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New website helps JBLM community keep touch with its past

American Red Cross hostess at the Red Cross Hostess House in 1919. Today this is the Family Resource Center (building 4274 on 9th Division Drive and Idaho Avenue). Photograph courtesy University of Washington.

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On an ever-growing military installation, it's important to look to the future.

But it can be just as important to turn around and remember the past.

The new Joint Base Lewis-McChord Public Works Cultural Resources website is expected to help with that. After more than a year in the works, the new site provides photos and facts regarding JBLM's 350 historic buildings, three historic districts and approximately 400 archaeological sites - but education is not its only goal.

Base historians are hoping that having a sense of history will give Soldiers and their Families a fuller sense of themselves.

"We're proud of the buildings. The base has done a good job of keeping them up," JBLM architectural historian Dr. Duane Denfeld said.

The site was created to get good, accurate information to the public, and includes interactive maps and documents that might be of interest to history buffs or researchers.

One of its highlights is a custom-made documentary about the Garrison Historic District (the approximately 40 block area between the 8th Street and the DuPont Gate), which includes some of the oldest buildings on base.

Constructed between 1917 (the year Pierce County citizens donated land to be used as a permanent military installation) and 1939, the district contains the oldest buildings on base. Eight of them are particularly rare wooden buildings from the World War I era.

"That any have survived is remarkable," Denfeld said.

Most of the others are red brick, Neo-Georgian style buildings built between 1927 and 1936.

This was a period between wars, allowing for permanent buildings with a civilian aesthetic.

By the beginning of World War II, most new construction on base was temporary and never meant to last - the country had other things to focus on.

As base expands, officials are using this information to figure out how they can add new buildings to historic areas without hurting their integrity. Having the information out where anyone can see, however, has other advantages.

The concept for the site really got rolling when the base was closed to the public in 2001 and civilians could no longer come and explore it for themselves. Making photos and documents available online still allows outsiders to have some access, and it's already helping former servicemembers and their relatives connect to their personal histories.

Denfeld said he's heard from former Soldiers wanting to know if their old houses or barracks were still there, and a son looking for information on where his mother worked as a nurse in 1943. In true digital media fashion, though, the site has opened a two-way flow of information. Others have contributed stories and photos to an ever-growing archive.

The military side of things is not all that the site is about, however.

"There's the prehistory, too, the history before the base, that's important," Denfeld said.

The land on which JBLM now sits was once home to early American settlers and Hudson's Bay Company employees, and before them it was within the accustomed areas of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and the Squaxin Island Tribe. All three retain rights to hunt, fish and gather on the installation, and regularly visit their sacred and traditional sites.

For JBLM archaeologist Dale Sadler, this is an important reminder that the installation was and still is very much connected to the world around it.

"Even though we're here to serve the Soldiers and train the Soldiers, there are other stakeholders here," he said.

Archeologists have found artifacts on Native American sites on base that are over 8,000 years old, according to Sadler. But these aren't just bits of junk that can be ignored. Artifacts and sacred places need to be handled with care, and newcomers should understand why they'll see the tribes from time to time.

"You've got to somehow show people that we're not figments of people's imagination," the Nisqually Indian Tribe's archives director Joe Kalama said. "We're still here."

All told, knowing the history of JBLM helps put even the simplest of modern day experiences into context - and this adds depth to daily life.

"It's good to know how you fit into the rich history of any area," Sadler said. "You're not the first and you won't be the last."

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