STORY IN A BOX

By Larry Stout, MAHS Board President 
As all members and friends of the Montgomery Area Historical Society (MAHS) are well aware, the eminent domain federal government takeover of thirteen miles in the White Deer valley in early 1942 to build the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works complex was a tremendous regional tragedy.  Some 168 families and their farms, villages, schools, and churches were razed to make room for the 8400-acre, $50 million TNT plant. 

Screenshot of 1868 Pomeroy & Beers Map of Gregg Township, Union County.

MAHS has helped keep alive the spirit of the “The Land,” (as identified by Steve and Martha Huddy in their excellent biography of the surrender of Alvira and the White Deer Valley). Up until this year, due to COVID, the MAHS has hosted two events at the Stone Church for those to visit this area and to see the last remaining structure from that period of time. 

Stone Church, Brady Township, PA. The only pre-WWII structure still standing in “The Ordinance.” Photo courtesy of Montgomery Area Historical Society.

There have been numerous pictures and artifacts that MAHS has collected through the years, but there has not been a single item that came from the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works itself. This is not especially surprising given that the POW only existed for a grand total of thirteen months! All that destruction and construction was for little more than a year, abandoned because the US Government energies and expenses were funneled into an operation known as the Manhattan Project. It is better known as the Atomic Bomb Project. 

However, through the generosity of an antique collector by the name of Peter DiForte, Jr. of Campton, NH, the MAHS now has in its collection an actual TNT box from the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works. Dated August 14, 1943, Box #130736, Lot #-PEN243, it was marked “50 LBS. TNT.” Interestingly, it was labeled, “Pennsylvania Ordnance Works U.S., Williamsport, PA.”  

How this box came to our humble little historical society is a rather  amazing story. It was in 2002 that Peter DiForte was visiting an antique store in Plymouth, New Hampshire known as Bridge Antiques. Unfortunately, the building that housed the shop was next to a river which had an antiquated bridge that needed replacing. Since a new bridge had to be built, the government exerted eminent domain to demolish the building.  Peter saw the opportunity for some bargains, and his eye lighted on a simple wooden box from something called the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works. It looked in very good condition, and he was curious about its history, so he purchased it for a couple of dollars. 

Like many things we buy on a whim, it sat in a closet for years until one day, Peter got curious and decided to do some research and discovered the story of Alvira and the eminent domain takeover to build the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works. Most of his research came from our historical society, and he tracked down my contact information and offered his artifact because, “I’m a history buff, and it would be good to return the item to its home so to speak.” 

It does not look like much, just an old wooden box, but it represents an amazing time in our area’s history. It tells a story of a day when many families had to sacrifice their homes and livelihoods for the sake of engaging vicious enemies across the Atlantic and the islands of the Pacific.  The short-lived Pennsylvania Ordnance Works played an important part in that struggle. That box is a part of the story of our region, and we are  truly grateful to a generous collector who shared this gift with us. 

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