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Remembering the businesses, communities of Fort Drum's past

Roughly 60 community members joined staff from the Fort Drum Cultural Resources and Natural Resources for a History of Industry Tour on April 24, 2019. The tour took visitors through training grounds and beyond, to places where thriving industries once existed and the environment provided ample resources to support milling, mining, farming and other operations.

MIKE STRASSER/U.S. ARMY

By CRAIG FOX | Watertown Daily Times | Published: April 29, 2019

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Bob Fetterly remembers fishing and hunting around the area of a former limestone quarry that’s now part of the Fort Drum installation.

Known as Quarry Pond, the industrial complex that comprised the business disappeared during the 1920s when the pumps failed and the quarry flooded, leaving buildings, equipment and railroad tracks and car all underwater for all of these decades.

Except for locals, the quarry is all but forgotten. It’s just one of many businesses and industries — including maple shacks, sawmills, cheese operations, ironworks and logging operations — that made up the local economy long before Fort Drum became Fort Drum.

“We know a lot about what was here,” said Laurie W. Rush, Fort Drum’s cultural resources manager.

But she’d like to learn more.

Last week, two buses of about 70 people took a tour in and around Fort Drum to find the many sites that are mostly a distant memory.

They spent most of Wednesday on the Historic Industry of Fort Drum Tour that the military installation’s cultural resources team sponsors every year.

In the fall, the group puts on a similar tour about Fort Drum’s “lost villages,” a day-long tour looking for the communities that were gobbled up when the country was preparing for the Second World War in 1941.

The Army needed the land for military training. So the communities that dotted 75,000 acres disappeared, and 525 families packed up and moved. Three thousand buildings, including churches, post offices and 24 schools, were abandoned.

Sterlingville, Woods Mills, Lewisburg, LeRaysville were gone.

So, too, were a lot businesses.

Mr. Fetterly spent a lot of his youth in the woods surrounding Quarry Pond, decades before Fort Drum was expanded in 1985. He recalled the days when the post was the home of just reservists.

“I know this whole area,” he said, noting that the pond is more than 100 feet deep.

It was just one of a series of stops that the 70 mostly older folks got to see last week. And reminisce about.

The land that occupied the businesses and farms is still used for military training.

On the day of the tour, the thunderous sounds of live gunfire from howitzers could be heard in the not-so-far distance when the group walked back to the buses at the quarry site.

There is nothing else like Quarry Pond within the 168 square miles that make up Fort Drum.

“It’s the only underwater archeological site on Fort Drum,” Ms. Rush remarked.

Earlier in the day, the group learned about a 19th century powder mill at Slocum Mills, where a young chemist from the Polytechnic School of Paris was brought in to develop a new but unreliable gunpowder in a powder mill at the site.

“They were lucky they didn’t blow up the place,” said Heather Wagner, environmental education coordinator.

Over the years, a sawmill and grain, woolen and carding mills also sprang up and helped the community flourish for a time. Named for Caleb Slocum, a Civil War veteran, the hamlet was typical of the dozens of communities that developed across the area.

A concrete dam, now covered by moss, along Pleasant Creek, is all that remains of Slocum Mills today.

Ms. Rush, an archeologist, is history’s protector for Fort Drum. It’s her job to make sure that she maps, excavates and records whatever is found at the sites. In her role with the cultural resources team, she also enforces the international rules protecting cultural properties and helps members of today’s modern Army learn about how to keep them safe.

Before it flooded, the quarry became an archeological gold mine in 1906 when miners discovered a 20-foot-deep calcite cave. In it, they found some 14 tons of lavender and pink crystals. They were removed and taken to the New York State Museum, where they were put on display.

Ms. Rush hopes to someday bring some of the crystals back to Fort Drum and show them off.

One of the most obvious lost businesses that the group visited was just off post in the village of Deferiet, the home of a paper mill for more than a century.

In its heyday, 900 people worked at the St. Regis Paper Co. mill. The village, all of its homes, the school, hotel and other businesses were owned by the company. Mill workers basically paid rent to live in the small houses.

“It was the epitome of a company town,” Mrs. Wagner said.

Both she and her husband worked in the paper mill when it was owned by Champion International. In their college summer jobs, she was a fire inspector, and husband Jason, the team’s natural resources bureau chief, worked on the water moving logs with a pole.

A few men in the touring group worked in the mill or knew somebody who did.

After large paper corporations in Brazil took over almost all of the globe’s paper production, the paper mill slowly died. It closed in the mid-2000s and was dismantled in 2011.

A decaying warehouse and a couple of office buildings still stand.

“People drive by without knowing its history,” Mrs. Wagner said.

An old park, called the Buck Creek Recreational Area, off Lake School Road, based around an artificial lake, interested many of the people on the tour.

The park was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Emergency Conservation Work Act, legislation to lift the country out of the Depression. On the day of the park’s dedication, July 2, 1939, about 1,000 people showed up, Mr. Wagner said.

It wasn’t too long ago that he learned of its history and significance.

But Cliff Gates, 83, of Philadelphia, and Lyle Bylow, in his 70s, knew all about the park. And they remembered each other.

Getting off the bus, they recognized each other and quickly shook hands.

Both learned how to swim in the lake when they were boys. Mr. Gates remembered a pipe sticking up out of the water a far distance from the shore.

“If I could swim out to touch it and get back, then I knew I was a swimmer,” Mr. Gates remembered.

They remembered where the pavilion was located, mentioning two fancy pianos inside, and the bathhouse along the shore. Mr. Bylow pointed over to where a series of elaborate fireplaces were in a wooded area.

The park was taken over by Fort Drum sometime during the early 1940s and left to deteriorate.

Mr. Wagner and his crew are slowly working on restoring the park. A woman donated a scrapbook that showed what the park looked like.

The group also visited a maple syrup processing site, remnants of a small cheese factory and an ironworks plant in what was Alpina, Harrisville in Lewis County. The remains of a 30-foot-tall blast furnace still exist.

Back on the bus, Mr. Gates, Mr. Bylow and a few others traded stories about their childhoods and what they could remember about the places where they hung out when they were young.

It’s important to hear those stories, Ms. Rush said.

She and her team learn a lot from what is talked about on the annual tours.

And she says it’s also important that the soldiers serving at Fort Drum today learn them, too, she stressed.

©2019 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)
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