By Michael StrasserMarch 9, 2018
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 9, 2018) -- The Fort Drum Cultural Resources staff have expanded their knowledge of local history by volumes - six, to be exact.
That's the number of scrapbooks that a DeKalb Junction resident shared with them, which documents some of the history surrounding the development of Pine Camp in the 1940s, and the areas of Fort Drum known today as the "Lost Villages."
The Cultural Resources program staff is responsible for the protection, preservation and stewardship of the archaeological resources and the historic and cultural properties on post. They frequently share their knowledge with community members through tours and speaking engagements on post and throughout the North Country.
It was during a "Lost Villages" lecture in February at the Crosby Public Library in Antwerp when Dr. Laurie Rush, Cultural Resources manager, met Carol Reed.
"She said, 'I brought some things along you might be interested in,' and it turns out that her grandmother was an amateur photographer, who had her own dark room in Woods Mills, one of the Lost Villages," Rush said.
The staff visited Reed and her sister, Laura Rozell, and they were stunned by a room full of memorabilia collected by their grandmother Gertrude Wood VanTassel, and mother Inez VanTassel Rose. This included more than 450 pages of photos, now scanned and catalogued in the Cultural Resources archive.
"It's this an extraordinary record of everyday life in Woods Mills," Rush said.
Karen Koekenberg, cultural resources curator, said that the collection reads like an ancient version of Facebook in the way it presents a timeline of family life from that era. Heather Wagner, outreach and education coordinator, said that they often get permission to scan family albums, and in return for the information, they will send digital copies on disc to the family.
The staff was also excited to pour over six scrapbooks containing newspaper articles from different publications that have helped Cultural Resources staff fill in some blanks on the history of Woods Mills.
Rush said that when people ask what was the average price for a house, or how long residents were given to vacate their property, they have the answers exactly as it was reported when it happened.
"We can now begin to answer some of those questions," Rush said. "We've got a much better sense of the time, and all of the issues surrounding the sale of the lands. There's a whole lot more to the story."
One year-in-review article stated that the $25,000,000 cantonment project represented the state's greatest military stronghold and vast economic gains for the North Country. However, the civilian evacuation of more than 500 families also received a fair share of news coverage.
"When you read the headline, 'Expansion of Pine Camp best news in north during year,' well, the families would not agree, but this shows the perspective of the economy," Rush said.
An April 1941 edition of the North Country Advance shows the map of the expansion area for Pine Camp and its proposed boundaries. Below it is an article about a public meeting called by the Evans Mills Chamber of Commerce with Col. Frank Chapin and his military staff invited as honored guests. The story does not explain who Chapin was, only that he would speak with LeRay land owners about the government purchase program.
The story noted that the question of sale price for land and the problem of re-establishing families in new homes and farms is "the most important problem that ever confronted LeRay farm and home owners."
Rush said that it would have been brave for any senior leader to address this concern with members of the public.
"Talk about personal courage," she said. "You could imagine how angry some of those people were, but they treated him as a guest of honor."
The Cultural Resource staff also has reviewed obituary listings to identify some of the deceased buried in Woods Mills cemetery who were previously unidentified because of severe headstone damage or missing markers.
"People still talk about those damaged headstones," Rush said. "It's not like the community has forgotten. It's nice to be able to find and have a reference again to those people who were also buried at that cemetery."
The pages of the scrapbooks will be digitized and catalogued for future research, and Rush said that they will share information with the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum. Some of the articles pertain to exhibits currently on display there, such as the history of prisoners of war during World War II on post.
"I also learned for the first time that, during the war, because they had so many civilian workers and such housing shortage, they actually had families living in barracks here at Fort Drum," Rush said. "This is an episode I knew nothing about."
Rush said that information collected by Cultural Resources can also have practical applications.
"For example, we were rebuilding the bridge down at Woods Mills, and in order to get down in there for the supports, they had to bring in heavy equipment down the river bank," she said. "We needed to choose the access points that would do the least amount of damage to the old foundations and structures. Because we had old photos of the village, I was able to identify an access that went straight into the water where equipment would not damage anything."
The staff has only scratched the surface of reading all the new material in the past several days, but it has become a labor of love.
"You get started, and you just can't stop," Rush said.
"For historic researchers, this is the best," Wagner said. "This is like thousands of hours of microfiche we don't have to look through. When we have the history tours and talk to the public, it's important to us to answer as many questions as possible, and this is going to help us do that."
To learn more about the Fort Drum Cultural Resource Program, visit https://www.facebook.com/FortDrumCulturalResources/.