The WWI hobby was created by a small group of Civil War reenactors who became fed up with the politics and greed of the people who sponsored the battles. The reenactors were taken advantage of and often treated like dirt, even charging us, the people who made it happen, instead of the spectators.
The final insult occurred at a New Market battle in 1977. The previous year (1976) Sherman’s Bummers (of which I was the Sergeant) found themselves opposite a bunch of Farbs instead of facing the 2nd Virginia Confederates on the field. We often closed in hand-to-hand combat, but only with our authentic counterparts on the Rebel side.
We knew no one would get hurt as we had been safely doing battles for many years with them only. I sent a messenger back the staff on the hill behind us and obtained permission to do an about face, then wheel the unit back into line gain facing the 2nd Virginia. All went well in the battle and we did some great hand-to-hand fighting.
The next year (1977) when we arrived to participate in the battle, we were told that we were not allowed to participate this year because we had “spoiled the battle” last year when we did our field maneuver. Of course, the pinheads running the battle did not acknowledge the fact that we did it WITH permission and all who new the truth on their farby officer staff lied about that fact.
SO – when the other authentics heard about the BS (they knew the truth), they all boycotted the battle also. We decide to have our own “parade” from the end of the lane (a small parking area) to the battlefield and generally let our feelings known to the rest of the participants and the general crowd. The farbs in charge were afraid we were going to storm the battlefield and had all kinds of extra park staff to “keep us in line”(as if that would have mattered if we did decided to do that).
For the sake of the tourists and the park we behaved ourselves but did a lot of booing and other annoyances from the sidelines. There were more soldiers along the lane than were participating the field.
Anyway – I had just started collecting WWI material and I had a complete doughboy uniform in my trunk to show some of our people. It just happen to fit me (in my smaller days) so I put the entire outfit on, right down to the hobnailed shoes and full pack with helmet, and carried the flag in our boycott “parade”.
When we got back to the parking lot, the fellows in our unit started playing with and admiring the outfit. Someone made a comment like “the hell with the Civil War BS, let’s go do WWI!”. The hobby was born.
Rick Baumgartner lived near Mount St. Mary’s college outside Emmitsburg, Pa and had a friend on the college staff who was also a history nut – John D. Lyle. John was a true non-conformist, and I do not know how it all happened, but he managed to get a small section of college land that was awaiting development and got a small set of trenches dug for us to have a “WWI living history” educational event.
Anyway, in 1978 we had our first small battle. There were about 20 Americans and half a dozen Germans since uniforms were almost non-existent for the Axis side. I had not started collecting German yet, but Bill Combs and Joe Covais (there were a few more but my memory escapes me and they were very important at the beginning) were apparently able to come up with original and perhaps a few repro (modified Swiss) uniforms of some type and the 63rd German Infantry Regiment was born. The small affair went well, We had another event in 1979, which is when I realized that I wanted to do German – we needed Germans! By the 1980 battle I had a uniform in hand from Joe. He made great stuff, the best, but he could not make them very fast (all hand sewn).
We found out that the site was going to be lost so I took it upon myself to find another place to play. We were having fun and did not want it to end.
At that time, I had a good friend of mine in the Sheriff’s Department, sympathetic to our cause, introduced me to Ken Lee, an attorney, who owned a farm near Shimpstown, PA. He was interested in history so one day he took me to his farm (1981) and showed me a section of about 100 acres in grass underbrush that he said was not “good enough to raise sheep on and offered it to us for trenches. There was a section of woods bordered this plot which he could also use but not dig up. He was a very kind and generous person and offered it free of charge (we were all poor). We explained what we were going to do and the personal risks involved and his reply was “I’m an attorney – no one is going to sue me on my own land – have fun!”.
Marc Mazor (another “Sherman’s bummer”) helped me with some funding and we spent $2500 dollars with Web Cordell (lived near the site) to dig trenches. We then charged $5 per person to play and in about 5 years we got our money back.
