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Then and Now | A Summer Series

A base hit

Devens, once a fort, now a hub of commerce

Matthew Bruun


The conflict that history would dub "World War I" had been raging across Europe for almost three years when President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress in April 1917 to say it was time for America to join the fight.

"There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us," he said. "It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance."

Within months, New England's role in the conflict was defined. On land in northern Worcester County that had been used as temporary quarters for troops, Camp Devens was formally christened on Sept. 5, 1917.

For nearly eight decades, the base would play a local role in every major armed conflict the nation faced. And it was a vital force in the regional economy.

Today, it has been remade into a center of commerce for more than 75 companies and 3,000 workers. It is home to hundreds of families. And it is a recreational resource that draws more than 150,000 visitors a year.

But it all started with a world at war.

The camp, spread across 5,000 acres in four towns - Lancaster, Harvard, Shirley and Ayer - was a reception center for troops during the war and a demobilization center when the war ended. More than 150,000 returning soldiers were processed there.

Soon after the war, Devens was deemed excess to the needs of the Army and until 1931 it was utilized as a summer training camp for local National Guard troops and reserve units. The post was also a site, in 1929, of early tests by rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard.

In 1931 the Army declared it a permanent installation. The next year the site was formally dedicated as Fort Devens, named after Brevet Maj. Gen. Charles Devens, a Massachusetts man who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and as attorney general under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

In 1940, when the United States instituted its first peacetime draft, Fort Devens was the designated reception center for all New England draftees. That same year a massive $25 million building project got under way. More than 1,200 wooden buildings, including two 1,200-bed hospitals, were built at the base.

Over the next half-century, the fort served as a reception center in every U.S. armed conflict, providing training for soldiers, chaplains, cooks and Army nurses.

Then, on June 30, 1991, the federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted 5-2 to end the fort's use as a military base. At the time there were more than 6,200 soldiers stationed at the base and 4,285 family members living on it. Another 2,100 dependents lived off base.

When Fort Devens closed for good on March 31, 1996, it had a wide impact. The loss of almost 2,800 civilian jobs at the base hit surrounding towns hard. And there were other impacts. Ayer public schools, for example, lost as many as 70 percent of their students.

To many, the news of the closing sounded like a death knell.

"Fifteen thousand people picking up and leaving," said William Burke. "More than half lived out and around Devens."

Mr. Burke is the senior vice president of operations at the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, the quasi-public body that was charged with overseeing reuse and redevelopment of Devens after the host towns handed those duties off to the state.

"Nobody was really sure what the reuse was going to look like," said Meg Delorier, in charge of community relations at Devens.

Like Ms. Delorier, who worked at the Red Cross on the base, Mr. Burke knew Fort Devens long before his current posting. He was an engineer there during its military heyday, and he designed many of the buildings he later saw torn down. A brick from one of the structures sits on a shelf above his desk.

His agency's offices are located near the former parade grounds, in buildings that used to house the army intelligence school. Those functions moved to Arizona when the base closed.

The parade grounds have been the site of the fort's popular Fourth of July festivities for years, attracting as many as 10,000 people each year. But the parade grounds now see civilian use year-round. Later this week, hundreds of athletes will participate in the Bay State Games on these same grounds. Soccer, archery and field hockey competitions are all slated there.

Recreation Director Kathy Wiberg said the playing fields and trails that annually welcome thousands of civilians to Devens were started from the ground up during the redevelopment.

"We've master-planned every single area of recreation space," she said.

The 44 acres of parade grounds are used as athletic fields from April 1 to Nov. 1, with enough room to offer 13 tournament fields at a time.

"Our repeat business is 100 percent," Ms. Wiberg said. "And our waiting list is very long."

The recreation area also boasts Mirror Lake, parts of which are 80 feet deep. It is accessible to the public for $5 a carload per day.

"We consider it the best kept secret in Massachusetts," Ms. Wiberg said.

In addition, a system of trails is now in development that will one day be linked to trails in the host towns.

While an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers still pass through Devens every year to access the 5,000-acre reserve forces training area south of Route 2, on the base itself the street names - Jackson Road, Antietam Street, Sherman Avenue, Patton Road - are the most obvious reminders of the site's heritage. Most evidence of its military past is gone.

"When we took over in May 1996, it was pretty much a ghost town," Mr. Burke said.

But no one would call it a ghost town today.

Seventy-five companies now call the base home. The smallest employs just two people. The largest, Gillette Co., employs more than 400. In all, more than 3,000 people work at Devens.

"We've already exceeded the (number of) civilian jobs at the (former) base," Mr. Burke said, and the reuse plan calls for 6,000 more jobs to be added by 2033.

When marketing Devens to outside companies, Mr. Burke's agency is able to highlight a fast-track development process. Firms can go from concept to groundbreaking in 75 days; the average business takes less than 60 days to reach that goal, the agency says. That timetable is unheard of in most communities.

"It is significantly different from what I expected back in 1995," Mr. Burke said.

More than 100 families now live at Devens. One of them is Lynn Cheney's. She is a child of military parents who lived in Harvard for 20 years. The base was a fixture in her environment, but one she rarely saw.

"I'd never set foot on base besides the Fourth of July," she said. "You just didn't go there."

Until a few years ago, Ms. Cheney commuted from her home in Harvard to Acton, where she was president of Comrex Corp., a designer of high-tech broadcast equipment. But when the company was looking to expand two years ago, Devens represented a great opportunity.

"From a business perspective, it has the infrastructure that we need, but also the telecom infrastructure," she said. "We have twice the space we had in Acton with about the same overhead." Since moving, the company has added to its work force and now has about 20 employees.

Ms. Cheney said she was so happy at Devens that she bought a home there. "It's great being less than a mile from work." And it's also great living in a close-knit and evolving community, she said.

The Devens community is diverse. Its residents include "empty nesters" in their retirement years and young families in their first homes. Some hail from neighboring towns, others from Russia, China and Vietnam.

Earlier this month, Devens realized a milestone - the unveiling of its ZIP code: 01434.

"It's another step to really having an identity," Mr. Burke said.

At this point, the future of that identity remains an unknown. Growth is certain. There are 176 former military homes at Devens slated for rehabilitation and eventual sale. But in an effort to protect the values of local homes, the towns of Ayer, Lancaster, Harvard and Shirley capped the rehabilitation of the 1,764 housing units left when the fort closed to 282 homes. Soon, that threshold will be met.

One of the questions to be decided as the community grows is whether it will become a town in its own right.

"Over the next 18 months we'll wrestle and decide that question," Mr. Burke said.

The matter is expected to end up before residents of the four towns during future annual town meetings. If the towns agree to surrender their authority and permit Devens to become a town in its own right, it would be the first new municipality in Massachusetts since 1920, when East Brookfield split off from Brookfield.

But even if Devens never becomes an officially recognized municipal entity, its residents hope it will always be its own community.

"Everything is brand-new, relatively speaking," Ms. Cheney said. "There's a great feeling of neighborliness, and there's a high percentage of active participation. Everyone is on some committee or other.

"There is an interest on the part of the residents to keep that," she added, "no matter what happens."

From Worcester Telegram & Gazette

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