Anthony Inhorn, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School, is one of several students working to preserve the history of Fort Williams as a military base by recording and sharing the stories of those who once served there.
The veterans oral history project is a collaboration among the local historical society, the Fort Williams Park Foundation and the school department. Inhorn is currently editing a short film featuring Frank Manduca, a musician who used to play concerts and at weekly dances for the soldiers stationed at Fort Williams.
“I’ve visited Fort Williams throughout my life and although I always knew there was some history to it,” said Inhorn. “I never really thought about what that history was. To think that there was once a major military base in town is certainly a surprising thing.”
Monday’s Memorial Day observations bring a special significance to the project.
Fort Williams served as an Army post for thousands of soldiers for more than 60 years, but time is running out to preserve for future generations the stories of those who served or worked there, which is why the veterans oral history project is so important, according to Jim Rowe, president-elect of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society.
Fort Williams was initially commissioned in 1899 to replace Fort Preble in South Portland. President William McKinley named the new military base in honor of Maj. Gen. Seth Williams, a Maine Civil War hero who served at Gettysburg and who was assigned to the staff of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
During World War I, Fort Williams was fully manned by artillery companies and National Guard troops, and it was during this time that anti-aircraft guns were added to the defenses, according to historical records.
During World War II, the fort operated as the headquarters for the harbor defense of Portland. Following the war, it housed Army Reserve units until it closed in 1962. Two years after the fort was decommissioned, a special town meeting was held and the residents of Cape Elizabeth agreed to buy Fort Williams for $200,000.
Since then, many of the buildings have been torn down, although a restoration effort is under way to preserve the remains of several of the historic batteries, as well as the picturesque Goddard Mansion.
The historical society and the Fort Williams Park Foundation also are now focusing on preserving the personal stories of the people who lived and worked at the former military installation.
Janet Villiotte, chairwoman of the education committee for the park foundation, said this week that the primary goal of the oral history project is “to document the personal narratives of people who remember Fort Williams when it was (operational).
“This does not mean solely veterans, though they have provided some fascinating memories in their interviews. Since the fort was truly a community, there are other people who were a part of it and remember its military era, though they were not soldiers themselves. What we are creating is an archive of all the audio, video and still photography that we can obtain,” she said.
Villiotte and Rowe have been collecting footage and have conducted 10 interviews so far, with a couple more scheduled for this summer. She said students at the high school were enlisted to review the footage, edit and create short films.
“We are eager to engage young members of our community in this project (because) each student or group of students brings a unique perspective,” she added.
In all, Villiotte said, “We have been fortunate to speak to veterans who were stationed at the fort, children of servicemen, a musician whose band played weekly dances at the fort, and a woman whose grandparents were civilian employees.”
She said, “I’ve loved every interview because everyone’s memories are so unique. (But), since I am a nurse practitioner by profession, I would have to say my favorite stories were those told by a woman who was an Army nurse stationed at the fort and her descriptions of her life and duties.”
Villiotte added, “I believe that history comes alive when told by those who lived it. The memories of these people, some well into their 90s, will be lost forever if they aren’t recorded. I’ve been surprised at how many have said they didn’t think there was anything special about what they had to say. Jim and I would have to disagree. This archive is a legacy to our community, and to all who love Fort Williams Park.”
“I’m so glad that I am able to participate in this project because it’s giving me a glimpse into an amazing time in history,” he said. “I would say to anyone reading this article, ‘Talk to your elders, people that you know. Ask them about their lives. Listen to their stories. They might have some very cool things to say.’”
He has a passion for filmmaking and makes short films in his spare time, which is why he thought that the Fort Williams oral history project “would be a great way to hone my filmmaking skills. This project is my first documentary, and I am certainly enjoying the process.”
In addition to Manduca, Inhorn’s short documentary also includes the memories of Sonya Eustic, who attended many of the events held at the fort.
“I can definitely guarantee that it’s a really cool story and piece of history,” Inhorn said.
For Rowe, the project is important because “these live interviews provide direct connections to people who inhabited a very unique location in our community during a very unique period of time (and) it’s important that we capture their stories now before (they’re) lost forever.”
He said, “My hope is that by making these interviews available to the public, people may better understand how important Fort Williams was in protecting Greater Portland from wartime enemies. They will also better understand those who were charged with that task and those who supported them.”
So far he and Villiotte have spoken with soldiers, families of soldiers and civilians who had supporting roles, he said.
“Their stories are a wonderful testament to a different time and to a different place,” Rowe said.
Rowe said he hopes that the students working on the project come to know Fort Williams as more than a place to play sports or hold picnics.
“(It won’t be) until they become immersed in the stories of real people, that (the park) as a fort can really come alive. Hopefully they will gain a better appreciation for their town and for a marvelous segment of its history,” he said.
When it comes to the wider community, Rowe has the same hope.
“I conduct history-focused walking tours at the park during the warmer months and a common remark I get is, ‘I’ve lived here my whole life and I never knew most of that stuff you shared.’ Hopefully, the public will have that same feeling after watching these interviews.”
“The Fort Williams oral history project is one of the most interesting, educational and rewarding adventures in which I have ever been involved. I am in awe of our interviewees. It’s been great fun providing the pieces for the high school film students to perform their magic. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with,” Rowe said.
Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, which is also home to the world famous Portland Head Light, was once a thriving military base. Now, the community is coming together to preserve and share veterans stories.
A view of Fort Williams in the 1900s, when it operated as a military installation.
Soldiers conducting a drill at Battery Blair.
The parade ground at Fort Williams.
Anthony Inhorn, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School, is one of several students working on a oral history project to preserve and share the stories of veterans from Fort Williams.