announcement was made at the Madison County Courthouse that residents had 30 days to leave there homes and farms. Some of the land had been in their families for four generations. No cries of protest were heard. Some of the families moved to Decatur County.

Not many years ago I often drove down Highway 421 to Hanover and always noticed the Jefferson Proving Ground on the right. It looked like an interesting area to explore. The "Keep Out" signs bolted to the ever-so-sturdy chain link fence looked seriously compelling and curbed any hope of satisfying my curiosity. I later learned that the area had been an ammunition testing ground during World War II – which shows how little I knew about the Jefferson Proving Ground, something so utterly vital to our country. An ammunition testing ground during World War II doesn’t even begin to cover the splendid history of the area and of the patriotic people who once lived there.

This won’t be a complete history of the Jefferson Proving Ground. That would take months of columns. In these next columns I will relate what I learned when visiting the site twice last year and about some of the people who shared their memories while there. Books have been written about the families that once lived there and of the Proving Ground and the people who worked there. Information can also be found on the Internet too.

Carl and Millie Busch allowed me to accompany them to the Fourth Annual Jefferson Proving Ground Partnership Seminar. The partnership membership is primarily made up of those who worked on the Proving Ground and family members, or descendants, that were removed from their farms and homes and businesses more than half a century ago to make way for the Proving Ground.

The partnership was formed so the stories could be told for those living now and for those generations that will have no idea of what happened there. They will have an opportunity to know what more than 2,000 residents in the area, and the people who worked at the Proving Ground, did for their country. It is the vision of the partnership to maintain a museum on the Internet that will house the personal histories of people whose land was on what would become the Proving Ground and those who worked at the Proving Ground. They are preserving documents and artifacts that can be obtained, and photographs that show the land before and after. It’s an ambitious project but they are well on their way. They have monthly meetings that rotate between Madison, Versailles and North Vernon. They have a website titled JPG Partnership. The partnership is at this time sponsored by the Historic Hoosier Hills providing assistance and support although the control remains with the partnership members.

The Proving Ground is in Jefferson, Jennings and Ripley counties. The area where the seminar was held was in Ripley County at the private lodge built by Cincinnati businessman Alexander Thompson for special occasions. Its name is Old Timbers and completed in 1932 for $75,000. The 9,892 square foot lodge was built on the 2,500 acres Thompson had purchased in Shelby Township. Beams and lumber taken from several old barns on the property were used in building the lodge. The 14-foot thick walls were made from stone quarried not more than 100-feet from the home site. The wide walks were made from creek stone from the Big-Graham Creek that runs next to the lodge. The great-room, where the meeting was held, measures 68x36 feet and has a balcony around it with the bedrooms upstairs. The floors are said to have been donated to the family by the Johnson and Johnson Co. so they could test their paste wax on them. In spite of all that, the two most magnificent things to me were the wrought iron hardware that’s on all the windows and doors. Lots of hinges and such. And no two are alike because they were made by hand by students at Berea College, Ky. Something else I’ll never forget is the stone spiral staircases that were cut by August Rahe. He was paid 75 cents per hour. That was during the depression so he was probably glad to get it. The work was fascinating. I can’t figure how he did it. The huge fireplaces have mantels that weigh three-ton each. In cold weather the fireplaces burn a cord of wood a week.

More about the Jefferson Proving Ground next week.

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