Dawn and Jesse Stevenson look over a map of the lost village of Sterlingville during the Fort Drum Lost Villages Tour on Nov. 9. They were trying to find the location of a family home and had brought with them a copy of the bill of sale for the property, dating to when the U.S. War Department purchased land for the expansion of Pine Camp. With that purchase, 525 local families were displaced and five entire villages were eliminated while others were reduced in size. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
Community members embrace family histories
during Fort Drum Lost Villages Tour
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
Dawn Stevenson was pouring over a historic map of Sterlingville during the Fort Drum Lost Villages Tour on Nov. 9, looking to make a family connection.
Her father was the youngest of nine children born there, and Stevenson was searching for the location of his family home that was vacated during the expansion of Pine Camp in the 1940s.
“We’ve been working on the family tree for a long time, and this was an opportunity to actually see for ourselves where our family came from,” Stevenson said. “My dad is from Sterlingville, but you can’t find that on a map anywhere. Now I can see where he was born.”
Sterlingville was one of five villages that disappeared in the 1940s when the War Department purchased 75,000 acres for the expansion of Pine Camp. More than 500 families were displaced, and 3,000 buildings were abandoned as a result.
Stevenson attended the Lost Villages Tour with her husband Jesse, and her parents, Louis and Keitha Delles. While scanning the map, something else caught their attention.
“Oh, my God, we have a whole road named after us,” Stevenson said. “Dad, you could have a road named after you.”
While the spelling on the map is Dells Road, Stevenson said that this was too close to be coincidence.
“OK, they left an ‘e’ out, but that’s a common typo,” Stevenson said. “On the military contract, they spelled Delles with two ‘e’s’ and then once with two ‘a’s’ and once with an ‘e’ and an ‘a.’”
The Lost Villages History Tour was a daylong journey through the areas that currently serve as training grounds for 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers but once were vibrant communities in the North Country, to include Sterlingville, Woods Mills and Lewisburg, and their associated cemeteries.
The Stevensons and Delleses experienced another revelation at a cemetery stop when Stevenson said they found the grave of her father’s niece, who they thought was buried off post in Black River Cemetery.
During the tour, Stevenson provided Dr. Laurie Rush, Fort Drum Cultural Resources manager, with two copies of the bill of sale for the Delles family farm in Sterlingville. The original documents were found inside her grandmother’s Bible, which Stevenson inherited after she died.
Stevenson said that she was glad for the chance to connect with her family’s history this way.
“This is still home. It’s still meaningful to us, because this is where our family started,” she said.
Another tour attendee also sought out Rush, but not for the first time. Carol Reed had first met Rush at a lecture about the Lost Villages in Antwerp. Reed graciously gave Rush and her staff access to a large collection of photos and documents dating back to the development of Pine Camp, which they scanned and catalogued in the Cultural Resources archive.
“I’m just so delighted that my grandmother thought so much of history that she cut out things about people and events from various sources,” Reed said. “I mean, who remembers the Antwerp Gazette? I sure don’t. But every place had a newspaper back then.”
Reed and her 10 siblings all grew up in Antwerp, but her mother and grandmother hailed from Woods Mills, one of the Lost Villages. She visited the Woods Mills Cemetery before – once with her mother and another time with two of her sisters – but this was her first chance to attend a tour.
“This is all new to me, and it’s so interesting to see,” she said.
Reed said that her grandmother and great-grandmother loved making postcards.
“It’s just so cool that every occasion warranted a postcard – every holiday from St. Patrick’s Day to Easter and New Year’s,” she said. “I have found boxes and boxes of postcards.”
Among the collection of correspondences, Reed has a letter her great-grandmother wrote about what she hoped would happen to “that Hitler fellow.”
Heather Wagner, Fort Drum Cultural Resources outreach and education coordinator, said that the tours have provided a mutual benefit of not only being able to share history with community members but also gaining new knowledge from those who attend them.
Community input has improved the way these historic lands are managed, she said.
“How we actively manage the land is due in no small part to the Lost Villages Tour,” she said. “That relationship with our community has impacted how all of the Department of Defense manages training areas.”
Wagner said that, in the past, national registered properties on military installations were off-limits to training until people like Rush demonstrated how they could be used as training assets.
“Dr. Rush has led that charge by showing that we could do that, and do it successfully, while still preserving those sites,” Wagner said.
Nearly 100 attendees attended the Lost Villages History Tour, and Wagner said she was pleased to see new faces at this event, as well as young community members.
“By sharing these Lost Villages and the history of Fort Drum with all of you, we are encouraging you and deputizing you to be cultural resources managers out in your communities,” she said. “If what you see on this tour is important to you, then it will be important to your neighbors.”
The public is invited to attend the free Fort Drum Holiday Tour, scheduled Dec. 13, 14 and 15. The tour includes stops at the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum, Memorial Park and LeRay Mansion – decorated for the holiday! Reservations may be made beginning Nov. 27. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (315) 772-5463.