Preserving Fort Caswell’s past for its future
    August 11 2014 by Michael McEwen, BR Content Editor

    Located of the southeastern shores of Oak Island, historic military stronghold Fort Caswell was named for Richard Caswell, North Carolina’s first governor.
     
    Fort Caswell played a number of military roles in American history, and in 1949 it was purchased for $86,000 by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) to become the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell.
     
    Nathan Sloan, seasonal staff coordinator at Caswell, said Congress authorized construction of Caswell in 1825 because the area – particularly Wilmington as a major trade center – was extremely vulnerable to international naval armies.
     
    Except for the War of 1812, Caswell had a crucial function in every American war including the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, as well as the Persian Gulf War and the Haitian War.
     
    Initial construction began in 1827 under United States Corps of Engineers, Major George Blaney. Notices were placed in the Cape Fear Recorder and the Wilmington Commercial for “competent” and “able-bodied” workers who would receive 50-75 cents per day in wages to erect the 2,750-acre military defense system.
     
    This area includes today’s “Youpon Beach, Caswell Beach, Oak Island Golf Course and the land beyond to the Elizabeth River,” wrote authors Ethel Herring and Carolee Williams in their book, Fort Caswell In War and Peace.

     
    FortCaswell2-1.gif

    BR photo by Michael McEwen
    David Johnson, right, and Nathan Sloan are long-time Caswell employees. Johnson has been working at Caswell for more than 40 years, and Sloan has been in employment for about 10 years.

    On Oct. 20, 1838, Fort Caswell was completed by Capt. Alexander Swift at the total cost of $473,402.

    Two decades later, it would be captured by Confederate armies on Jan. 8, 1861 – three months before Fort Sumter in South Carolina was seized. Caswell was abandoned shortly after Fort Fisher fell on Jan. 15, 1865.
     
    An evacuation order given by Charles H. Simonton, a colonel of the Confederate Army.
     
    For a short span in the early 1920s, Fort Caswell functioned as a military-training ground used for maneuvers by the North Carolina Coast Artillery, National Guard and other militaries.
     
    Over a decade later in 1937, the deserted fort was sold to private developers, S.O. Chase and L.B. Skinner of Florida. Sloan said, “They turned the gunning placements on top of Battery Caswell into swimming pools. … They attempted to turn it into a massive resort.” Chase and Skinner tried to take advantage of Caswell’s coastal environment and established buildings to convert the 248.8 acres into a year-round health resort.
     
    After five years in the hands of Chase and Skinner, the United States government reacquired Fort Caswell in 1941 to use as a depot during World War II. Eight years later, the property became war surplus and it was sold to the BSC to become a retreat for North Carolina Baptists.
     
    For the past five decades, the fort has been committed to serving North Carolina Baptists, and has been doing so while emphasizing the fort’s historical memory. Hundreds of renovations have been made to accommodate the 30,000 plus visitors each year.
     
    Sloan said, “We’re still able to preserve the buildings better than most people would care to do because of the way we’re using these buildings for camps. … In fact, some bunks [in the renovated barracks] still have ‘U.S’ carved on the sides of them.”
     
    Director of the Environment Stewardship Program (ESP) at Caswell, Jenny Fuller blends her background in biology and fisheries with her educational drive. She and her staff set up stations on local beaches and marshes so students can fish, crab and explore various organisms to learn about their biological structures as well as their economic and financial value to the state of North Carolina and abroad.

    Two thousand students and adults came through the ESP in 2013, and Fuller expects over 3,000 by the end of this fall’s field-trip season.
     
    Richard Holbrook, director of Caswell since 1985, said, “[Jenny] was a God-send. … The program grows every year. We really don’t know how far it will go, but we’re looking forward to what will happen with it.”
    Much time and energy has been placed in marketing the ESP to provide mid-week programming in the spring and fall. In the summer, the staff teaches environmental education once a week to public, private or homeschool groups.
     
    The curriculum is designed to correlate with N.C. Essential Standards for Science and Social Studies yet in a hands-on experience.
     
    Fuller said, “We have tried to create things here that maximize exposure to the different ecosystems we have like exploring in the marsh or the beach.
     
    “We talk about water quality, stewardship, science and biology. Our facilities lend themselves very naturally to ecosystem studies.”
     
    Due to the unique facility and laboratory experience through the ESP, schools are open to sending students to safe environments found at Caswell, said Holbrook.
     
    “We have a staff that can provide food, lodging and the complete package for the kids,” Holbrook said.
    “It’s a good way to use the facilities and to teach young people how to preserve and take care of what we’ve been blessed with [at Caswell].”
     
    In the past Caswell has been generally known as a youth camp.
     
    “That’s the common concept of Baptists when they think of Caswell,” Holbrook said.
     
    Caswell a year-round operation that does more than the summer camp experience. They also cater to adults and retired/semi-retired adults through programs like M.A.S.H. (Mature Adults Sharing Him), a retreat in fall 2014 challenging participants to share God’s Good News in word and deed.
     
    Other denominations don’t have such premier facilities like what is found at Caswell, Holbrook said.
    First completed in 1989, the Smith Conference Center had its finishing renovations done in May.
     
    Dedicated to Fred and Eudell Smith for their 20 years of service at Caswell, the center is nestled at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and it features a large dining room, conference spaces, classrooms and several guest rooms.
     
    The newest lodging addition to Caswell is Sandpiper.
     
    Opened in 2013, it blends in with the cultural architecture found along Caswell Beach Road. Sloan said Sandpiper generally provides bunks for youth with a 130-person capacity.
     
    In spring 2014, the N.C. Baptist Assembly’s “Fort Caswell Historic District” was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
     
    The register exists as “the official Federal list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture.”
     
    Pointing to the transitional point of Caswell’s history in 1949, Herring and Williams said, “Gone are the soldiers of former days, but these new recruits have many life battles to prepare for, and a place like Caswell has the unique opportunity to do that, using the teachable moments of retreats and conferences.”
     
    Caswell, indeed, no longer serves as a highly engineered military fort, yet it largely functions to equip tens of thousands of Christian soldiers who visit the historic grounds each year.
     
    Holbrook isn’t sure if anyone will ever know the final impact that Caswell has made through the years on individuals.
     
    “Maybe there will be a big board in Heaven somewhere where they’ll have all the Caswell people listed,” he hoped. 
     
    For more information about Fort Caswell, visit fortcaswell.com. For more information about M.A.S.H. dates click the “Programs” tab on their website.

    8/11/2014 2:07:40 PM by Michael McEwen, BR Content Editor | with 0 comments
    Filed under: BSC, Fort Caswell, history




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