Mike Zimmerman Bicycling tour reveals more to NAD story

I knew the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot played a significant part in the history of Hastings, including the explosion of weapons built there and the explosion in population as people came here for jobs.

But I’ll admit that for the longest time, the only things that caught my attention were those “humps” scattered along U.S. Highway 6. As a youngster, they always served as the markers signaling the end of a long road trip.

Last weekend, I aimed to change my limited knowledge of the NAD by taking part in a bicycle tour of the area directed by local historian Walt Miller.

In the nearly 3 1/2 hour, 15-mile ride, we checked out the ghostly buildings, and Walt gave us the image of what things looked like many years ago.

One thing that stood out to me was the story of the yellow people. They were laborers in the powder-sifting buildings that used a yellow dye chemical that turned their skin, hair, nails and eyes yellow — like jaundice.

But it wasn’t until near the tail end of the tour where I learned something that has since shifted my understanding of the NAD for good.

I rode my Giant road bike near Walt, who for his age was a very good rider. The closer I was to him while riding, the more I could hear some of his commentary. He then directed us to pull off the road to have a look at one last building.

He then said, “Now, while we’re here, I better tell you all this.”

Walt told us that many years ago, if we looked along the horizon from the spot where we were standing, we could almost see the curve of the Earth.

That was just how flat the area was. And it was perfect for farmland — some of the best farmland in the world.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States began building the naval ammunition plant in early 1942. It purchased nearly 50,000 acres of land — land that was extremely valuable for crops and livestock — which explained why 192 landowners made a living in the rural areas of Adams and Clay counties.

Walt explained that because it was wartime, rules were different. The federal government came in and condemned 232 properties and sent many farmers into a world of hurt.

Those farmers were given an unfair sucker punch from their government. Their land was purchased from them at a cheaper price than what they’d originally paid. Walt said many didn’t recover from those losses.

I had always understood the NAD to be a fortress of power and weaponry, a beacon of American strength tucked in our pockets or an answered prayer to a town still struggling from the Depression.

But the last story Walt shared admittedly shook me.

Not that it’s a bad thing, though. I appreciate that my knowledge gained of the NAD is more comprehensive than what it was before the bicycle tour.

In a broad perspective, I hope the tour also taught me that there is always more to the story. Maybe that will help me as journalist, but I’m hoping that it will help me more as a human being.

It’s OK not to know it all. But always be willing to learn, listen and discover. Who knows? The story might change. Your assumptions could be wrong.

The NAD represents so much more than hundreds of “humps” along a highway for me now.

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