For many of us civilian citizens who live around Fort Drum, an army base in northern New York State, this military reservation seems very mysterious and remote. We are familiar with the Army helicopters and jets, are used to the booms of practice maneuvers, and are no longer surprised by the red glow of flairs in the night sky. The soldiers and their families have become good neighbors and friends but we are still not quite sure what the 168 square mile military installation is all about.
In November 2017, I saw a notice for a free tour of the base titled, “Lost Villages of Fort Drum”. I was aware that when the original Pine Camp was expanded in 1941 into what is now the fort, 525 families were displaced and five entire villages were dismantled. Intrigued, I signed up for the tour.
On a cold,damp day, three bus loads of curious North Country citizens set out to travel into the interior of the base. I was fortunate to be on the first bus. Our guides were Dr. Laurie Rush, Director of The Cultural Resources and archaeological operations, and Commander General Piatt and his wife. The fort had done extensive work gathering oral histories and cataloging all the gravesites but General Piatt wanted to do more. As a person who loves military history, he became very interested in the past of his new command. His goal was to build new connections between Fort Drum and the people of the community and help us know and understand the great heritage of our area. He talked to each one of us during the day long tour, eager to answer our questions and to see our reactions to what we were witnessing. The picture at the beginning of this blog post is of Commander General Piatt. At the end of our tour he took the time to care for our American flag that had become tangled in the wind.
We traveled down roads that may have looked the same way over a hundred years ago and saw the remains of mills and other structures in the abandoned villages of Sterlingville , North Wilna, Wood Mills and Lewisburg.
We visited cemeteries that were reverently maintained by the Fort Drum staff. I was astonished to find out that African-Americans lived in Jefferson County in the 1800’s. Slaves lived here, also, until New York State emancipated them in 1827. The US Army honored William Anderson in one of gravesites. He was a local African-American who served in the Civil War.
For me, one of the highlights of the tour was seeing the remains of the Lewisburg Iron Furnace, a structure diminished by time but still large enough to be awe inspiring.
At end of the day, we stopped at Leray Mansion. The second of two structures, the original built in 1808 burned and was rebuilt in stone in 1827. It was the home of James Leray who bought large tracts of land and did all he could to promote the area to new homesteaders. Leray established the Jefferson County Fair, the oldest continuous agricultural fair in the United States.
On May 2, 2018, I took another tour called “Historic Industries of Fort Drum”. I learned that the main assets of the area were the abundant of trees and the many waterways which provided power for sawmills, grist mills and many other industrial endeavors.
I was amazed by the diversity of people who lived in this area during its development. Our local history began with the Native Americans. Many Iroquois artifacts have been found on Fort Drum including Venetian trading beads. Early populations included African-Americans and French, Irish, Italian, Polish, and German immigrants. The people who settled here worked hard at a wide spectrum of trades in order to make a good life for themselves and their families.
Our bus took us to Bucks Creek Park, once a beach with a pavilion It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Roosevelt establish this program to employ young men during The Great Depression. The park was a favorite recreation spot for the community until the expansion in 1941. On the day of its dedication on July 3, 1935, over 5000 people visited the park.
The picture above is the remains of the Hanson Sugar Bush. Mr. Hanson, an abolitionist, hoped that an increase in maple syrup production in the area would diminish the use of slave labor in the sugarcane areas in the south.
Quarry Pond was an old mining site that filled with water in 1931 It was rich in limestone and the primary source of lime for the iron furnace at Lewisburg. Later its lime was used in the manufacturing of paper and the making of steel. Beautiful calcite crystals were found in a cave at Quarry Pond and for a time were displayed at The New York State Museum in Albany, NY.
During the tour, we saw the work of the present day Natural Resources Department that is doing the important job monitoring and caring for the forest land and wildlife on Fort Drum.
To me, the best thing about these tours was the new spirit of Fort Drum. Because of the efforts of Commander General Piatt, Dr. Rush and the Fort Drum staff a new connection is being made between our military base and the community. Personally, I was proud to hear the story about a whole Polish village who came to work in the paper mills of Deferiet. My grandparents took that same journey when they came from Poland to work in the factories in America. My dad was part of The Civilian Conservation Corps when he was young. A quiet moment at Bucks Creek made me think of what he might have built. Many other local people have memories related to the lost areas of Fort Drum and the base is recognizing the lives lived there. People are listening to the stories and preserving, what are to many, sacred places. The US Army has opened their gates to us. They care about us, our history and where we come from. They want to know us, and, as a result, we want to know more about them. The two communities are becoming closer.
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