Volunteers ready battlefield for illumination

December 04, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Minerva Trimmer remembers making more than 23,000 luminaires for the first memorial illumination ceremony at Antietam National Battlefield in December 1989.

"There were about 20 of us, and we did the job at the Mumma House. There was about a foot of snow, it was 12 degrees, and we were on our knees. We used every kind of box in Washington County. We stacked them all in the Mumma House, and about wrecked the place," says Trimmer, grilling hot dogs for the nearly 100 volunteers who turned out to the Washington County Agricultural Education Center on Nov. 22 to prepare luminaires for the 15th annual Memorial Illumination Ceremony at Antietam on Saturday, Dec. 6.

"We did not have hot dogs that first year, I can tell you that," says Trimmer, a Fairplay native who now lives in Greencastle, Pa.


She and other members of the American Business Women's Association spearheaded the effort to lay out luminaires to honor the 23,110 Union and Confederate soldiers who were killed, wounded or missing during the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history.

Last year, about 2,700 vehicles wound their way through the candlelit battlefield for the tour, National Park Service Ranger Ed Wenschhof says.

And about 1,300 people - including youth groups, scout troops, families, Civil War buffs, park rangers and others - make it happen.

Like Trimmer, the Graff family of Fairplay also has been involved with illumination ceremony since its inception. As an 11-year-old Boy Scout with Williamsport's Troop 17 that first year, Mike Graff, now 26, remembers digging a tunnel through the frozen outer layers of the luminaire sand pile. His then 6-year-old sister, Lee Graff, recalls her brother pulling her around on a sled that day. Now a park ranger at Antietam, she takes a break from taping together more than 1,000 cardboard boxes to survey the assembly scene.

Nearly 100 volunteers shovel one ton of sand from a massive pile on the ground into plastic tubs atop picnic tables, scoop the sand with coffee cups into paper bags, plop stubby white candles into plastic cups, toss a cup and candle into each sand-filled bag, tape cardboard boxes, pack 20 luminaires into each box, tote the boxes to a trailer, and break down used boxes for recycling.

"It's quite an assembly line," says appreciative, first-time participant Irene Grissom, who traveled with Girl Scout Troop 759 from Germantown, Md., to help prepare for this year's event.

Ranger Graff's parents, Sue and Kevin Graff, are coordinating much of the action under the ag center's outdoor pavilion, where two groups of volunteers prepare 24,000 luminaires for Antietam's ceremony and 10,000 luminaires for Rest Haven Cemetery's memorial illumination later in December.

"Every year," Sue Graff says, "we've learned something to make it speed along faster."

Use of the spacious ag center pavilion has made the job more efficient. Illumination ceremony volunteers moved from the Mumma House to the Hagerstown Speedway with a few other places in between before settling in at the ag center off Md. 65 south of Hagerstown about five years ago, Lee Graff says. There's plenty of room for the small army of volunteers to do their work.

At three tables, about 21 members of the National Honor Society at Boonsboro High School fill bags with sand and candles.

"I remember seeing the candles out at the battlefield when I was 7," says senior honor student Mike Winpigler, 17.

At several other work stations, Boy Scouts from Troop 460 of Mount Airy, Md., open candle boxes, fold and tape empty boxes, and lug full boxes from tables to trailers. Scout Zach Dowell, 11, says the effort is about more than earning a service badge.

"It's about remembering the people who died in the war," he says.

Before moving to Charles Town, W.Va., about six years ago, Nancy Giles used to travel from her home in Louisiana to help with the illumination ceremony.

"Our Southern heritage is very important to me, and this is a way to preserve it, let people hear about it, and honor the men who sacrificed for us," Giles says as she flattens used cardboard boxes with Kathy McLeod and other members of the recycling team.

On illumination day, McLeod will once again help set the scene for the display when she and other experienced volunteers line the entry road to Antietam with thousands of luminaires. Volunteers will place candle-filled bags 15 feet apart across six miles of the battlefield. It's a job that McLeod has undertaken with pride for the past nine years.

"We moved out here to Sharpsburg, and this is now my battlefield," she says.

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