With more than 34,000 soldiers, family members and civilian employees, many say Fort Drum is truly the biggest city in the North Country, but Fort Drum wasn't always there. In fact, before Drum was ever thought of, the area was full of communities just like ours. In order for the installation to become what it is, those communities had to be taken over and families were forced out of their homes. In this edition of "Your Hometown", our Brian Dwyer takes a look back at those communities, communities now known as the lost villages.
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- "When World War II broke out, the United States looked at its current training facilities and realized they were woefully inadequate to fight the kinds of wars they would be fighting. But because the United States was still on a very firm doctrine of neutrality, they couldn't get appropriation in Congress for the increase and enlargement of its military bases. So they had to go through the department of agriculture to appropriate most of the land that they required to expand,” said Tim Abel, local historian.
Part of that land included five rural villages in the area of what was then Pine Camp; LeRaysville, Woods Mill, Sterlingville, Lewisburg and North Wilna. People were force out of their homes and the villages were swallowed up.
"There are reports that vary from people leaving freely to others having to be literally carried out of their houses by their family members. Some of these families had been farming their farms for over 100 years. So it was pretty traumatic for them to be uprooted off of land they had nourished for 100 years,” said Abel.
All these families were given what was considered cash value of what the U.S. was now calling condemned land. For many, nowhere near enough to buy a new home or farm, especially when they put everything into what they had.
"I can remember my dad telling me that we were fixed for life. He had his two farms and he expected to live out life there. They said in '39, the government had a public meeting to discuss that they wanted to expand Pine Camp and more grounds. They showed the boundaries and they were within the boundaries so they knew what was coming,” said Maurice Herron, displaced by Drum.
That was the forced move with the National Guard showing up on doorsteps.
"I remember soldiers marching down the street or road. An awful lot of commotion with trucks driving in our yard. Most of them went in the bar and loaded the cattle on. Later in the afternoon a truck came to the house and loaded all the household goods on. We moved from there down to the Town of Ellisburg." Just tremendous change as a kid,” said Herron.
While that's a familiar story among many residents, not all viewed the news as bad, especially for an area still struggling after the Great Depression.
"In some cases it was sort of welcomed in that their farms had gone bust by the 1940's, especially those located on the Pine Plains,” said Abel.
Now 70 years later, Fort Drum as its now known, has become the home for the most deployed division in our Army. Extremely big and extremely modern, and those lost villages, nearly lost forever, nearly.
"For a long time, we just had them off limits and we set them aside. Nobody was supposed to go in them. Then we got interest several years ago when a woman printed a book called "Drummed Out". It was the story of her and her family losing their home in Sterlingville. Family members began to come to us and ask for permission to go back and visit the villages,” said Laurie Rush, Fort Drum Cultural Resources Manager.
The foundations of the original structures are preserved. Some are in better shape than others. At our village of Sterlingville, we actually have re-opened it for military training. It gives our soldiers the opportunity to practice military operations in a historic district that's archeologically sensitive so they'll be more ready for sensitive areas going forward.
But there's one place, where history is still very much alive. The only home, actually complex, still standing from the takeover; The LeRay Mansion.
"LeRay Mansion was actually the home of James LeRay de Chaumont. He was one of the principal architects of the region in terms of its economic development. I think it's important to keep every piece of history alive because over time people forget and history is what makes us what we are. It makes the region what it is,” said Abel.
Maurice Herron says it took his father 20 years to admit he was better off after the move. Each Memorial Day, Fort Drum opens up the 13 different cemeteries from the five lost villages to the public.