RICHLAND, Wash. — Ludwig Bruggemann was about 5 on the late winter day in 1943 when two jeeps drove up the road to his family’s ranch on the banks of the Columbia River.
Army officers with papers stepped out to say the words that would change his family’s life: “You have two weeks to leave.” Ludwig recently recalled the incident, not sure how much of the recollection came from his childhood memories of the day and how much from the story his family would tell for decades.
Their 400-acre ranch had been condemned as part of the effort to win World War II. About 1,500 people, many of them members of farm families, would be displaced from the 586 square miles that now are part of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Not until after the war ended did they know that the U.S. government had picked the area because of its remote location, and abundant water and power to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping to end WWII.
Ludwig and his little sister, Paula, would listen to their father talk about the ranch until he died.
“He never got over it,” said Debbie Holm, the daughter of Paula Bruggemann Holm. “It was a really, really sad thing for him.”
Just a glimpse
For decades Ludwig would occasionally drive his parents, Paul and Mary Bruggemann, to the Vernita bridge area to peer down the Columbia River to try to get a glimpse of the ranch. They thought they could make out the stone house that had kept them cool on the blistering hot mid-Columbia summer days.
But none of the family set foot on the ranch again until this spring.
Then DOE and the Tri-City Development Council arranged to take Ludwig and Paula back for their first visit to their early childhood home since their parents hastily packed up their possessions 66 years ago.
Ludwig was visiting from Germany, where he now lives, and Paula brought along her husband, Bing, and daughter Debbie, all of whom live in Yakima.
They didn’t know what to expect, but they believed one of the ranch’s many buildings remained standing.
Most of the pre-World War II buildings at Hanford were demolished by the government, other than the tiny White Bluffs bank and the Hanford high school.
But Debbie Holm had found a picture on the Internet of the Bruggemann warehouse — still standing, although missing parts of its roof. She started calling people who she hoped would know more until she was referred to Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford projects and a Hanford history buff. TRIDEC is interested in preserving what’s left of the ranch.
The four descendants of Paul and Mary Bruggemann returned to the ranch equipped with family photo albums, the original plot of the ranch and a diagram drawn by Paul Bruggemann outlining his plans for the ranch.
The 400 acres were neatly divided into sections with spaces saved for thousands of apricot, cherry and other fruit trees. Large sections were reserved for vineyards. The ranch had sheep, and space was allocated for clover, alfalfa and rye grass pastures.
By 1943, the ranch, which Paul and Mary had purchased as the Von Herberg Ranch, had 100 acres under plow. Although the family doesn’t remember exactly when the ranch was purchased, the family owned it at least as early as when Mary was pregnant with Ludwig.
To make sure she could get to Yakima to deliver the baby, Paul had purchased a 1937 Chevy pickup. Inside a scrapbook is the Certificate of War Necessity allowing him to buy the truck.
They were set to bring in their first major crop of cherries, plus peaches, pears, apricots and grapes in 1943, Ludwig said. In addition to sheep, pictures show turkeys at the ranch, and Ludwig remembers goats because “one knocked me down when I was 5.”
Heads craned on a recent day as the minibus carrying the family drove down the paved road that has been little utilized since the Bruggemanns used to drive to the nearest community, the former town of White Bluffs.
Sure enough, one of the ranch’s several buildings remained standing — a long, cobblestone building with decorative touches like the arched windows underlined with rows of smaller stones. It took some comparisons with family photo albums to conclude it was the warehouse.
“It’s the fanciest warehouse I’ve ever seen,” Bing Holm said.
The family couldn’t get too close. Sometime in the decades since World War II, the government surrounded the warehouse with a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
A sidewalk still crosses the lane from the warehouse to the foundation of what the family concluded was once a large barn nearby. But the cobblestone home was gone. All that appeared to remain was a large pile of round river cobblestones piled by the warehouse.
From where the wide steps once descended from the house in graceful half circles, the family could see four plutonium-production reactors lining the Columbia River, starting with B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale reactor.
Evidence of farm life remained scattered across the acreage. The family came across pieces of foundation from other outbuildings, including the round base of a silo. Upwind from the house was the site where the family buried its trash, and the ground was littered with broken Fiestaware, Clorox bottles and rusted tin cans.
“Lookit, here goes the waterline again,” Bing called out as he walked the land.
They kept their eyes out for the round white stone once embedded in the house’s chimney that gave its age, 1921, knowing they were unlikely to ever see it again.
Paul, like so many of the farmers and business people who were evicted, believed the government paid too little for his ranch. But a German citizen at the time, he was cautious.
He would become an American citizen a few years later and did eventually ask for more compensation in court.
Paula, just 3 when the family lost the ranch, remembers moving briefly to Army barracks when they couldn’t immediately find a place to live in Sunnyside or Yakima. The family would eventually settle on 12 acres on what’s now Englewood Avenue in Yakima and develop an orchard.