OSWEGO – A new orientation exhibit interpreting the history of Fort Ontario State Historic Site from the French and Indian War to the War on International Terrorism will open on Armed Forces Day, May 21.
The new exhibit will be housed in the 1842 Enlisted Men’s Barracks.
A public ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception hosted by the Friends of Fort Ontario will begin at 1 p.m. May 21 inside the old stone fort.
Admission to the fort will be free on Armed Forces Day from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Fort Ontario staff and representatives of the Albany, Peebles Island Historic Resource Center, and Central NY regional offices of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and trustees of the Friends of Fort Ontario, will discuss all aspects of the exhibit during the reception following the ribbon-cutting.
The day’s activities will also feature Revolutionary War living history demonstrations by Continental Arms Collectors, a display of M-1 Carbines by author and expert Larry Ruth and a kite festival.
The fort’s new exhibit will contain original uniforms, weapons, ammunition, tools, field furniture, hardware, artwork, photographs and archeological artifacts.
Artifacts on exhibit have been assigned numbers keyed into I-Pads purchased through a $5,000 technology grant from the NYS Council for the Humanities.
Visitors will touch the number of an object on the I-Pad to obtain its description and history.
They may also be provided with links to related fort artifacts not on exhibit.
A $10,000 grant from the Richard S. Shineman Foundation funded technical photography for the exhibit, enabling visitors to examine finely detailed close-up images of the artifacts, a feature not available when looking at them in glass-enclosed cases.
“We are so pleased that our grant, combined with the NYS Council for the Arts grant, has enabled the Fort Ontario exhibit to be upgraded to 21st century standards,” said Karen S. Goetz, executive director of the Shineman Foundation.
The combination of I-Pads and technical photography enabled the exhibit design team to increase the number of artifacts on display in the available space from approximately 50 in 1996 to nearly 300 in 2016.
Exhibit designers embraced new technology to describe and interpret the artifacts, but they also employed classic oak and glass display cases to recreate the nostalgic look and feel of early 20th century museums.
“Whenever possible, objects and uniforms utilized by the garrison were selected for exhibit,” said Paul Lear, Historic Site Manager of Fort Ontario. “Archeological artifacts include musket balls, buttons, cannon balls, burst shell fragments, food remains, china, glassware, medical implements, toys, trade goods, a tent-rope tensioner, a pocket watch, and a piece of a gravestone probably used in a 1782 foundation.”
Original uniforms displayed on mannequins include those worn by Private Ward Dukalow, Company I – 28th U.S. Infantry, 1935–38, Private Robert Steckloff, 1212th S.E.C.U, Military Police, 1943, Army Nurse Lt. Bernice Horton-Bohlinger, 1943-44, and Sergeant 1st Class Charles Haws, 444th Engineer Company, USAR, 2007.
During the American Civil War, 1861 – 1865, Fort Ontario served as a recruiting and training center for Union Army regular and volunteer regiments.
Consequently, a major section of the exhibit is devoted to Civil War objects in the fort’s collection.
The Field Desk of Pulaski resident Lt. Henry H. Lyman of the 147th New York Infantry Regiment, the Box for Regimental Papers owned by Central Square resident Avery T. Low, Adjutant of the 110th New York Infantry, and the Strongbox of army paymaster Philo Bundy of Oswego will be displayed together.
Photographed documents in the Lyman collection will be available for viewing on the I-Pads.
On July 1, 1863, during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Francis F. Miller of the 147th fell badly wounded before he could convey an order from his brigade commander to retreat.
Major George Harney took over and held his ground in the face of overwhelming numbers while the regiment suffered 301 casualties out of 380 men engaged, escaping total destruction only by being relieved by a temporary success nearby.
Lyman’s handwritten “List of the Killed and Wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg,” immortalizes the service and sacrifice of the officers and men of Oswego County, New York, who fought in the most critical battle of the Civil War, in one of the Union Army’s most famous regiments.
“Perhaps the most compelling artifacts exhibited for the first time together at Fort Ontario are the personal possessions of Scriba resident Captain Lewis B. Porter of the 81st New York Infantry Regiment, sent home to his widow after his death,” said Lear. “Porter was shot in the left wrist at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in 1864 and died of infection following amputation of the arm. Porter’s wife, Matilda, struggled to raise their children on a widow’s pension and was too poor to have his body shipped home. Although his body remains in Virginia, a headstone with Lewis B. Porter’s name stands next to Matilda’s grave in the Hillside Cemetery at Klock’s Corners.”
Soon after the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Fort Ontario was converted from an infantry post to U.S. Army General Hospital #5.
From 1917 to 1919 hundreds of wounded and sick soldiers from the fighting in Europe were brought to Fort Ontario for follow-up surgeries and rehabilitation; doctors, nurses, and ambulance companies were also trained at the fort before deployment overseas.
Much of the large collection of photographs of Fort Ontario taken during World War I will be displayed on a looping DVD player, and artifacts related to soldiers and medical personnel are included in one of the larger cases in the exhibit.
Also included in the exhibit is a section of the chain link and barbed-wire fence surrounding the 75-acre Fort Ontario Military Reservation in 1944-46 when it served as the only refugee shelter in the United States for mostly Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
The last American flag to fly over the fort as a regular army post will also be displayed in the new exhibit; it was lowered for the last time on April 3, 1946, by the fort’s civilian fire department.
“The 48-star U.S. flag, representing freedom, is exhibited behind the chain link and barbed-wire fence facing outward, as if the visitor were one of the 986 refugees interned in the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter,” said Lear.
While interned at Fort Ontario, the refugees grew to consider themselves “Prisoners of Freedom,” held under close restrictions behind a fence, while those outside enjoyed the freedoms of being an American.
In the end President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order allowing the refugees to stay in the United States or go to another country.
For more information on the exhibit, contact Lear at (315) 343-4711, or e-mail [email protected]
For more information on Fort Ontario State Historic Site visit www.nysparks.com, or www.fortontario.com.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site is located at the north end of East Fourth Street in the city of Oswego.
Oswego County is celebrating its bicentennial throughout 2016.
For visitor information and more about Oswego County’s rich history, go to www.visitoswegocounty.com.