CCC crews restored fort, self-respect

August 28, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

BIG POOL -- Frontier wars, Indian uprisings and Civil War skirmishes were not on Francis "Pete" Shoemaker's mind as he and others set about rebuilding Fort Frederick's crumbling stockade.

Mr. Shoemaker, then 25 and tired of floating from job to job in Western Maryland during the lean years of the Great Depression, was grateful for the steady work provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal government's jobs program of the 1930s.

But as a stonemason and laborer at the CCC's Fort Frederick camp, Mr. Shoemaker and others like him also became participants in the fort's long, varied and continuing history -- its reconstruction after a century and a half of neglect since the American Revolution.

Some 60 more years have passed. Today, Fort Frederick State Park officials are tapping surviving CCC workers -- there were about 200 of them at the fort's CCC camp -- to record their oral histories.

"We're looking for pieces of history and pieces of that time," said Ralph Young, park manager at Fort Frederick State Park, a 561-acre tract in western Washington County, about 18 miles west of Hagerstown.

"We want firsthand accounts of what the fort was like at the time [the 1930s] and what these men may have found as they worked here," he said.

Fort Frederick was one of 30 CCC camps in Maryland. The camps employed about 36,000 men, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25. These armies of civilian workers reforested thousands of acres, built miles of forest fire roads and built dams.

Built in 1756, Fort Frederick was the cornerstone of frontier defenses in Maryland during the French and Indian War. Its large size and strong stone stockade made it unusual -- most forts of the period were built of wood and earth. The fort never saw battle but provided refuge to settlers during Indian uprisings several years later.

During the American Revolution, Fort Frederick again served as a refuge for settlers and also as

a prison camp for Hessian and British soldiers. Maryland sold the fort and grounds in 1791.

Maryland bought back the fort -- the nation's best preserved stone fortification of the French and Indian War period -- and surrounding land totaling 190 acres in 1922. The tract became Maryland's first state park.

When CCC workers arrived in the mid-1930s, they found the fort in ruins. Its walls were crumbling and one bastion was gone. Its buildings -- including soldiers' barracks and a governor's house -- were gone, too.

Through Mr. Shoemaker, now 83, and a few other survivors -- six attended a CCC reunion there earlier this summer -- Fort Frederick officials are slowly unraveling pieces of the fort's past.

For instance, stones used to reconstruct the stockade came from a nearby ridge and were not from the fort grounds, Mr. Young noted. And the CCC's archaeological digs indicate that the gunpowder magazine was located in the fort's northeast bastion.

"This is just a beginning -- the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Young said. "There are people around here that we don't know about that we need to talk to. There's still a lot of mysteries to be solved."

OC Those mysteries include the location of another entrance to the

fort. Most forts had a second entrance, Mr. Young said.

CCC camps at Fort Frederick and elsewhere were run like army camps. Army officers provided housing in tents and barracks, food, medical care and discipline for each 200-man company. Workers received $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to struggling families.

"That saved many a family," said C. Clifton Mills, 75, who was a truck driver, baker and carpenter with the CCC at Fort Frederick and elsewhere. "It kept a lot of families together."

About 100 former CCC workers attend annual reunions. This year's will be held Sept. 17 at Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County.

Mr. Shoemaker and Mr. Mills agree that the CCC has given them a sense of accomplishment and pride in their work -- sentiments that were evident as the pair strolled through the fort recently.

"The work we did then -- that was a job. It was money," said Mr. Shoemaker, a retired maintenance man who lives in Williamsport. "We didn't realize the history of the place then -- it didn't mean to us what history means to us today."

Surveying the fort's expansive stockade, he added, "It's a joyful feeling to know that we were a part of all this."

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