Civil War group making history

September 07, 1997


Staff Writer

In helping the community, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites is trying to help itself.

Consider: Early this year the group brought its annual convention to Hagerstown. The conference drew 700 people from 40 states and was hailed by association President Dennis Frye as "the greatest Civil War convention ever."

This week brings with it the 135th Commemoration of the Battle of Antietam, which APCWS is producing south of the city. Estimates have some 50,000 spectators expected to witness battle re-enactments and living history displays.

Next could be the filming of the Civil War movie "Gods and Generals" in the county. The major motion picture was recruited to the area by APCWS and other local officials, and could begin filming next year.


All are seen as big economic pluses for the community by local officials. The state Office of Tourism estimates the three-day Antietam program alone could mean a $5 million boost to the local economy. And the Maryland Film Commission has estimated an economic impact of as much as $1 million a week for the scheduled 20-week "Gods and Generals" shoot.

But Frye is quick to point out that such events also benefit APCWS. They have to, he added.

"If there was no linkage, we would not be involved," Frye said.

The 10-year-old organization was founded in the midst of the 1980's real estate boom that was threatening to replace many of the nation's Civil War battlefields and historical sites with shopping malls, homes and business parks.

Frye, a former National Park Service historian who grew up near Antietam National Battlefield, recalled with disgust watching a battlefield being literally hauled away by bulldozers.

"Open ground where men fought and died is not just open ground. Every battlefield represents leadership, courage, personal responsibility, teamwork and sacrifice, all of which are the very foundation of our society," he said.

In response to the building boom, Frye and six other people devoted to Civil War preservation formed a "real estate company" that would purchase endangered property, help other preservation organizations and governments purchase land, or secure protective easements that would restrict development, he said.

"Fortunately for our effort, the real estate boom busted in the late 1980s and provided us with a window of opportunity," Frye said.

The opportunity was enhanced by a greater general interest in the Civil War - as demonstrated by the success of the PBS series "The Civil War" - and a congressional study that found many of the nation's battlefields were unprotected to development.

Today, the association is the largest Civil War preservation organization in the nation, having protected 6,000 acres of land at 46 sites in 12 states at a cost of $15 million, Frye said. Most of the money is raised through fees paid by the organizations 13,000 members.

"They're probably the one preservation organization that everyone knows about," said David Roth, founder and publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine.

Roth said Frye's group has great respect in the Civil War preservation community.

"They seem to know where the places are that need to be protected, and they go get them," he said.

But two years ago the group was looking for a new home. Its rent in Fredericksburg, Va., was getting high and battlefield development was still taking place nearby.

"We wanted a model area to display our mission, not an area of battlefield desecration," Frye said.

Maryland, which was building a national reputation for battlefield preservation, seemed like a good location, but an attempt to move to Sharpsburg was rejected by town officials. Then a group of officials from Hagerstown, led by City Councilwoman Susan K. Saum-Wicklein, made an aggressive pitch to bring the organization here.

Frye said the final decision came down to between Hagerstown and Winchester, Va., and it seemed like long odds for Hagerstown because the majority of the members on the APCWS board were from Virginia.

"The chances of moving from Virginia to Maryland were bleak," he said.

But a presentation made by Saum-Wicklein and other officials to APCWS in July of 1995 was "so powerful, so moving," that the board of directors voted 18-0 to make the move to Hagerstown, Frye said.

The deal that brought APCWS to Hagerstown gave the organization and its 12 employees 4,250 square feet of new office space in the city-owned Elizabeth Hager Center downtown and $1 a year rent. The city provides free water, sewer, trash collection and parking.

In exchange, the organization pays for its electric and gas service, makes a $1,700 annual payment to the city in lieu of taxes, and agrees to hold its annual convention in the city once every five years.

Frye admits the move was beneficial for APCWS. The $1 rent will save the organization $800,000 over 20 years, when adjusted for inflation, he said.

"We have a good deal, but we are making it even a better deal for the community," he said.

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