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Aberdeen Proving Ground, Harford's economic lifeblood

Aegis correspondent

Aberdeen Proving Ground has been part of the lifeblood of Harford County for just about a century.

The early years of Aberdeen Proving Ground began with the acquisition of land to establish the facility in 1917. The early map of the Army post hangs on the wall of the Aberdeen Room Museum.

The map takes up 11 feet of wall space in the APG exhibit area. The map covers area from Poole's Island of 280 acres, on the left, with the names of Charles Homer and C.C. Wills ad F. T. Homer. Then there is Carrolls Island of 1,212 acres.

Extending to the map's right, there is a large area of 8,000 acres that we associate with Edgewood. On the far right is Spesutie Narrows and Island.

In the middle is the historic community of Michaelsville. It was undoubtedly named after the family who owned many acres, and some members of the family still live in and around Aberdeen. Some of the other names that appear on the map are, or will be, gone in the area.

This is the part of the map that is nostalgic for me, and gives a lot of background for one of the latest donations to the Aberdeen Room. Just above the Michaelsville Farm is noted "Garrettson's Chapel," C. H. Cochran Trustee. In George Archer's writing for the Historical Society of Harford County Quarterly Bulletin nearly a century ago, he has an account of this chapel that was deeded by the Rev. Freeborn Garrettson to the "people called Methodists" on the east side of the Great Road that leads from Bush River Neck to Swan Creek, near Red Lion Bridge," in 1790.

As recorded by Freeborn Garrettson in his journals written from 1774 until just before his death in 1827, his "parents were third generation English settlers, among the first to settle in the Province of Maryland staking their claim on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Susquehanna River." The settlement came to be known by the family name, and until 1828 some of the descendants lived there, owed land, a farm, a store, a smithy and slaves.

While the name does not continue, except for on Garrettson's Chapel, it is a part of Harford County and Methodist history. Freeborn, with Church of England ancestry, was a member of St. George's in Perryman and received by his early education at the old Vestry House.

Although he was the fifth son of John and Sara Garrettson, he inherited all of the family land and property at his father's death. In 1774, he was converted to Methodism by Robert Strawbridge. In his journal, he wrote "After wards I stood in the midst of the household at family prayer and declared the slaves belonging to Freeborn Garrettson to be freed."

No longer interested in such earthly possessions as land, he gave it to his workers as he went on his way to being the famous Methodist circuit rider, "The Paul Revere of Methodism," traveling the eastern seaboard up to Nova Scotia.

Many books have been written about this early Harford County Methodist, but the only mention of the name on the acquisition map is that of the chapel. Our father was baptized in the chapel in 1889. The family no longer went by horse and carriage to Michaelsville from Aberdeen to attend church after the 1893 church was built at the corner of West Bel Air Avenue and Parke Street corner.

The family name was honored by the Smithsonian in 2012 during the ceremonies of the "Journey Stories" that was their national project that year. After their research of land records and histories, they recognized the contribution of freedom and parcels of land to live on given by Freeborn Garrettson.

The latest contribution to the Aberdeen Room is a copy of the certificate issued to me in 2012, in the name of Garrettson, by the Smithsonian.

The following is a history of Aberdeen Proving Ground posted by the Harford County government on its web site:

Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) was established by order of President Woodrow Wilson on October 20, 1917, 6 months after the United States entered World War I and officially opened in December 1917," according to the Harford County government web site. "The Army had taken over 69,000 acres of land and water to provide an area for design and testing of ordnance. Sandy Hook, NJ and the Army's proof and acceptance testing ground for ammunition and cannon since 1874 was being closed and the Chesapeake Bay site was selected as the best suited to carry the mission of testing field artillery."

From this beginning, APG has grown and evolved into one of the most diversified military installations in the United States. On land acquired 16 miles from Aberdeen, the Edgewood Area of APG (formerly known as Edgewood Arsenal) was also developed in 1917 as a chemical weapons, research, development and testing facility. The July 1971 merger of Edgewood Arsenal and Aberdeen Proving Ground created a unique combination of activities and missions.

Today, APG is recognized around the world as a leader in the research, development, testing and evaluation of materiel.

