By Joe Beck
A group of Front Royal citizens has taken on a project they hope will restore a well hidden but colorful part of the town's history to some of its former prominence in the community.
The project can be seen off of U.S. 522 on Harmony Hollow Road, the site of the current Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center. A group of aging structures stands amid the 229 acres of mountainside meadowland, once part of the much larger Remount Depot complex that was home to an army of horses, mules and dogs that helped fight this country's wars through the 20th century.
Some warrior dogs are still trained farther down the road at a separate facility operated by the Department of Homeland Security. Most of the animals that once roamed the land occupied by the 4-H Center are distant memories. But maybe not for long, if people like Joan T. Moore have their way.
"We used to call it Front Royal's best kept secret, but it won't be a secret when we're done," said Moore, who organized the Dreams Need Heroes campaign to restore the depot.
Moore has gathered a committee around her committed to renovating the structures that include a 44-stall u-shaped courtyard stable and quartermaster's building that will house a museum and administrative offices. The buildings remain mostly as they were in the depot's early days, an era spanning its founding in 1913 to the 1920s.
Moore, who has been active in 4-H for 55 years, said she plunged into the restoration in 2005. She decided restoring the structures would make the entire site more usable and enjoyable for the many other youngsters who go there to participate in 4-H horse camp and other activities.
Moore is on a mission to encourage children to connect with horses, the four seasons and the life and death cycle of animals that she knew growing up on a farm.
"I love earth and country, and this is a superior place to raise animals," she said.
The site's rich history recently resurfaced in the Virginia General Assembly with a resolution honoring dogs that were trained there for battlefield duties during World War II. The resolution singled out one dog named Chips for attacking enemy machine gunners and forcing them to surrender, despite being shot by them.
Much of the depot's history is tied to the rise and fall of horses in the American military. Some came for training and others were part of a military breeding program. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 passed through the depot on their way to battlefields in Europe and Asia during the first part of the 20th century.
The depot itself is aptly named "remount" for horses killed or rendered no longer suitable for military service.
"Today, we have a very limited number of horses in the military" said Phillip Gibbons, a retired Marine who serves as the depot's historian.
Gibbons said horses all but disappeared amid the modernization and mechanization of the military in the mid-1950s. A few remain for ceremonial purposes and patrolling rugged desert landscapes around bases in California, he said, and some are also used for training Special Forces soldiers in horsemanship.
Gibbons and Moore are especially excited about plans to restore a structure called a dipping tank, a long, narrow passageway that horses passed through for delousing with a liquid chemical mixture. Gibbons believes it is the only structure of its kind remaining in the United States.
The entire site is filled with distinctive landmarks that should appeal to anyone with an interest in historic preservation, Moore said.
"I know the historic value of this place, and it's unique to 4-H centers, it's unique to Front Royal, and it's unique to Virginia," she said.
The first part of the restoration, a fenced-in all-weather ring, has been completed. The next phase involves renovation of the stables and the quartermaster's building. The total budget as of 2011 calls for $2 million.
Tony Tringale, a member of the Dreams Need Heroes campaign committee, has no doubt that preserving the depot is money well spent compared to the alternative of letting it fall into decay.
"A facility with this kind of historical significance, when it's gone, it's gone," he said.
Anyone considering a donation can contact Nora Belle Comer, 4-H Center director, at 540-635-7171.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org