Virginia Evans, 77, scanned the display for the 67th Women's Auxiliary Corps at Fort Washington Park yesterday, tracing weathered photographs with a slender finger in search of familiar faces.
"There it is," she said, pointing to a sepia-toned picture of her and fellow workers lounging in the "WAC Shack" at Fort Washington during World War II. Evans is one of a dwindling number of these early female military personnel still alive and the only one on hand to celebrate the fort's 175th anniversary this weekend.
"Every time we got a nickel, we would take the military bus into Washington and look at all the sites," she recalled. Yesterday marked the first time she had returned to the fort since leaving in 1944. "I wouldn't take anything for the year I had here."
In 1946, two years after Evans left the site, Fort Washington was deactivated and turned into a unit of the National Park Service's system. Since then, a limited budget has taken a toll on the place, with its crumbling mortar, peeling paint and two sets of barracks that need restoration.
At the fort's anniversary yesterday, a collection of war buffs and reenactors organized a military history display and programs, complete with period costumes that transported visitors from the Roman legions to World War II.
Raising public interest in the fort, they said, is the only way to maintain its legacy. Organizers had hoped to attract more volunteers during this weekend's events, which continue from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today.
"This is it--this is how you teach history," said Sandy Washington, who stumbled onto the anniversary events while on a walk. "We have talked to every one of these people, and what a story."
The fort's enthusiastic volunteers paid tremendous attention to detail, from the rakish caps of Buffalo Soldiers to the shiny heel plates on a Union soldier's boots. But their audience was tiny despite the lovely day, immaculate grounds and sparkling view of the Potomac River. Row after row of folding chairs sat empty as park officials articulated the need for volunteers and donations.
"I've lived around here for 30 years and never heard of the place," said Douglas Richards, of Herndon, who brought his son, Kyle, 8, to the anniversary festivities. "We've enjoyed it, but it needs to be fixed up a little bit and publicized more."
Built to defend the nation's capital, Fort Washington was erected in 1815 on the ashes of Fort Warburton, which had been burned to the ground a year earlier to prevent its capture by British forces. The new fort, completed in 1824, housed an experimental training ground for new artillery. During the Civil War, Fort Washington guarded the capital against secessionists. It is this era that is most recreated in park programs.
"There really is a lot of history to preserve right on these grounds if we only had the funding," said Steven Gibbs, who has portrayed a Union officer during the Civil War since 1976. "It was the perfect place to protect D.C."