Working at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in northwest Johnson County was truly a family affair. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters all worked at the plant together. Even those who were not related by blood talked about the family atmosphere at Sunflower throughout the years. Gayla Frazier represents the third generation of her family who worked at Sunflower. The Gardner native worked at Sunflower from 1965-1973, and from 1975-2002. Frazier started out as a clerk typist and rose to become the only female plant manager in Sunflower history. Frazier held that position for four years until she retired.
Frazier’s grandfather worked as a laborer and helped build Sunflower during World War II. She said her grandfather told great stories about building the plant, and the thing he remembered most was the mud; “rain or shine they would be out working.” As the war progressed, the rocket powder produced at Sunflower became a crucial element in the Allied war strategy. Construction continued throughout the war, and Sunflower workers played an important role and helped the Allied forces win World War II.
Frazier’s father, Elden Lovelett, worked at the plant from 1951-1986 and in his later years served as Chief of the Sunflower Fire Department. Frazier also had two uncles and a great aunt who worked at the plant. Frazier recounted how her great aunt told her that she used to smuggle matches and cigarettes into Sunflower inside her sandwiches to avoid security measures. Smoking was strictly prohibited because of the risk of explosion, and cigarettes and matches were considered contraband.
Frazier looks back fondly on her time at Sunflower. Her fondest memory of the plant? “The people I met.” She still attends a monthly breakfast with former co-workers and keeps in touch with others by phone and email. Sunflower produced millions of pounds of rocket powder for nearly five decades, but perhaps more importantly the plant fostered a family atmosphere, literally and figuratively.
The quotes included in this article are part of a formal oral history collected by the Johnson County Museum that is accessible in our archives. The Museum conducts oral history interviews with local residents in an effort to capture firsthand accounts and stories from the past. Gayla Frazier’s interview was one of more than a dozen conducted by Museum staff in 2013 to gain more information about the history of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant. The material was used to inform an exhibit created for the Museum entitled “Citizen Soldiers on the Prairie.” The exhibit is on display until August 23.
– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum