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Aberdeen, neighboring Army base share past, future


For Ryker and Barbara Hughes, there was never any question of living anywhere else but Aberdeen.

And they were fortunate to find their dream house -- a Victorian farmhouse with a wrap-around porch -- in the Harford County city of about 13,000 residents.

These days, red, white and blue banners drape the Hugheses' house -- the couple's way of taking part in Aberdeen's centennial this year. The 100th birthday was formally observed with a variety of events in May and earlier this month.

Mr. Hughes, who was co-chairman of the centennial fireworks committee, jokes, "I'm thinking of getting T-shirts that say, 'I survived the centennial.' "

Humor aside, the couple, both 39, enjoy Aberdeen so much they hope to be around for the incorporated city's next milestone -- the 125th anniversary.

They hope to build on community spirit and a new appreciation of town history that turning 100 has generated.

Aberdeen has come a long way from the small farming-based community it was in the 1800s to its boom years with Aberdeen Proving Ground during World War II.

The town's early history was tied closely to railroads, the first of which was started in 1835. Numerous produce canneries flourished in the mid-1800s, helped out considerably by an excellent distribution network -- nearby Chesapeake Bay, as well as the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio railroads that ran through the town. Amtrak is the railroad name these days.

Evidence of Aberdeen's great wealth from the period is evinced in the Victorian homes, local historians point out.

But Aberdeen changed forever in 1917 with the U.S. Army's decision to locate a munitions training base, Aberdeen Proving Ground, adjoining the town on 75,000 acres bordering the Chesapeake Bay.

"The truth of the matter is that without APG, Aberdeen would still be a little backwater community, growing corn," said Leonard C. Weston, the military base's recently retired historian.

XTC The base, now a hub for chemical weapons and ballistic research, as well as ordnance training, provided Aberdeen residents with steady,well-paying jobs on the base and an economic boon as soldiers spent money in the town.

The proving ground grew swiftly during World War II and became a major ordnance training facility -- ranging from cannon and artillery to tanks and other armored vehicles.

APG -- as the base is commonly known to its neighbors -- is easily Harford County's largest employer with nearly 8,800 civilian and 5,400 military workers. The Army estimates the impact of paying those workers, plus awarding contracts to local businesses, to be slightly less than $400 million a year.

A newly consolidated Army Research Laboratory at APG is expected to create another 350 jobs during the next five years, as part of a consolidation of military research and technology centers now located elsewhere in the United States.

But Uncle Sam could take as well as give to APG. The Army also is studying whether to realign or combine its ordnance schools at Redstone (Ala.) Arsenal and APG. Redstone has 1,580 faculty and staff and averages 5,000 students annually. APG's ordnance school has more than 1,000 faculty and staff and trains up to 2,500 students a year.

Mr. Hughes is among those whose roots are tied to the proving ground. He recalls moving to the city in 1963 when his father took an ordnance school job. Meanwhile, his wife is a fourth-generation Aberdeen resident. Her family, the Adams, ran Main Street grocery store.

The Main Street people such as the ones Mrs. Hughes knew as children are mostly gone. Lawyers, accountants and others offering professional services have taken over many downtown offices and shops.

But the Hugheses, who work at Harford Community College, are undaunted. With their two children, Daniel, 10, and Deborah, 8, in tow,they bought their slightly down-at-the-heels house in 1988 and began renovating it. They'd like to add another room or two, but don't want to disturb the four barred owls in the trees out back.

Across the street, their neighbor, Edward V. Somody, has lived in a Victorian-style house nearly 20 years. His wife, Darleen D. Somody, teaches special education at Aberdeen High School.

Mr. Somody is another town resident whose life has strong ties to APG, where he worked 23 years until retiring four years ago. A town commissioner in the late 1980s, Mr. Somody believes the outside world is about to "discover" Aberdeen, as car-weary commuters find out about the town's Maryland Rail Commuter Service train stop.

Raymond H. Warfield, who served 15 years as a town commissioner, thinks Aberdeen's future hinges on transportation, including nearby access to Interstate 95, U.S. 40 and the railroad.

Mr. Warfield said evidence of this can be found in corporations, including Frito Lay Inc. and Clorox Co., selecting the Aberdeen ,, area for new plants in recent years. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, is expected to build a 93,000-square-foot store in the city.

Offie Elliott Clark, who moved to Aberdeen in 1957 to work at Aberdeen Proving Ground as a research scientist, hopes the new influences don't disturb Aberdeen's character.

"It was a small town then, and it has grown quite a bit since, not just in terms of size but in richness, in cultural diversity," he said.

He believes APG will continue to be Aberdeen's biggest influence.

"It is such a good source of income that if a business can tap into federal contracts, whether it's grass-cutting to janitorial, you can almost be certain of doing well because the post is of such a magnitude," he said.

APG also has enabled the city to take "political and social risks," he said.

As a large federal employer of top scientific minds, the base meant people who supported the civil rights movement in the area did not have to worry about a small-town backlash, he said.

Like most of Maryland and some other parts of the United States, Aberdeen was segregated when he moved there 35 years ago, Mr. Clark recalled.

"The depth and tenacity of the segregation surprised me. I was from North Carolina, and I did not expect to find it this far north," he said.

A major change occurred in the effort to end segregation in the 1960s when blacks began moving off the post and into the community, Mr. Clark said.

The minority community banded together to develop housing within city limits in a neighborhood called Chesapeake Acres because "we wanted very much to register and vote in in-town elections," he said.

Mr. Clark said race barriers in schools, economics and businesses have been broken down but there still is room for improvement.

He is pleased, though, that new housing developments are racially mixed.

Mr. Clark lives in Windemere, a racially mixed neighborhood of new and older, middle-class homes.

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