More than 100 people gathered at Soldiers Field in Mt. Gretna Saturday to dedicate the historic tract of land now owned by the community, celebrating the victorious fund-raising mission that preserved a piece of history in their midst.
The Pennsylvania Chautauqua was able to purchase the 18.1 acres of military history after a fund-raising campaign that began in April of 2018.
“I want to welcome you to a success party,” said John E. Feather, one of the co-chairmen of the Soldiers Field Project, with Mike Sherman. “Five months after we began the project, we received contributions in the amount of $325,000 and some of those donations came from as far as Maine, Florida, and California.”
Asking price for the land owned by Eastern Enterprises was $975,000, Feather said.
The fund drive for Soldiers Field resulted in a total of one million dollars, ensuring the beloved piece of land would stay undeveloped for the future, said Sue Hostetter, one of the neighborhood district chairs.
During the weekend, an encampment of history re-enactors and white canvas tents occupied the field, showing people the life led by soldiers before they were sent out to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
A number of dignitaries lent their voices to the official dedication of the Mt. Gretna Military Reservation known as Soldiers Field, commemorating a story that began in 1884.
That year, local philanthropist Robert H. Coleman invited the National Guard of Pennsylvania to train at his Gretna park. In 1885, the area became an official military encampment to train members of the Third Brigade of the National Guard.
By 1887, more than 9,000 soldiers arrived at Soldiers Field, which then encompassed 120 acres.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime cause,” said Lieutenant Colonel Edward Gatewood of the Pennsylvania National Guard. “This area boasts a rich local military history…a quarter of a million soldiers marched on this field and that history needs to be preserved.”
State Representative Frank Ryan (R-101), a retired Marine, wore his uniform as he addressed the crowd, thanking all who made the sacrifice of a financial donation.
“By preserving our heritage we’re embracing our future,” Ryan said. “If this would have been made into a development, no one, eventually, would remember what happened here.
“Think about 1917, the isolation – few cars, no phones – and the youngsters here would be heading out to Europe and most had probably never been out of their communities,” Ryan said. “Their lives were forever changed in this field.”
Mt. Gretna’s military reservation continued to be used for training until 1935.
By that time, Feather said, advancement in weaponry, such as increased ranges in artillery and the development of the tank, meant the relatively small size of Mt. Gretna’s military reservation was unable to accommodate the technology, and Ft. Indiantown Gap near Annville became the new military reservation.
Now a large grassy field bordered by forest, Soldiers Field not only played an important in military history, but had its share of glory days.
President Benjamin Harrison visited the Gretna encampment, and in 1887, former Civil War General Phil Sheridan came to review the troops, an event that brought out 25,000 spectators.
While the site will remain largely unchanged, keeping its woodsy feel, a number of improvements are in the works, thanks to a grant from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Plans include a pedestrian bridge to be built over the Conewago Creek that runs through a wooded area of the Field, providing an overflow parking area, and restructuring a narrow gauge railroad bed into a walking trail. Trees will be planted along Timber Road, along the east side of the Field and safety lights will be installed.
“There will be no bright lights and no paving,” Hostetter said. “We have an advisory committee and residents of each district can go to their representative and tell them what they want and what they don’t.”
Mike Sherman, co-chairman of the project, said some of the historic pathways will be reworked to be walking trails.
Largely, Soldiers Field will remain as it looks today, Sherman said.
Through specialized mowing practices, several prairie species of grass and wildflowers may be added to the field, Sherman said.
Tom Ford, director of the state’s Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, said he came to Mt. Gretna to look into a project and received a history lesson.
“This is one of the most awesome projects I’ve ever worked on,” Ford said. “It was an opportunity to save this heritage by using our department’s resources, and the fund-raising campaign was amazing and unprecedented.”
Local residents are proud of the accomplishment, too.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Mt. Gretna resident Jack Graham, referring to the coming improvements at the field. “We needed more land for parking; we have problems every summer. They’ll keep this as grassland, but still park cars here. In the past, people had to be bused to events like the art show, but now we won’t have to do that anymore.”
To contribute to the ongoing Saving Soldiers Field Capital Fund Campaign, checks may be made payable to PA Chautauqua, P.O. Box 637, Mount Gretna, PA, 17064.
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