Friday, June 30, 2000

Forgotten fort could live again

Site is Ohio's only connection to the Revolution

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MILFORD - Scott Fisher dreams of rough-hewn logs and quadrangles, of freedom and keeping it. He envisions hundreds - thousands - of logs flowing across the northeastern Ohio horizon in a reconstructed Fort Laurens, the state's only Revolutionary War fort.

For the last five years the idea of rebuilding Fort Laurens has become his obsession.

"We're talking about Ohio's only connection to the Revolutionary War,'' he said in his Milford office. "We're talking about soldiers who spilled their blood for our freedom. When people say the fort is too far away from here, I talk about our heritage and the men who died.''

Mr. Fisher, a corporate public affairs officer from Stonelick Township in Clermont County, knows that rebuilding the fort won't be inexpensive. It would cost about $1.4 million.

Yet for five years he has recruited members for his nonprofit Friends of Fort Laurens Foundation, which seeks donations to resurrect the nearly forgotten piece of American history.

This might be the right time. He hopes that Mel Gibson's film The Patriot will renew public interest in the Revolution, and that Ohio's bicentennial in 2003 will attract more people to the campaign.

In November 1778, George Washington ordered American soldiers to build Fort Laurens - named for Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress - on the Tuscarawas River, near what is today Bolivar, Ohio, in Tuscarawas County. One hundred and seventy-two men and women defended the quadrangular fort with four bastions.

Marching from Detroit, a raiding party of British troops and Indian allies attacked and killed more than 20 American soldiers, but did not take the fort. Reinforcements eventually saved the situation.

The soldiers who died were buried near the fort's hospital. After the war, the place faded into history.

"Today, the area is really just a military cemetery and museum, a state memorial,'' Mr. Fisher said. "Just outside the museum is the Tomb of the Unknown Patriot of the American Revolution, which pays homage to at least one defender of the fort. We want to bring the place back to life, so to speak.''

Mr. Fisher believes a wooden fort would attract more than 40,000 visitors annually, as the reconstructed Fort Boonesborough does near Richmond, Ky. In addition, he says the project might also encourage other communities across Ohio to provide financial help to regional historic sites.

"Ohioans haven't fared well in teaching history,'' he said. "We need to remember the past. The fort would enable present and future Ohioans to understand, appreciate and support the historical significance of the outpost and the lives that were lost to secure America's independence.''

While researching the fort, Mr. Fisher was surprised to find that the General Assembly approved rebuilding the fort in 1915. Gov. Frank B. Willis even signed a bill into law and legislators appropriated $5,000 to purchase land. But for some reason, the work never started.

"I know the wheels of government turn slowly,'' Mr. Fisher said, "but I think this is way too slow. Time after time, the state has promised to rebuild Fort Laurens and each time it has failed to act. If the foundation can raise about 50 percent of the estimated cost, we feel confident that the state will come through with the rest of the money.''

Usually, the state requires an 80 percent-20 percent split between public and private funds, Mr. Fisher said, but the foundation hopes to raise $632,500 in private donations. This summer, the foundation will seek corporate sponsors.

""By sponsoring particular pieces of the fort, we hope to offer potential foundations, businesses and individual contributors an identifiable portion of the fort,'' he said.

The Tuscarawas Touring Club has sponsored the fort's flagpole for $2,500. Sponsorships range from $100 for stockade logs to $50,000 for the blockhouse and $125,000 for barracks. ""We'll need about 1,800 logs just to build the stockade,'' he said.

Foundation members also have collected more than 5,000 signatures from people who want the state to rebuild Fort Laurens.

Ultimately, if Mr. Fisher can't convince persuade the state to comply with the legislature's 1915 act, the foundation might sue.

"I don't want to get into confrontation with the state,'' he said. "But we always have that option.''

The re-creation would be built 200 yards south of the fort's original site, near Interstate 77. "Landscape vegetation and buffer zones allow us to develop a realistic 18th-century environment around the rebuilt fort,'' said Craig Brown of HWH Architects Engineering Planners of Cleveland.

Site manager Kathy Fernandez said the foundation has a chance to succeed, but "it's more up to the legislature. Reconstructing the fort certainly is a priority for the Ohio Historical Society, but we have 63 sites around the state. Everyone has different priorities and it's difficult to please everyone.''

Nevertheless, Mr. Fisher refuses to quit.

"The price of freedom has never been free,'' he said.

The Friends of Fort Laurens Foundation may be reached at P.O. Box 272, Bolivar, OH 44612, or at 330-874-2728. It publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Tree of Liberty.

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