Officials pulling out the stops for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park’s 75th anniversary
Seventy-five years is a long time, and there have been many striking changes since the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was established in 1944.
At that time, the United States was at war and it had been a long struggle to even get the iconic town included in the National Park System.
But the same vision that prevailed then is still alive now at the park and will be profiled as part of this weekend’s 75th anniversary commemoration.
The three-day celebration begins Friday and runs through Sunday, featuring speakers, living-history presentations, youth activities and live musical performances.
A crowd is expected, and preparations have been underway for more than a year to “give visitors absolutely more than they might expect,” said Autumn Cook, public information officer for the park and event co-organizer.
“On the Memorial Day weekend there were about 6,000 visitors here based on our bus count, so it’s safe to say there will be thousands here,” Cook said. “We really have tried to take history and also think out of the box so it will come alive now.”
The opening ceremony will begin Friday at 4 p.m. in the Gathering Tent and feature remarks from park superintendent Tyrone Brandyburg and other former park officials.
Many special touches have been added, including a Family and Youth Discovery Tent where visitors can snap selfies using park props to get the perfect photo.
Youngsters of all ages will also have an opportunity to play with toys from circa-1940s, including marbles, blocks and sock monkeys.
Dog-lovers will be interested in a display at the Living History tents dedicated to the role they played during World War II as part of the Dogs for Defense program.
Cathy Baldau, executive director of Harpers Ferry Park Association, said it’s been fascinating to think about how much different things were then because the country was involved in World War II.
Weekend visitors will have an opportunity to use ration stamps similar to those used during the war to purchase rationed items including food. They can also plant a victory garden to take home.
“In doing the research for our programs we’ve learned so much about what was happening here as well as at the national level back then. There was rationing going on, and people were planting victory gardens, not to mention how many had gone off to war,” said Baldau, who was also a co-organizer for the event.
“But the fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation on June 30, 1944, adding Harpers Ferry to the National Park Service showed it was important to preserve the past even with what the country was going through at that time,” she said.
Local officials and leaders originally began pushing for this federal park declaration in 1936, she said.
Visitors this weekend will be reminded of that dedication when looking at “then and now photos” of the park, she said.
Photos taken during the early 1950s are striking because they show how it looked before many of the renovations began, Baldau said.
“It will be quite startling to people, I think, to see the condition of the town when it became a national monument,” she said.
Devastating floods had wiped out most of the commercial businesses in Lower Town. Buildings were deserted and left to rot, she said.
“A photographer with the National Geographic described it as an Italian hillside after the Nazis had left,” she added.
Historic preservation work began in the mid-1950s but also took time and research, Cook said.
“They had to figure out what time period they wanted to restore to, and ultimately settled on 1859 to the mid-1860s. Then they had to research the buildings and what they looked like in that time period,” she said.
Cook added that archeological work also began in the 1950s, and there is still a park archeologist on staff today who helps document the site’s past.
Helping preserve and maintain history is an important job that can’t be overlooked, she said.
“If all of that work hadn’t been started 75 years ago the chances are good that it would have been gone forever,” she said. “But instead we get to tell this success story, and why Harpers Ferry is still important today.”