The fourth in a series about the local pieces of the National Park System: Fort Frederica National Monument.

 

ST. SIMONS, Ga. — Karen Hartley was a United Methodist minister at several churches in Ohio. Tom Hartley was an electrical engineering professor at the University of Akron.


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When they retired three years ago, they sold their four-bedroom home and nearly everything in it — they don’t even have a storage unit now — so they could buy an RV and travel the country, volunteering at national parks.

Every so often, they do miss their books. But for the most part, they adjusted quickly to not having one place they call home.

“Home is where you park it,” Tom Hartley said with a smile.

Since January, home has been Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island.

Their 35-foot, fifth-wheel is parked in one of four spots for RV volunteers. Four days a week, they walk to work, dress in British colonial clothing and tell visitors the story of what happened here in the middle of the 18th century.

“I always start by saying, ‘The Spanish were 60 miles that way in 1740,’” Tom Hartley said, pointing south. “And they had been there for over 200 years. People are surprised by that. Our history often seems to begin with the Revolutionary War. And there was so much before that.”

The short version of what happened here: In the early 1700s, Spain had control of Florida and Britain had control of South Carolina. Georgia was the “debatable land,” with both countries claiming it. In 1732, to give new life to what the British called the “worthy poor” — people without jobs or languishing in debtors’ jails — James Ogelthorpe, a soldier and politician, set sail for colonial Georgia with a shipload of 114 people.

After establishing Savannah, Oglethorpe sailed south, looking for strategic points to fortify. He found this spot on a sea island and, in 1736, returned with 44 men and 72 women and children. On a bluff overlooking a sharp bend on the river, they built a fort and a town, named after the King’s only son, Frederick. For two decades, the town thrived, reaching a population of about 500. Then it was abandoned.

In 1945, the spot became a national monument. The park is about a 1-hour, 20-minute drive from downtown Jacksonville. It’s a piece of the National Park System that I’ve always been aware of, but never seemed to get around to visiting.

So before heading to a Camden County commissioners meeting last week — and listening to citizens give commissioners an earful about the idea of new development on Cumberland Island — I spent part of the day in Terry Dickson’s backyard, also known as Glynn County.

I think some of why I hadn’t been to Fort Frederica was that I knew what remains of the actual fort is relatively modest. I’ve been to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. (And both of those forts are tiny compared to what I saw in Haiti, the mind-boggling massive Citadelle.)

But here’s the thing: What makes Fort Frederica worth visiting isn’t necessarily the size of the original fort, or the remnants still there today, or even the lasting beauty of the live oaks and riverview.

It’s the story.

That is part of why volunteers such as Tom and Karen Hartley are so important to Fort Frederica today – and for that matter, why volunteers are so important to nearly all of the more than 400 NPS sites across America. (And although neither the staff nor volunteers bring up this, with looming budget cuts and hiring freezes, volunteers could become even more important in coming years.)

To appreciate the history of Fort Frederica requires using your imagination, picturing what was happening here in the middle of the 18th century. There is a visitor’s center, a movie, a self-guided phone tour, signs, markers and the NPS brochures.

But it’s the humans who are here today — the park service staff and volunteers – who both preserve the place and bring it to life.

“We’re very fortunate to have volunteers that can not only do history but can help us with maintenance,” said Steve Theus, site manager at Fort Frederica. “Without them, we’d be hurting.”

Theus explains that the park has a full-time staff of six – and that last year a talented and passionate group of volunteers provided 5,000 hours of help. Volunteers did painting and pressure washing. They helped to get the park open after Hurricane Matthew. They installed 15 solar panels on a maintenance facility.

Tom Hartley’s electrical engineering background came in handy with calculations involving the solar panels. But clearly what he is most proud of is an old-fashioned addition behind the visitor’s center: a palmetto hut.

He and another volunteer built it, trying to replicate two sketches of the original huts.

The night before I visited the park, we got hit with heavy thunderstorms. But when we wandered out to the hut the next morning, the ground inside was dry. After the Hartleys posed for photos with a group of visitors from a modern-day Florida settlement, The Villages, Tom Hartley explained the engineering and story behind the hut.

“When the settlers landed here, there was no place to live,” he said. “So they built palmetto huts while they went about building proper English houses. The soldiers came later. There were more soldiers than barracks. So they built palmetto huts, too.”

Every Saturday, the Hartleys — who spent their careers talking to people — do a living history presentation in front of the hut.

“We do it in third person,” Karen Hartley said. “We don’t pretend to be those people. But we can explain what they did, how they lived, how they built a palmetto hut, how they cooked over a hearth.”

They joke that they’ve been living in the 1700s for about a year and a half. Before this, home was Kings Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina (site of a 1780 battle) and Grand Portage National Monument on the north shore of Lake Superior (a center of 1700s trade).

Their first stop as RV volunteers was Death Valley, an enormous national park in California and Nevada that after decades in Ohio seemed like an enticing place to be in winter. If they had any doubts about their decision to sell the house and go this route, they disappeared instantly. It felt right, kind of like the mission work they did during their careers – in this case, the mission was our national parks, our national story.

As much as they enjoyed their time in Death Valley, they had to drive an hour to get a cell signal, two hours to get groceries and four hours to see a movie in Vegas.

“So this is nice,” Karen Hartley said. “We love it here.”

It’s home until the end of April, when they move on – to the 1800s and San Juan Island National Historical Park in Washington state.