Editor's note: This is the second of a series of columns on the Front Royal Remount Depot.
By Patrick Farris
Between Chester Gap and the Town of Front Royal are the entrances to Harmony Hollow, Happy Creek, and the old road over to Rappahannock County and points beyond to the east in the Virginian Piedmont. Rail service was conveniently located at the bottom of the mountain near the town, and the town itself and the surrounding county could provide the labor necessary to staff and service the base. The U.S. government began to purchase land for the Remount Depot.
The total collection of tracts of land exceeded 40 farms and like properties purchased from local families. Eminent domain was not employed, and all sellers were justly compensated for their properties, there even being some evidence that enterprising landowners held out for a higher selling price as it became apparent that the Army would need certain specific tracts of land to connect larger sections already acquired.
Between 1908 and 1911, the Army acquired and pieced together properties sufficient to create the Remount Depot, and in 1911 "activated" or opened the base. As a part of the base's creation, existing structures on those properties purchased would, for the most part, have to be removed. In a move we must appreciate today, the Army made an effort to document each structure, no matter how large or small, in great detail prior to demolition. A record book was created containing photos, schematic drawings of floor plans, title and deed information, description of building materials and the estimated age of each structure.
At its activation in 1911, the new Front Royal Remount Depot began its 36-year history, creating a record of no small significance for a community the size of Front Royal and Warren County. The impact of such a large military base on the area was felt in both positive and negative ways, although the positives far outweighed the negatives.
Jobs tending to and breaking the horses were in steady demand. The opportunity to serve in the military beyond the average age of enlistment and not be required to leave home during one's service was at first a rarity, and during the Great Depression a blessing.
Horse competitions provided a fun and interesting diversion. On-base service sector employment (such as running the various shops, the school, and maintaining the buildings and grounds) meant a guarantee of job opportunities at a facility within easy access to the county's population center. About the only complaints concerning the base would be the occasional break-out of a herd of horses that would, as if pulled by gravity, find their way down the mountain and into town.
The U.S. Army Remount Depot in Front Royal became an important component of the local economy and an integral part of the social fabric and rhythm of life in Front Royal, but it cannot be forgotten that the depot was an Army base. Soon enough, following its activation, the depot would begin to perform the service to the military that it was designed to deliver, and this service would continue unabated for the duration of the Army's tenure at the site.
As the great war raged in Europe and President Wilson, abiding by popular sentiment at the time, campaigned for reelection on a platform of keeping America out of the European war, trouble for the United States was brewing much closer to home. Since the early 1910s Mexico had been experiencing political upheaval and even civil war as various factions led by charismatic political and military leaders attempted to seize power. One of those leaders was Doroteo Arango Arámbula, more popularly known as "Pancho Villa."
Villa had been a friend to the U.S., if not to those U.S.-based companies his soldiers occasionally raided along the border for funds to support their military efforts, but when President Wilson sided with his political and military rival Venustoano Carranza, Villa ordered his men to attack U.S. towns and transportation along the US-Mexico border. General John J. Pershing, who had met with Villa in the recent past, was in the winter of 1915-16 ordered to search out and kill or capture Villa and his army. Villa was able to escape. The Front Royal Remount Depot supplied horses for this expedition. Pershing and his aide, George S. Patton, were personally involved with the Remount facility in its later history.
Read more about the depot in next Saturday's column.
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.