History buffs, soldiers plan museum for Camp Butner

Troops from the 78th Infantry Division, stationed at Camp Butner, march through Five Points in Durham.
Troops from the 78th Infantry Division, stationed at Camp Butner, march through Five Points in Durham. Courtesy of Duke University Special Collections

This town exists because the U.S. Army chose this part of Granville County to build a 40,000-acre camp to train soldiers for combat during World War II.

But little of the Army’s presence here remains, except for a handful of buildings and the grid of streets named for letters and numbers instead of people and trees.

“I run into people frequently who have no idea of a base being here,” says Tom Lane, mayor of the town that now has about 7,700 residents.

A small group of history buffs and N.C. National Guard soldiers is trying to change that by establishing a museum, so that a place where tens of thousands of young men prepared for war is not forgotten.

Members of the Camp Butner Society have amassed a collection of artifacts from the base, mostly shells and other metal items people have dug up over the years. They also have a commitment from the town to use a wood-frame building the Army built in 1942, perhaps as a day room where soldiers could get a Coke, read a magazine or play ping pong.

But the building is in rough shape and sits on property owned by the N.C. National Guard, said society board member Michael Mercier, a 36-year-old helicopter mechanic for the Guard who lives in Cary. Before it can create the museum, the society needs to raise money to restore the building and must negotiate a lease with the Guard, Mercier said.

Society members also want to expand their collection of Camp Butner memorabilia to include items that can’t be found with metal detectors, including photos, letters, documents and uniforms. They’d like to find first-hand accounts of life on the base.

“We’re losing our veterans quickly,” Mercier said. “We’re starting this so late that finding first-hand stories is very difficult.”

State town, Army roots

It’s not clear why the Army chose this spot for a training base. Planning for it began in the summer of 1941, as the U.S. prepared for the war already raging overseas. The War Department began acquiring land in February 1942, and the camp was officially opened with a ceremony that August.

Named for Maj. Gen. Henry Wolfe Butner, a Surry County native who had died in 1937, the camp was built to handle 40,000 soldiers. Most of the base was open land, where farming communities such as Cozart, Veasy Ridge and Knap of Reeds were sacrificed so they could be used for field exercises and artillery practice.

The Army built row upon row of two-story wooden barracks, as well as three swimming pools, several theaters and five all-faith chapels, two of which survive as churches today. There was also a prisoner of war camp for Italian and German soldiers, and an Army hospital that the government thought might become a veterans hospital after the war.

The base was primarily home to the 78th Infantry Division, which trained soldiers here for two years, then went to Europe in 1944 and fought its way into Germany in a difficult campaign that included the Battle of the Bulge.

Mercier said the Camp Butner Society is reaching out to veterans associations for the 78th and two other divisions that trained here, the 35th and 89th, hoping for donations of uniforms and other artifacts.

Camp Butner officially closed in January 1947. More than 20,000 acres were sold back to farmers, while more than 13,000 acres, including the streets and buildings that make up the town, went to the state. It established several institutions here, including a N.C. National Guard training base, an agricultural research farm and John Umstead Hospital for the mentally ill, which took over the old Army hospital.

The state ran Butner for decades, building housing for workers and employing a town manager at the Department of Health and Human Services. The General Assembly ended the state’s stewardship in 2007, but the town and other property that was part of the Army base still contain more than a dozen government institutions, including state and federal prisons and a new psychiatric hospital.

Lane became the town’s first mayor when the state granted its independence. Now 75, he was 9 when his family moved to Butner, where his father took a job at Umstead in early 1947. He recalls his two older brothers making spending money working with the crews that took down the barracks for their lumber.

“There were a lot of houses in this area built from lumber from here,” he said.

Searching an incinerator

The idea for a Camp Butner museum originated about eight years ago with Kenneth Beal, who grew up around Butner and spent 38 years with the N.C. National Guard. Beal, now 65, started collecting artifacts when he was a teenager.

Beal says he has turned everything over to Mercier, including more than 800 dog tags that he and others have found over the years. He’s happy that someone younger has taken over the effort.

“Eight years is a long time to put into something that never really materialized,” he said.

The collection includes shells, mortars, a rusted helmet, but also numerous small items, such as buttons, pocket watches, religious medallions, marksmanship badges and bus tokens, including one from “Cheyenne Motor Bus” and another from the “Stockton City Lines.”

The base’s old incinerator “has been a treasure trove,” Mercier said, yielding the relics from daily life of soldiers in the 1940s. Coke bottles and caps are common.

“They drank a lot of sodas,” said society board member Gary Spencer, a Guard tank member from Raleigh.

Mercier estimates it would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to restore the 1942 building, which the town saved several years ago and moved to its current location when the owner wanted to get rid of it. Lane said town council members have talked about wanting a museum for many years, and are happy someone is taking the initiative.

“This is such a unique place,” he said. “The history needs to be preserved.”