Dahlgren’s New Exhibitions Explore Base’s Impact on People and Place | Recent news

By CATHY DYSON THE FREE SPEAR STAR

The slaughter of pigs and the trapping of muskrats may not normally be associated with Dahlgren Naval Base, but new exhibits mention activities like these prevalent before and after the test guns began. to explode along the banks of the Potomac River in King George County.

“The Navy Lands at Dahlgren” is one of two new Dahlgren Heritage Museum exhibits unveiled this summer. The other concerns the pioneering careers of Ira and Gladys West, two of the first black scientists on the base.

Gladys West has become a bit of a celebrity after articles first published in 2018 about her work in the development of GPS spread around the world. Those assembling the couple’s exhibit were looking for ways to “best convey the Wests’ contribution to our technological development,” said Gillian Both, a museum intern working on the exhibit.

One of the results is an interactive iPad featuring questions and answers with the Wests. The exhibit also includes slideshows, audio clips, worksheets for young children and the chance for them to play I-Spy while they explore the exhibit.

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Further information on the exhibits, as well as the museum’s five-year goals, will be unveiled at a reception from 5-6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23 at White Hall Vineyard Estate in King George. The public is invited to the free event, which includes appetizers and a cash bar. Those interested can email [email protected]

The museum is planning a reception and forum to kick off the Western Exhibit in mid-July at the University of Mary Washington’s Dahlgren Campus.

“The Navy Lands at Dahlgren,” a traveling exhibit, is already on display there, and the museum will host a reception and forum from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on August 18 on campus. The exhibit was created by the class of Professor Cristina Turdean, Director of the Center for Historic Preservation at UMW. She and others will discuss the impact of the establishment of the base in 1918 and its expansion in the late 1930s on the community.

As the billboards note, some people lost their family homes to what later became Naval Support Facility Dahlgren and others took advantage of the new opportunities.

Charles Frederick Newton was one of the latter. In what the exhibit describes as a unique “informal arrangement,” the base allowed a few residents whose properties had been taken by the Navy to lease their land for farming, fishing and trapping.

Newton remained trapped on the base for 20 years while also working for the Navy.

“I used to catch 25 and 30 rats a day,” Newton said, as part of the exhibit. “Sell the skins for $3 and the meat for 25 cents. …I was making $18.52 a week [at the base] and I was making maybe $200 a day catching muskrats.

The navy brought an influx of jobs and money, even for those who didn’t trap aquatic rodents alongside. Others who had always supported their families by slaughtering hogs or fishing, crabbing and oyster farming found new markets for their wares on base.

Likewise, black women in the area, “who were known to master many trades,” including farm labor and child-rearing, found jobs, as did Mary V. Davis, as “domestic servants.” or laundresses in the houses of the base”, according to the exhibition. .

“New economic opportunities and better infrastructure have become available in an area that was quite poor before the Navy arrived,” said Ed Jones, chairman of the Dahlgren Heritage Museum.

One of the many nuggets in the exhibit that caught his eye includes a 1923 story in The Free Lance – Star about the state of the roads around Dahlgren. The dirt roads, in particular, “knit your teeth,” according to one traveler, and it took the automobiles a day to make the 60-mile round trip from Dahlgren to Fredericksburg, the nearest town.

Vehicles often got stuck on one of the two creek crossings and passengers were ready to ask for help. If they got stuck, they would release a carrier pigeon they had brought with them, which would fly to the base where help would be sent.

But the base has also changed lives. When the federal government searched for 1,336 acres of land that provided “the straight, over-water fire some 50 miles out to the Chesapeake Bay that the Navy needed to test large-caliber guns,” according to At the Exposition, he claimed power of eminent domain to acquire the land he needed from four farms: Plentful Farm, Berry Plain, Potomac View, and The Cottage.

The dispossessed farmers had a few months to leave their homes and properties. A few have sued for “unfair compensation” and successfully won higher settlements from the court.

While the initial seizure claimed most of the land needed, an expansion in the 1940s would add less than 50 more acres but disrupt many more families. There were 38 homes on 60 lots that “formed the core of King George’s black community”, the exhibit says. Those who could afford it moved elsewhere, but many had to abandon their homes and start elsewhere.

Mary Jordan was one of them. A 50-year-old widow at the time, the government offered her $1,074 for her one-acre lot, but not the house on it. She had 90 days to move at her own expense.

“As a part-time laundress in private homes, she earned $250 in 1939,” according to the exhibit.

Claudette Jordon, who lives in Maryland and is president of the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association, is the granddaughter of Mary Jordon. She donated a photo of her paternal grandmother and the letter she received about the purchase of her land by the government.

She also contributed an element that represents the other side of the coin – the benefits that the Navy base brought with it. Claudette Jordon’s father, Ernest, had to take five months of sick leave, but he was able to continue to receive a paycheck throughout his recovery due to sick days accumulated while working at the base . There’s a handwritten document that lists donations his colleagues made to support his family while he was away from work.

Jones believes these exhibits go beyond the general narrative of Navy history at Dahlgren.

“They explore the impact of the base on the community” and enrich “the story by adding the social and economic consequences on the people who worked on the base and who lived in the area – consequences which are an integral part of the Dahlgren’s story,” he said. .

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

[email protected]

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