Namesake of Fort Lee's oldest house shares life, experiences
June 12, 2013
By Amy Perry
FORT LEE, Va. (June 12, 2013) -- Fort Lee's oldest building, the Davis House. is a remnant of World War I and one of the few outward reminders of the installation's storied past.
Once referred to as the "The White House" at Camp Lee during WWI, the historic building is named after the Davis family who lived in the house from 1927-1953.
Ironically, the Davis family had no military connection to Camp Lee, said 88-year-old Gordan R. Davis Jr., now a retired Army colonel, who resided in the home during most of his childhood. He lived with his father, Gordan R. Davis Sr., his mother, Bettie Lou Reams-Davis, and his brother.
"My dad lost our farm where I was born -- that was in Dinwiddie County," said Davis, who made a return visit to Fort Lee Friday. "He started working for the Virginia State Game Commission who had taken over the 7,000 acres where Camp Lee was located during WWI. Nearly all of the buildings were torn down, aside from the house and a few others, including the old officers' club."
Somehow, his father managed convince the game commission to let them live in the house, where the family stayed through the reconstruction of Camp Lee and into the '50s. In the time between Camp Lee One and Two, the area was dedicated to a state game farm.
"From 1927 to 1940 -- when they committed to rebuilding Fort Lee -- my dad was the caretaker," he said. "His job was to develop game birds -- quail, turkeys and deer -- to distribute to various locations up on the coast."
Another part of Fort Lee's history during that time was the field trials. Each spring and fall, Davis' father was responsible for holding events in which dogs -- pointers and setters -- would go to the quail fields where they were judged on their abilities.
In 1939, the federal government announced they would be taking back the land to rebuild Camp Lee, said Davis.
"Some Army engineers -- a major and a captain -- came here and they slept in this house with us and ate with us," he said. "They built an office building -- construction headquarters -- near the house. They asked my dad to stay here because he had lost his job with the state. He knew the grounds, and they hired him."
The construction workers placed Camp Lee Two on the same footprint as Camp Lee One because most of the concrete foundations were still in place. Even as Camp Lee Two took shape around them, the Davis family remained at the house.
They were employed by the Army in various capacities during and after Camp Lee Two's construction. The first commanding general of Camp Lee Two stayed with the Davis family until his quarters were built, and he took over the second floor, said Davis.
When the construction office building was completed, his mother took on the job of feeding the civilian workers. Davis said they moved their household upstairs and set up the downstairs with serving tables in a makeshift cafeteria.
As the post continued to grow, the old WWI officers' club was made into a temporary officers' club, and his father was asked to be the manager.
"In late 1941, they committed to build a new officers' club, and they invited my mother to be the hostess," Davis said. "She was the hostess before it was completed and remained the hostess until the last 1950s."
Davis' father served in various manager positions at the club during that time.
Camp Lee Two was the primary location for quartermaster training, and after Davis enlisted in the Army Jan. 1, 1943 and was commissioned later that year, he said his family's connection to Camp Lee was evident throughout his career.
"After World War II, I went to Korea as part of a military police battalion," he said. "I was a first lieutenant. I took over as provost marshal of Pusan. I can't imagine how a young, dumb anti-aircraft artillery artillery first lieutenant became the provost marshal of a huge port city, but I took it over from a quartermaster captain who knew my mother. I got a nice set of quarters from him."
When Davis was stationed in Alaska in the early 1950s, a new major general arrived and needed a new aide. Davis was offered the job.
"The G-1 was an adjutant general officer and by that time, the AG school was also at Camp Lee," he said. "I was called up there -- still as a first lieutenant -- and reported to the G-1. He said, 'I know your mother and father.' We talked for a while and he offered me the job as a general's aide. I agreed, even though I didn't know anything about the position."
Davis said he always had a permanent connection with the post no matter where he went in the Army.
At some point in the early 1950s, he and his brother convinced their parents to build a house on Crater Road in Petersburg. They believed the Army would eventually tear down the house and leave their parents with no place to live.
"We thought our parents weren't going to be able to live here forever, rent-free," he said. "But, now I think they were fortunate to live there for as long as they did.
"A lot of people thought we owned the house," he said. "We never owned the house; my parents situation never changed whether it was 1930 or 1942."
Davis said he has vivid memories of his childhood at the Davis House because of his experiences here.
"I literally had 7,000 acres to play on as a child," he said. "All the kids from school and church wanted to come to my home and play. Each summer, my brother would dam a creek so we would have a swimming hole.
"Under normal circumstances, I don't think a young boy would remember this," he said. "But it was vivid in my mind. I still remember most things. This was the greatest time of my life. I've had a great life."