Gary Richards is a man on a mission: To track down the lost chapels of Camp Adair

Gary Richards lived on history’s doorstep all his life and never realized it. Now he’s making up for lost time, locating historic buildings and helping Adair Village reconnect with its wartime past.

In 1947, when he was just a young boy, Richards moved with his family to Suver, a tiny crossroads community on Highway 99W between Corvallis and Monmouth, where his father kept a store.

The place was right on the northern fringe of Camp Adair, a sprawling Army cantonment that trained more than 100,000 American soldiers during World War II.

Built in just six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it instantly became the second-largest city in Oregon when it opened in mid-1942, with as many as 40,000 residents at any given time.

Located 6 miles north of Corvallis, the 57,000-acre camp had several firing ranges plus a variety of outdoor training areas to prepare men for combat in woods, fields and towns. Army engineers even built a full-scale mockup of a German village to provide realistic practice in house-to-house fighting.

All those GIs had to live somewhere, so the Army erected 500 barracks in Camp Adair’s main compound. The site also had administrative offices, a hospital, a bakery, two guest houses, a telephone exchange, a bank, a post office, 13 PX stores, two service clubs, five movie theaters and 11 chapels — some 1,800 buildings in all.

But when the war ended in 1945, so did the reason for Camp Adair’s existence. By the time the Richards family settled in Suver, few outward signs of the cantonment remained.

The Army gave large tracts of timberland to Oregon State College for its forestry program, while the state got a big chunk of land in the valley for a game preserve, known today as the E.E. Wilson Wildlife Area. The hospital compound, on the site of what is now Adair Village, passed to OSC for veteran student housing.

Most of the training camp’s structures were declared surplus and were purchased in large lots by demolition contractors, who dismantled them and sold off the lumber, windows, doors and fixtures.

Some buildings, however, were salvaged for civilian use, including the chapels.

According to a brief passage in “Camp Adair,” a history of the base published by John Baker in 2004, the cantonment’s houses of worship “were given special treatment and allocated for use by several Oregon communities.”

But the book includes no details on what became of the chapels. More than 60 years after they were scattered to the four winds, the story of these Camp Adair relics had largely faded into obscurity — until Richards got involved.

An accidental discovery

Growing up in Suver, Gary Richards had no inkling of the area’s rich wartime history. He didn’t begin to delve into it until two years ago, after getting a GPS unit for Christmas and taking up geocaching.

His new hobby led him to E.E. Wilson Wildlife Area, where he located a marker hidden by another cacher on the site of one of the old Camp Adair theaters. Discovering the building’s water-filled foundation was a revelation for Richards, who suddenly realized the brush-choked game refuge near his home was actually a touchstone to the past.

Fascinated, he got hold of a map that showed the cantonment’s layout and started tracking down the other theaters, leaving his own geocaches for other searchers to find.

After learning that the chapels had distinctive foundations, he began hunting for those, using the map for a guide as he hacked through the undergrowth with a machete in search of the telltale concrete outlines.

But when he found out the chapels had been spared from the wrecking ball after the war, his interest soared to new heights. Whatever became of them?

Richards decided to find out, and his new hobby became an obsession.

“It’s turned into a real detective investigation-type thing,” he said.

First piece of the puzzle

He contacted Baker, who told him that one of the chapels was now doing duty as a Catholic church in Newport. He also had leads on a few others — including one that was rumored to be in Dallas, a Polk County community not far from Suver.

Based on his own research and a couple of historic photographs from Baker’s book, Richards had a general idea of what the chapels had looked like: a simple rectangular structure with horizontal wooden siding and a peaked roof. The interior was a single room, open to the ceiling and supported on the sides by pairs of arched, laminated wooden trusses.

Richards drove past every church in Dallas, a town he knew well from years of working in a local electronics plant, but none matched his image of a Camp Adair chapel.

So he started knocking on doors, showing his old photos to ministers and church secretaries.

Finally, he got lucky. An Episcopal priest recognized the outlines of a military chapel in Trinity Lutheran Church.

A series of additions and remodels had masked the shape of the original structure, but as soon as Richards walked inside and saw the soaring glulam trusses, he knew he had found one of the lost Camp Adair chapels.

He was dumbfounded. The church was on his regular commute to work at the old Tyco Electronics plant.

