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PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Maple Grove: Windham's 'patriotic duty'

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published: March 19, 2017 4:00 AM

The tiny village of Windham, which had seen its population more than double -- from 300 residents to 700 -- since the opening of the Ravenna Arsenal in 1941, found itself facing a future beyond what any of its residents might have imagined 75 years ago.

Federal housing authorities appeared to have settled on the northern Portage County community as the site for more than 2,000 housing units to accommodate workers at the arsenal, the sprawling munitions facility that had engulfed the southern half of the township. The project would bring an estimated 7,000 residents -- possibly more -- to Windham, transforming it overnight into perhaps the largest city in the county. (Kent and Ravenna each had a population of about 8,000 in 1940.)

News of Windham's apparent fate was a daunting one in March 1942, just months after Americans found themselves at war in Europe and Asia. But the initial response of village residents was positive.

During a public meeting attended by federal housing officials and about 60 area residents, Windham Mayor J.K. Drumheller asked for a show of hands of those in favor of the project. None of the residents raised their hands in opposition.

"Key citizens of Windham told this newspaper that they viewed the housing project as a 'patriotic' duty and their part of the war," the Evening Record reported. "The village must face the problems of the day, one resident said, and having a large government housing project in its backyard would be 'just another contribution to the cause.'"

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The coming of the arsenal, which had gone into production in August 1941 less than a year after construction of the facility began, had already changed the rural hamlet. The influx of 15,000 workers -- and the Atlas Powder Co., which was operating the arsenal, was advertising for more -- had put housing in Windham at a premium. Nearly 400 new residents had found homes in the community in the past year.

"Everyone possible took roomers and boarders; trailers appeared in door yards and vacant lots," Mrs. C.S. Curtiss recalled in "Portage Heritage," the county history published in 1957. "Automobiles and trucks were lined bumper to bumper ... Traffic became such a problem that a new stop-and-go traffic light was installed at the center of town."

The housing development would include 2,000 "demountable" or fabricated homes, dormitories for another 1,150 arsenal workers and 500 trailers for families, according to the Evening Record.

About 1,000 school children were expected to be among the new residents. At the time, Windham High School routinely graduated a dozen or so students each year.

The 250-acre area being eyed for the housing development straddled S.R. 303, about one-half mile north and east of Windham, extending south to the Erie Railroad, which was the northern boundary of the ordnance plant. "The land now being surveyed has no buildings of any consequence," the Evening Record reported. "There are two homes, in bad repair, in the section between Route 303 and the railroad."

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Windham wasn't the only community under consideration for the housing development. Ravenna, the county seat, was initially reported as being chosen for the site, and its supporters touted several factors in its favor: ample land for housing, water and sewage facilities, a school system able to accommodate new students, a hospital, and established churches, stores and recreational facilities.

Choosing Windham for the housing development, in the words of the Evening Record, "would involve building a complete city," on a short timetable. In addition to housing, the government would need to make provisions for utilities -- Windham residents relied on private wells for their water -- additional school facilities, a hospital and other amenities, including shopping and churches. The town had two stores and two churches in 1942.

The deciding factor in Windham's favor proved to be its proximity to the arsenal, which despite its name, was not located in Ravenna. Locating housing for the workers there would eliminate the transportation problem, C.S. Moss of the Federal Public Housing Authority said.

"We believe the project would be a good thing for the village," Mayor Drumheller told the Evening Record, "It would certainly bring business to the village."

Plans for what became known as Maple Grove were finalized a few months later. In May 1942, the government assured residents that the "demountable" housing wouldn't be hastily erected or shoddy but, in the words of Moss, "homes built by carpenters such as you people in Windham live in."

Plans called for one-, two-, three- and possibly four-bedroom homes that, he said, "would not be jammed together in an unsafe or unhealthy manner." There also were plans for a sewage disposal plant, community center and new school facilities.

Moss stressed the "temporary" nature of the housing, but said the homes would be constructed of materials that would make them "durable homes lasting half a century, if necessary."

Many of the "temporary" homes erected in Maple Grove remain standing today, 75 years later. But the assurances Moss and others shared in 1942 ultimately proved wishful thinking.

Windham experienced a 1,200 percent increase in its population because of Maple Grove -- the largest growth of any community in the nation during World War II -- although the project envisioned in 1942 fell short of the government's expectations. Roughly 1,000 housing units ended up being occupied; few units were constructed in the area south of S.R. 303 and they eventually were dismantled.

The federal government sold off the housing development to a private corporation based in Philadelphia in 1954, and the complex became low-income housing that fell victim to neglect. By the 1970s and 1980s, Maple Grove was considered a high-density, blighted community. Some units were rehabilitated after being acquired by non-profit agencies, but several hundred units that were deemed uninhabitable were demolished. The area continues to face challenges.

Today, Windham has roughly 2,200 residents, many of whom live in Maple Grove in units constructed at the dawn of World War II, when the village welcomed the new housing as its "patriotic duty."


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anonymous_3981 Mar 19, 2017 4:29 PM

Thanks so much for writing this, Roger. Windham has a unique history in the story of Portage County, of which we are especailly proud.