DEVENS — Fine weather and healthy interest created good turnouts on a recent Saturday morning for a trio of events billed “Connecting Communities.”
They were sponsored by Freedoms Way Heritage Area and the Montachusett Regional Trails Commission, in cooperation with the Fort Devens Museum and Friends of the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge.
After an earlier trail walk through the Oxbow and a reception at the museum, Freedoms Way hosted a trolley tour titled “Historic Camp Devens” that led past sites linked to the original Camp Devens, established in 1917.
Narrated by Ft. Devens Museum executive director Kara Fossey, sites and buildings on the tour were from early Fort Devens days, including out buildings near Robbins Pond that dated to a World War II prisoner of war camp that housed 5,000 prisoners.
Every seat was taken on the enclosed trolley-style bus provided by the Montachusett Area Regional Transit Authority, or MART.
Among those waiting to board were Freedoms Way President Meg Bagdonis and fellow board member Pat Lavin, Dick O’Brien of the Montachusett Trails Commission and a couple from Groton — George and Mary Ann Brouillette, who hadn’t made reservations and were hoping extra seats were available. They made it.
Asked about links to Ft. Devens history, George Brouillette said he was processed through the Army base as a soldier during the Korean War. His father, William, was “one of the first nine men stationed here.” As a sergeant in charge of a truck company, he helped build the barracks, Brouillette said.
Bagdonis said it was a “fabulous event day” from all angles, including the coalition of organizations. “This is what a heritage area is all about, celebrating our hidden treasures,” she said.
The walk led to a discovery. “I learned about turnpikes,” she said.
The route included a section of the old Union Turnpike, which originated in Concord and circled back to Harvard. About 40 people took the trek, she said. “There was lots of interest in history and geology.”
If the trolley tour offered a better picture of Fort Devens — the permanent base built as the temporary Camp Devens was dismantled — than it did of the earlier era, that’s because most Camp Devens sites disappeared or were repurposed.
Dating and documenting sites to match anecdotal evidence and old photos showing Camp Devens buildings and their uses is an ongoing museum project, Fossey said.
Points of interest included the old Red Cross Building. Built in 1941 and now vacant, it is one of the last wooden buildings left from the Fort Devens era, Fossey said.
She pointed out a stone grotto and steps called “The Sweetheart Walk,” where wartime couples posed for wedding photos. Stone steps led to a hilltop chapel that was recently demolished. At Vicksburg Square, a stalwart phalanx of brick buildings and former barracks that served a number of purposes over the years now stand vacant, overlooking the parade ground.
The trolley route led past other, smaller brick buildings from the Fort Devens era, now somewhat shabby compared to handsome counterparts that were rehabilitated as private residences.
The former home of Commander Forman, for example, circa 1930s, which Fossey said is now owned by a private company. With peeling paint and overgrown bushes, It didn’t look much used. In its day, the house accommodated 27 commanders but Forman was credited as the first commander of Fort Devens after its designation changed, she said.
One of many officer’s homes on the sprawling base which encompassed 5,000 acres and straddled the boundaries of several towns, the commander’s small estate included formal gardens and an underground garage.
The formal gardens, across the road, were kept up for awhile after the base closed in 1996. Now, only a set of stone steps shows the location.
One trolley stop was at the Devens Cemetery, where white crosses in neat rows mark gravesites that include prisoners of war as well as Fort Devens soldiers and their families.
During a stop at Robbins Pond, where “some amphibious training” once took place, Fossey talked about the POW camp, a story in itself, and a less-known installation called CMTC in the same area. The Civilian Military Training Camp was a summer program where young men could learn the basics without signing up, she said.
Fossey pointed out places where various Army divisions were headquartered and where they trained, and numerous other sites, including buildings still standing but abandoned or retrofitted for other uses.
The United Native American Cultural Center, for example, a long brick building, was once a stable for cavalry horses, she said.
Outfitted like a small town, with streets, sidewalks, paved roadways, streetlights and grassy, well-tended fields, the base had hospitals, theaters, barber shops and commissaries, which were huge department and grocery stores for military personnel.
A new commissary built shortly before the base closed was never used. That building is vacant now.
The tour began and ended in the parking lot of the museum, which traces the history of Fort Devens via the stories of its soldiers and civilians who worked on the base. It is housed in one of several former Army buildings on Jackson Road, many of which have been divided and rented out as office space.
On the way back, Fossey pointed out current military installations, where thousands of troops train annually, and the Mount Wachusett Community College satellite campus. Its main building is a former Army Intelligence headquarters that had no windows in its old life and had thick, locking steel doors in basement hallways leading to the War Room. There, huge maps once covered the walls and tables, with pins to show and plan locations of battles and troop movements.
She also pointed out new industrial and commercial buildings built over the last 20 years, including New England Studios and Devens Common, a small enclave with a couple of restaurants, gas station, two large hotels and MassDevelopment headquarters.
The route led past the old Davis Library, named for the man President Johnson called “the first casualty” of the Vietnam War when he was killed there in 1961.