By Nathan Lamb
DEVENS — Though they sit in the heart of an enterprise zone and growing community, the imposing cluster of brick barracks buildings at Vicksburg Square off Beuna Vista Street are a landmark legacy of Fort Devens’ 64 years.
According Fort Devens Historical Museum director Ian Meisner, the timeline is a broad pallet that includes Army life, education and even a couple of ghost stories.
The story begins in 1917, when the Army leased 5,000 acres of agricultural land from 112 private owners to establish Camp Devens.
A small city was later established with a population of between 35,000 and 50,000 soldiers, the majority of which were housed in temporary tar paper and wood structures around the base.
While none of those buildings remain today, Meisner said the parade ground at what is now Roger’s Field was essentially in the same spot. The Army headquarters abutted the area as well.
Though the details changed over time, Meisner said those uses remained in that area until the base was closed in 1995.
“Even back when Devens wasn’t Fort Devens, even when it was Camp Devens, it was the heart of Devens and then it was the head, so to speak, over Devens as well,” he said.
Such was the circumstance when Lowell Cong. Edith Norse Rogers entered the scene as a vital advocate of the base. The museum history records said she argued the base was vital to the area’s economy and it was a winning cause. Roger’s Field was later named after Edith’s husband, John Jacobs Rogers.
Appropriations were made to build permanent structures at what is now Vicksburg Square in 1927. Three of the barracks were in place when Fort Devens became a permanent post in 1931, and the fourth barracks was completed in 1940.
As part of the building program, the Post Headquarters next door to Vicksburg Square was built as well.
Meisner explained the need for permanent structures at a permanent base, saying temporary buildings are fine for soldiers just passing through, but that year-round garrisons generally get better lodging.
In recognition, the regiment added “first at Vicksburg” to its colors, and since “first at Vicksburg” was first at Devens, the barracks became known as Vicksburg Square, explained Meisner.
With that permanent presence established, Fort Devens continued to grow to the point where part of the Vicksburg complex was used as auxiliary recuperation wards for the base hospital during World War II.
After the war, Vicksburg was once again something of a surplus item, and was used as a satellite campus for the University of Massachusetts from 1946 to 1948. According to a flier at the museum, study was open to “male veterans of Massachusetts who qualify academically and who are eligible under the GI Bill.”
Meisner explained that the campus was a temporary solution to help area colleges cope with the massive influx of soldiers returning from war that were now eligible to receive financial aid from the GI bill.
From 1951 on, Vicksburg became a different type of school, where soldiers were trained in the art of radio-intercepting and code-breaking for the Army Security Agency, which became the Intelligence Security Command in 1977.
Though the name changed, Meisner said it maintained that role until the base closed in 1995.
While that is the official history of Vicksburg Square, Meisner said there are some folk tales in the museum archives.
The story says that soldiers and MPs in the 1950s and 1960s tasked with guard duty frequently refused to patrol the building alone, having heard inexplicable sounds of doors slamming, the echo of footsteps and toilets flushing.
The story said those noises came when the building was closed to the public and secured after hours, which led to talk of a harmless poltergeist tagged “George the Ghost.”
There was also reference to an apparition outside the Vicksburg complex known as the woman in black.
According to legend, she could be seen as a figure all in black, traveling swiftly across the post golf course or Rogers Field late at night.
While the presence of spirits at Vicksburg is debatable, it appears more likely the complex will remain part of the landscape for at least the foreseeable future.
Before the Army left, it took steps to ensure the classic design of the base would be preserved, putting 300 acres in the vicinity of Verbeck Gate in the National Register of Historic Districts.
The preservation officer for the district is Devens Enterprise Commission Director Peter Lowitt, who was out of state on business and could not be reached.
However, Meisner offered some opinion on historic preservation in general.
He said the intent with such designations is to preserve resources indefinitely, but that does not always mean the funds will be available to do so.
At this point, the buildings are owned by MassDevelopment, which has stated they are looking for a developer to renovate the buildings, once the zoning there is changed to residential.
Similar to others who frequent the base, Meisner expressed hope that comes together.
“Those buildings and that architecture are really what sets Devens apart from other communities around here,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea they (the Army) had and I do hope they will be preserved.”