“I’d been by that thing almost daily for years and didn’t know it was there,” he said.

Persistence pays off

After that, more pieces began to fall into place. Scouring the Internet, Richards gradually unearthed references to other Camp Adair chapels, mostly on church websites.

Time and again, his persistence has paid off with the location of another historic building.

“I’ve got nine confirmed right now,” he said. “I’m missing two of them.”

Richards authenticates each find by talking to church officials and checking their records. He visits the chapels for himself, measuring the building footprint, examining the trusses and looking for other telltale signs, like a small choir loft across the back of the sanctuary.

He also photographs the chapels inside and out, documenting how the buildings have been transformed over the years by growing postwar congregations, and compiles data about their current use and location for his website, campadair.webs.com.

“I’ll tell you,” he chuckled, “I’ve been in more churches the last two years than I have in my entire life.”

But now that he’s found the missing chapels, he’s serious about not letting them get lost again. For Richards, these humble church buildings represent a tangible tie to an important period in the history of Oregon and the United States, one that shouldn’t be forgotten.

“I’m finding a lot of information and trying to preserve it because all the people who were in that war are dying now,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do is save that part of history.”

He’s not alone. In the course of his hunt for the chapels, Richards has developed ties to a broad community of people who share his interest in Camp Adair, both professional researchers and dedicated amateurs like himself.

Mary Gallagher, the collections manager for the Benton County Historical Society and Museum, described Richards as a dedicated field worker who has made a valuable contribution to the study of the World War II training camp.

“He knows what he’s looking for, and he’s really tracked it down,” she said.

And his efforts dovetail with a widespread revival of interest in the camp and its role in World War II.

“In the early ’90s, we were starting to get a lot of people who had been stationed at Adair coming back to look at the place,” Gallagher said.

“Now I’m getting their children. Their parents are gone, and they want to retrace what their parents went through.”

A question of identity

At the same time, Adair Village is trying to get in touch with its World War II roots as it works to construct a distinctive identity.

The growing community of about 900 has a number of buildings left over from its second military incarnation as an Air Force station during the Cold War, most notably the old officers’ club and the Blockhouse, a massive concrete cube that was part of the nation’s early warning radar system.

In 2010 the City Council moved to shift attention to the much larger Army training camp that went before, spending more than $100,000 to relocate a surviving pair of Camp Adair barracks to a site near City Hall to become the centerpiece of a new civic center.

“That’s a very important part of what this community is,” City Administrator Drew Foster said. “The World War II history, that’s the reason Adair Village is here.”

One of the barracks will be used as a multipurpose building for meetings, youth programs and community events, while the other is slated to become an interpretive center displaying artifacts from Camp Adair. There are also plans for a concrete plaza embossed with the insignias of the four Army divisions that trained there.

Much remains to be done to make the dream a reality. Adair Living History Inc., a nonprofit formed to work on the interpretive center, hopes to raise $850,000 in grants and donations to complete the project.

Barbara Melton, the organization’s president, said the effort has sparked a sense of civic pride in Adair Village.

“It will give us a focal point,” she said. “We’re kind of a little bedroom community, and this will turn us into a destination.”

At the same time, Melton believes, the project has also tapped into something deeper: an abiding human need to embrace our collective past.

“To know what has happened in a place and to have some connection to that is important to people,” Melton said. “History can teach us about who we are, who we were and who we’re going to be.”

Bound to the past

After two years of intensive effort, Richards thinks he may be nearing the end of his self-imposed quest to find the chapels.

He’s located what he believes may be one of the last two in Keizer. The structure, now being used by the Light of the Valley Assembly of God, fits the bill in virtually all respects except that it lacks the characteristic arched trusses.

But Gallagher’s research at the Benton County Historical Society indicates that there may have been two standard designs used in constructing the chapels of Camp Adair, and Richards thinks he might be looking at a style he hasn’t seen before.

“What I’m going to have to do now is go out and measure the darned thing,” he said. “If the measurements come out the same, it could turn out to be one of the missing chapels.”

That would still leave one more chapel to track down. But if and when he finds the last one, Richards said, he won’t stop there.

He’ll keep on looking for other surviving remnants of Oregon’s forgotten World War II past.

“After a while,” he said, “the bug gets you, you know?”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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