Exploring McClellan: A historical look back
by Larry May
Special to The Star
Dec 06, 2013 | 978 views |  0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
McClellan’s transformation has been an unalloyed success. An empty hole in the local economy and collective psyche has been replaced by investment and innovation. The framework within has connected beltways to highways and is rapidly nearing completion. The varying elements that have replaced the shuttered Fort McClellan have replaced degraded structures with synergy and fresh hope.

Viewing the current landscape is invigorating, but a look back at McClellan throughout its history is both nostalgic and informational. Each aspect of the property has a pedigree that has rebooted numerous times through different lifetimes. While the land has operated in a continuum, the hard volume of soldiers and stories forced change each time a bus loaded or picked up personnel.

The land at Camp McClellan was purchased before World War 1, began by business leaders in Anniston. The businessmen raised the money to buy the land in three days and organized the effort through the Anniston Chamber of Commerce. The land was bought from local farmers that still had crops to harvest. The property was turned over to the Army shortly after the season ended, thereby delaying transfer until after the beginning of the war. The conveyance was essential because the armed forces simply didn’t have the money to purchase the land. However, they did pay the money back in three years.

The War Department had long wanted an installation in the South. The land in Anniston was desirable to the military because of its natural bowl shape that was conducive to ammunition firing. Anniston was also a natural fit because of its use as a base for artillery training during the Spanish-American War. Camp McClellan, as it was first known, expanded and added infrastructure to its massive footprint in Calhoun County. At any given time, the installation housed 10,000 active soldiers and trained an estimated half million service members over its existence.

Fort McClellan was a major resource for decades as a training school until President Dwight Eisenhower had it closed after World War II. It remained closed until shortly before the Korean War in the 1950’s. The base flourished primarily as a chemical school until the Army relocated the Military Police school from Georgia to McClellan in 1975. The schools trained with live chemical agents that stressed the urgency of the situations they might be in. Training schools and population increased steadily until the troop drawdown and ultimate closure in 1999.

Fort McClellan reveals new tales each time someone clicks keys and surfs the Net for information. That may be sufficient for some, but there is no better source for living history than Anniston’s own Joan McKinney. While serving as Director of Protocol at McClellan, she gleaned insight every time she planned an event or continued the military’s historically based courtesy and customs. She knows the personal stories behind the buildings and what can be found inside.

The pet cemetery and its origins are a telling example of the historical perspective that McKinney offers. ” The pet cemetery was started by WAC (Women’s Army Corp) soldiers. The WAC’s came in 1954 and cared for pets at McClellan. They genuinely cared for their animals because most didn’t have children of their own. Marriage was a hardship for them. In fact, the Army didn’t officially begin to reassign married personnel together until the 1970’s. Marriage was only a norm for officers”, she explained.

Lide Hall was another facility at Fort McClellan long forgotten by most. McKinney said, ‘There was a major hospital at the fort during World War II that was an architectural wonder. It had numerous wards that were all connected by covered breezeways. Unfortunately, most of the hospital was destroyed by fire in the 1970’s. But across the street was Lide Hall, a dayroom for nurses that toiled long hours at the hospital. It was a magnificent building complete with fireplaces and another amenities that marked the craftsmanship of the time. The facility was named after Julia Lide, the only Alabama nurse killed in World War I. Sadly enough, the Army tore it down and made it a rod and gun club and eventually a meeting room”.

McKinney drove home the perfect point about the easy relationship between the Army and Anniston by saying,” Although there was a gate and a fence, there were never any barriers. The community embraced the fort and its soldiers. There was a sense of pride about being a military town. We have always had intense feelings about the armed forces since its inception. Fort McClellan always had civilians that worked on base. The men and women soldiers were always welcome in town”.

McClellan is a massive piece of property that holds many ecological wonders. There are parcels still untouched by the armed forces or redevelopment. A peek inside the dense trees reveals wildlife, plant colonies and protected species. One of the best sources for this history is Pete Conroy of JSU and former curator of the Anniston Natural History Museum. He said,” McClellan contains many exceptional stories inside of it. The federally endangered gray bat lives on the property and their habitat is protected. Their existence, and many others, relies on protected green space. All surrounding waterways are protected and does not allow for trees to be cut along the creek”.

Conroy explained that plant life abounds in the protected woodlands. He noted, “There are seven species of orchids that live in the bogs on McClellan. They are also protected”.

He went on at length about his love of the Longleaf Pine and its heritage at McClellan. He said, “The fort contains the longest line of pine in the world. It grows in all 67 counties in the state. This created a wonderful wildlife refuge for trees that over 200 years old. The longleaf is Alabama’s state tree and produces huge cones. The climate for its growth is very specific. It thrived at McClellan because of the controlled fires that the army conducted to rid themselves of leaves. By burning the ground floor, they created the perfect environment for the pines. The trees did their part in the burns because the needles they drop are very long and super flammable. After the base closure, there was concern for the Longleaf pine. Senator Jeff Sessions designated a refuge to ensure their preservation”.

Mr. Conroy revealed another way that the longleaf pine was crucial to Anniston’s history. He explained, “The longleaf pine helped to create railroad ties. The charcoal the tree produces was employed to smelt raw ore. No other tree could accomplish this. The longleaf and abundance of iron ore in the hills was why the Woodstock Iron Company chose to locate here in the 1800’s. The company actually created the town of Anniston”.

The great old grounds are now home to reuse, but also even greater stories.
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Exploring McClellan: A historical look back by Larry May
Special to The Star

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