Amelia Pak-Harvey

DEVENS -- Despite heavy snowfall, about 20 people came out to the Fort Devens Museum on Saturday to learn more about Fred Ley, the contractor who built the fort in 1917.

Spurred on by an upcoming war, Fort Devens was built in a remarkable three months, led by the high school dropout.

"He knew how to get the job done and make a profit," said Dr. George Kingston, a retired engineer who presented the lecture.

Despite his lack of education, Ley was a smart young adult who studied how to survey and eventually became a contractor, Kingston explained. His first major project was for the city of Springfield's water system -- work that a New York City company had abandoned.

"Fred came in and completed the project on time and under budget," Kingston said. "He was beginning to learn how to get these things done pretty efficiently."

"He brought a high degree of organization to his projects. He was very efficient," Kingston said. "He treated his labor well so he could always get the labor he needed when he needed it. But he was also organized in making sure he had the material he needed when he needed them."

By the time World War I hit the U.S., the government did not have much time to decide who should build the 24 army training camps nationwide, Kingston said.

"Fred had obviously demonstrated on more than one occasion that he could be on time and on budget and get things done, and so he got the contract for Fort Devens," Kingston said.


Ley wasted no time and began work the day after he received the contract, Kingston explained. Nationwide, the training camps had to fight for lumber, steel and railroads -- but Ley managed to finish Fort Devens first.

"He didn't sit around and wait for things to happen," Kingston said. "He got things moving and brought them in."

Ley ignored the government's initial design for the barracks, instead redesigning them so that workers would not have to cut up wood from the mill. To cope with the massive influx of young men, the project also included a YMCA and Knights of Columbus, social organizations that would help to keep alcohol and other temptations at bay.

"That helped actually make the camp get along much better with the towns," Kingston explained. "Because the selectmen and the towns around the camp were really worried that this was going to corrupt their youth."

The buildings were designed to last about five years, and they ultimately served the purpose after the war ended in two.

"It was quick and dirty and relatively cheap, but they got the job done," Kingston said.

In 1929, Ley teamed up with architect William Van Alen to construct the tallest building in the world, under command of car tycoon Walter Chrysler. Again, Ley went to work before Alen had even finished the design.

"Literally they were building the building as they were designing it," Kingston said.

Kingston, who is working on a book about Ley and Van Alen, said Ley's success is based on his approach to life.

"He went from nothing. He funded his first project with $500 that he had saved from his wages as a surveyor -- to being a multmillionaire in the '20s and '30s, which then was really something," Kingston said.

Braving the snow, World War II veteran Joseph Powers, of Nashua, came with his daughter to learn more about the fort that he passed through as a corporal in 1944.

"I wonder if they're going to reopen this as a training center," Powers said. "I saw in one of the magazines that there's strong rumors in Washington about reopening Fort Devens."

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