Shimpstown is where the hobby really took off. We decide to have a Spring and Fall event by invitation only to control the quality of people on the field (for safety reasons only). I wrote the safety rules which we refined over time, limiting the way grenades and mortars were made – weight, powder charge, etc.. Our numbers grew rapidly – mostly Civil War reenactors being dragged over by their friends. One battle hooked them. Our biggest job was to convince the people of Mercersburg that we were NOT Nazis. After about 3 years they accepted and loved us – even looking forward to our semi-annual event.
Our biggest problem was uniforms and getting information out to those trying to get into the hobby. In 1982 I played around with getting things for people to use. I would gather up spare gear but then would forget who I got it for, so I created Great War Militaria to start disseminating the stuff. I put out a very small catalog (8 pages) to start. WWI weekends found my house flooded by people – making the neighbors set up and notice all the soldiers coming and going, plus hosing themselves down in my back yard with a garden hose!
Eventually (about 1985) I added a uniform line to make what we needed for the hobby to survive. I was still working full time at Letterkenny Army Depot on the Hawk & Patriot Missile systems, so I put in 18 hours days until 1989, when I quit and went full time.
Making uniforms meant having the wool made. It was an expensive proposition, having to buy 500 yards of wool at a time. To even break even we had to sell half of it. It was not very profitable, but it kept the hobby moving forward. Eventually French became a passion and I added it to our line of products.
Shimpstown holds fond memories. It brought some very talented people to it – ones capable of creating many things. We had our first “fly-in” with WWI planes at that place. It was kept a secret until Saturday morning when Fred Junclaus(in a 3/4 scale SE-5) chased a red triplane (Fred Murrin) down through the center of no-mans-land just as the fog was lifting. It was a total surprise to everyone. Those that saw it will never forget it.
Another person that Shimpstown brought to the hobby was Mark Anderson. In 1985 (approx) we formed the GWA to handle the event. It was too big for me to do, so we needed an organization. It was about this time that I met Mark who would come to the site to watch the events. His grandfather was in the 79th Division and he loved what we did. We had any a discussion about the future of the hobby and he was eager to help. As the 1980’s came to an end, Ken Lee became sick and I saw us perhaps losing the site for reasons I shall not elaborate upon.
Mark and I talked about it and I remember well the conversation. He told me that he was working on a project that just might pay off (his ship would come in) – and if it did, He would help us find another place. This was heartening as the future was dim without a site – about 300 people dependent upon it.
We did lose the site when we attempted to negotiate a lease with Ken Lee’s son. His terms were untenable, so we left (about 1991). We wandered around (Mont Site, Boy Scout Camp in Western Pa) until one day Mark’s ship DID come in and he told me to look for a site. True to his word, I called him one day and said I found a farm in Newville suitable for our needs and he told me to buy it if it was what I wanted. I asked if he wanted to see it first and he said “no”, just buy it – he trusted my judgment. In return, I had to build a WWI battlefield. We spent 3 years locking up the site legally for WWI. Mark spent a lot of money assuring it could never be taken from us. During this time Ernie and I dug the trenches, put in the wells and parking lots, bulldozing all of the roads. There was a master plan but it was not followed by successive regimes for reasons not worth mentioning. All of the dates for this are sketchy, but these can all be checked.
The 1995 event saw about 600 people on the site. It was set up to hold 1,000 – that is why the long trench system. Our plans were to put in a trench system behind the German line on the lip of the ravine and fight over the gully that existed. We also planned barracks, a field strip for airplanes, etc., behind that – all of which eventually changed as each new hierarchy lost sight of the possibilities that existed had they worked with the big vision we had. It was just too much to comprehend and for others to accomplish. Mark eventually sold the 100 acres of the battlefield proper to the GWA and the southern part (behind the German lines) and the house out front that we bought to get another right of way onto the site.
The important thing is that, regardless of the growing pains, the hobby is alive and well today in some form. Nothing else really matters.