The growth from BRAC 2005 represents APG's largest expansion since World War II. With this BRAC came the electronics and communications that realign and complement support for the war fighter. Aberdeen Proving Ground continues to reinvent itself to meet the demands of the day. Drawing on its long history in computing, organizations at APG are at the leading edge of development of new technologies to address one of the major threats to national security today - cybersecurity.

The Army Alliance, a quasi-government organization whose mission is to advocate for Aberdeen Proving Ground, offers the following history:

Aberdeen Proving Ground is the Army's oldest active proving ground, dating back to World War I. Aberdeen Proving Ground started as two separate military installations – one in Edgewood focused on chemical weapons research and development, and one in Aberdeen dedicated to munitions testing and evaluation. These installations eventually merged into one in 1971.

Over time, Aberdeen Proving Ground has reinvented itself to meet the demands of the day. In World War I, the new proving ground at Aberdeen was used for proof-testing field artillery weapons, ammunition, trench mortars, air defense guns, and railway artillery. The mission was later expanded to include the operation of an Ordnance training school and developmental testing of small arms.

At Edgewood, the Army conducted research, design, test, and manufacture of chemical weapons and protective equipment, to counter the threat posed by the German Army in World War I. During World War II, Aberdeen and Edgewood greatly expanded, with its workforce growing to include 27,185 military and 5,479 civilians as all fields of research, development, and training expanded to meet the heavy workload of wartime. After the War ended, APG's workforce reduced to its pre-war levels and the role of the proving ground returned to research, development and testing.

Scientists and researchers at Aberdeen and Edgewood were responsible for many inventions and improvements:

•During the 1920s, gas masks were developed at APG.

•The first digital computer, ENIAC, was created to compute World War II ballistic firing tables, enabling users to analyze in a half-minute what it took a person 20 hours to compute.

•During the 1950s and 1960s, the Army studied both chemical agents and their defenses at Edgewood. In 1969, production and transportation of chemical weapons was banned and Edgewood's focus turned to defense. Since then, Edgewood has become the nation's center of chemical and biological defense expertise.

The Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005 had an enormous impact on Aberdeen Proving Ground. In addition to adding nearly 9,000 government jobs and another 10,000 contractor jobs, BRAC 2005 consolidated several missions at Aberdeen Proving Ground, resulting in improved efficiency and collaboration. Specifically, BRAC 2005:

•Consolidated elements of the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) community at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

•Created the Chemical and Biological Defense Center of Excellence at Aberdeen and co-located program management with research and development functions.

•Co-located the Army Test & Evaluation Command headquarters with several of its testing organizations at APG.

As Aberdeen Proving Ground approaches its centennial year, an Aegis editorial offered the following opinion:

Across the United States, if the average person on the street has heard of any place in Harford County, it's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

It's an installation with a rather high profile history, and an awful lot of enlisted personnel passed through its gates over the years. A lot of career military people also spent time on post, as it was long the home of the Army's Ordnance Center and School, a key institution of higher learning for the nation's fighting men and women.

Aberdeen Proving Ground is an institution worthy of recognition and expressions of public support and, from an official standpoint, this is the week to make those expressions because it's Armed Forces Week.

Over the years at APG, the activities associated with Armed Forces Week and the closely related Military Appreciation Day, have varied in intensity.

Part of the reason for this is the responsibility for the most impressive observances has fallen to the Army. Generally, tours of the post (the non-classified, non-range areas anyway) as well as live fire demonstrations, shows involving guns, tanks and other equipment have been highlights.

The observances have been very well attended by people from Harford County and well beyond. It's not every day a civilian gets to see a tank in action.

Sometimes, however, shows at APG have been scaled back. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, security was a key concern, and for many years after that, the nation's wartime footing precluded many large influxes of civilians onto APG.

This year, federal budget concerns are cited as the primary reason for the post having a scaled back observance, featuring public events of limited appeal, as well as tours of post facilities open to a rather limited clientele.

That's fine for this year. The nation's needs must come first when it comes to the armed forces and the amount of interaction between Aberdeen Proving Ground and the civilians affected by it.

Three years down the road, however, is a different matter entirely. Aberdeen Proving Ground was established in 1917 in the aftermath of Congress declaring war on Germany and the Central Powers in what was then known as The Great War.

The APG centennial is a major event in local history, as well as in the history of the Army, and needs to be celebrated as such.

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