Former missile site sells for $227,000

Ron Mertens of Smithton purchased the former Nike Missile Site near Hecker with a high bid of $227,000. The 14-acre property was auctioned off Saturday at Hecker Community Center. Pictured,
from left, Career Center of Southern Illinois Director Mark Stuart, Wayne Keller of Buy-AFarm and Regional Superintendent of Schools Kelton Davis watch as Mertens signs papers committing him to the purchase. (Alan Dooley photo)

At least 100 people came to the Hecker Community Center Saturday morning to witness the auctioning of the former Nike Missile launch site between Hecker and Red Bud.

Most were just watching history being made, but a few had the required deposit in hand and were ready to deal.

In less than 30 minutes, it was over. Ron Mertens of Smithton had raised his hand for the final time with the winning bid of $227,000.

“I don’t really have any plans for the site,” Mertens told the Republic-Times minutes after bidding closed. “I’m not sure what I will do with it. I just wanted it.”

Buy-A-Farm auctioneer Mark Kennedy of Murphysboro explained the rules of the event. First, there was a $10,000 deposit with a minimum opening bid of $70,000.  Twenty percent of the purchase price was due in 10 working days and the balance had to be delivered by Aug. 12.

“This is not a contingency sale,” Kennedy ex

plained.  “You are not bidding contingent on being able to secure financing.  This is to be considered as a cash sale.”

Bidding opened at $70,000, but quickly went up. As the price increased, increments squeezed to $5,000 and then $1,000 near the end.

The 14-plus acre site was the former launch facility for a U.S. Army Nike Antiaircraft Missile Site during the Cold War. It never fired its nuclear-tipped Hercules Missiles in anger, but did stand at top alert status for 13 days during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962.

When it was shut down a decade later, the land was made available for sale, with the launch site and former barracks, radar and administrative sites going for a dollar, to become the former Beck Training Center, which is now known as Career Center of Southern Illinois.

Proceeds from the sale will go to CCSI to support its educational efforts that train students in a variety of fields including auto mechanical and body work, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and nursing.  These funds may be especially critical if shortfalls in the state’s budget result in possible funding cuts for the center.

Just as in late June when the site was opened to the public for the first time in many years, some of the those attending the auction had ties to it – one as a former student and another as a former teacher there.

Harry Breitenstein of Waterloo told of being a student at the site.

“I took auto body classes there,” he said.  “We worked on our own cars. I had a 1968 Chevrolet pickup truck. We used to put our cars on the elevators and take them down into the concrete bunkers to work on them. More than a few times, as classes started ramping down at 10 p.m., we’d wonder how we were going to get home if the elevator didn’t work.  We were a long way out!”

But Breitenstein and his classmates were never left in the lurch – a testimony to the quality of the elevators that were built to lift missiles years earlier.

“We had superb facilities and tools,” he remembered.

Breitenstein used a lot of the training he got there, subsequently serving as maintenance supervisor of the tram systems that takes visitors up and down the St. Louis Arch.

One of those instructors, who attended the auction with the eventual winner, Mertens, was Larry Smith, also of Smithton.  Smith, who owned St. Clair Auto Body Shop in Smithton for three decades, also taught his trade to students at the former missile site.

He told how it was a second source of income for him and a satisfying job as well.

“We had some excellent young students there,” he said.

Asked what percentage of the sale was going to the auction company, Buy-A-Farm managing broker Wayne Keller of Steeleville said the firm was really impressed with what the school is doing. And he put their money firmly on that statement.

“We are donating our fee to the school,” he said in a phone interview after the auction.

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Corey Saathoff

Corey is the editor of the Republic-Times. He has worked at the newspaper since 2004, and currently resides in Columbia. He is also the principal singer-songwriter and plays guitar in St. Louis area country-rock band The Trophy Mules.
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