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Phillip Tutor: No WWI, no Fort McClellan. Does Anniston prosper?

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Camp McClellan in September 1917

Camp McClellan in September 1917

Fort McClellan is permanently embedded in Anniston’s DNA. The Army may have skedaddled back in 1999, but it couldn’t dissolve the link between this city and that land.

Anniston will always be an Army town.

It’s an odd thought, but can you imagine Anniston and Calhoun County today had Fort McClellan never existed?

“Probably not,” said Eli Henderson, the former county commissioner.

An Anniston never married to the Army?

“The history of Anniston would have been unalterably changed, no question,” said Jack Draper, the mayor.

An Anniston just as another Southern city?

“I think that with the way things have turned out now, we would be in a little worse shape economically than we are today,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Walt Phillips, who was stationed three times at Fort McClellan.

Even in death, Anniston’s former military post celebrates anniversaries like I hoarded baseball cards. The day the Army shut the doors. The day closure was announced. The day the Army’s chemical school returned. The day when the Army upgraded Camp McClellan to Fort McClellan. The day when the first uniformed men trained on post.

But there is no more significant event in the fort’s history — other than closure, of course — than April 6, 1917, 100 years ago this week. That’s when Congress declared war on Germany. Without America’s entry into World War I, it’s likely that Fort McClellan as we remember it would never have been born.

Oh, sure, Anniston’s movers-and-shakers long courted the Army because the military meant jobs, people and cash, starting as far back as 1898. The National Guard trained for a few summers near the Dark Corner community, and the Great War’s start only ramped up those efforts. In March 1917, the Chamber of Commerce bought 19,000 acres (cost: $381,187.74) from a patchwork of small farmers because the Army wanted to install an artillery range. War or not, the wooded acres north of the city were already being commandeered for sporadic military use.

Nevertheless, the direct correlation between President Wilson, Congress, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and Fort McClellan is undebatable. When war came, the Army came for McClellan. Out went the old plans, in went new ones — a massive training installation named after a Union Civil War general.

“I don’t know what Anniston would have looked like (without Fort McClellan), quite frankly,” Draper said. “We would have been more akin to a sleepy little town instead of the cosmopolitan city we became.”

In 2017 terms, here’s what we have thanks to Fort McClellan.

Thousands of acres needing redevelopment.

The Center for Domestic Preparedness.

A dip in Anniston’s population.

Anniston Councilman Ben Little, who served at the fort and stayed.

Unexploded ordnance, still.

A collection of residences and light industrial sites.

The Army National Guard Training Center.

Anniston’s Youth Sports Complex.

Campuses for Gadsden State and Jacksonville State.

A stunted post-closure county economy.

A vast community of retired military.

Above all else, it’s that last one — the people — that resonates more than all others. That may be Fort McClellan’s lasting legacy. Not the leftover mortars and rounds, not the vacant land. It’s those the military imported to northeast Alabama. Some hated it. Others didn’t. Some stayed. Some retired here. Together, they gave this county and its schools a diversity of cultures and religion and politics that most of Alabama lacked, and that we lack today.

“It brought so many people from all parts of the country here,” Col. Phillips said. “I just know so many people that Fort McClellan has influenced their lives, mainly through marriage.”

Like Henderson’s late sister, Gertrude. She married a Fort McClellan soldier, Walter Ellswick. He was from Ohio, and a good brother-in-law, Henderson told me.

“One of the most important things is all of the families from throughout the U.S. who came here to Anniston, Alabama, because of Fort McClellan. I can’t imagine what (Anniston) would be like” if the fort had never happened.

But it did, and with it came everything the city wanted — jobs, expansion, notoriety, economic consistency and influence. But it also brought the Army’s evils of environmental pollution and a tendency to cause cities to rely on military-based economies. That’s Anniston to a T, right? Jobs at the fort, jobs at Anniston Army Depot, jobs at the Army’s chemical-weapons incinerator.

In 2015, a Jacksonville State University report linked $968 million in spending to the depot, the CDP and the National Guard center. A 1995 Base Realignment and Closure report estimated Fort McClellan’s total annual spending in the regional economy to be $189 million, with a military payroll of $89 million and a civilian payroll of $37 million. When that’s gone, what happens? Well, we know.

That’s another Fort McClellan legacy: the stinging lesson of failing to diversify a county’s economy before it becomes a life-or-death necessity, as it is now. For us, the fort is a complex and divisive memory.

But it is our memory, now and forever. And for that we have Congress, the Kaiser’s Germany and President Wilson to thank.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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