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The Boston Globe, by Bob Clark

10th Anniversary Open House Illuminates Fort Devens Memories

November 03, 2010

More than 100,000 soldiers trained at Fort Devens for World War I, and more than 600,000 for World War II. Thousands more passed through on their way to Korea and Vietnam, or to serve in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in the early 1990s.

The former Army facility in Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley has quite a history, and the Fort Devens Museum is dedicated to telling it. On Saturday, just days before annual Veterans Day observances, the museum will mark its 10th anniversary with an open house.

“There's so much that happened here that goes beyond just the training of soldiers,'' said Kara Fossey, the museum's executive director. “They lived here, their families were living here. People from surrounding towns came in to work, so there's really a lot to tell.''

The museum is housed in a third-floor suite at 94 Jackson Road, a mile north of Route 2's Exit 37 at the Harvard-Shirley line. It recently was able to move its offices to space across the hall, opening up more room to exhibit artifacts that previously had been in storage.

The exhibits trace the history of the fort from its founding in 1917, when it was known as Camp Devens, to its decommissioning in 1996. The military still has a small presence on the property, but much of what once was an Army base of about 10,000 acres now hosts low-rise office buildings, private homes, a few stores, and even a hotel.

During World War II Fort Devens was a sprawling complex the size of a small city, with as many as 65,000 people living or working there at its peak.

“Most of the people who visit are people who trained here or at least came through here,'' Fossey said. “A lot of people are from out of state. It's fun — they come back and they haven't been here for 50 years.''

What they see in the museum are old photos, military uniforms, weaponry, letters written by soldiers, and other artifacts from nearly 80 years of military history. It stirs a lot of memories among those who trained or served at the fort, and many who visit are eager to share their stories.

“We enjoy hearing it as much as they enjoy talking about it,'' Fossey said. “Part of what we're trying to do with this new, revamped display is to inject more personal stories into it. We have the artifacts and photographs but that doesn't mean much unless you can form a story around it.''

Fossey said she hopes to begin recording oral histories from visitors.

“It's interesting to see when people come through that when they talk about their own stories, a lot of times they don't realize how interesting they are,'' she said. “It does take sitting down with them and asking them about it and pulling all that information from them.''

Fossey said the number of museum visitors has grown steadily — about doubling this year for the second year in a row. An open house on Father's Day did very well.

“We had a ton of people here that day, several hundred probably, which was wonderful,'' she said.

The Fort Devens Museum is a small, nonprofit operation that relies heavily on donations, memberships, and volunteers. Fossey, who studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston while attending Tufts University, works part time as its executive director, and is the only paid employee. The museum is open Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It also has a website:

Saturday's open house will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with guest speakers on the hour starting at 11. It's all part of an effort to attract more visitors.

“Gaining more visibility is what we're trying to do,'' Fossey said. “It really is just getting the word out there to as many people as we can.''

Fossey said she hopes more military veterans will turn out to see what's become of Fort Devens and to share memories of the time they spent there.

“They have all these wonderful stories,'' she said. “That's what we're doing here — collecting stories, telling them, providing a venue for people to talk and remember.''

© Copyright 2010 The Boston Globe.