ABERDEEN, Md.— Barbara Baker has seen many changes in her life. None, so profound, she says, as the changes in the City of Aberdeen and surrounding communities that are affected by the presence of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
What APG has come to mean to the citizens who have grown up around it is difficult to state in simple terms, Baker says. It’s far simpler to view, in retrospect, how APG has impacted lives – and life itself— from its inception in 1917 to today.
Baker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her family moved to Harford County, her father’s birthplace, when she was still a baby. They lived on a farm in the Bel Air area. She enjoyed her childhood. Life was good.
“We always had something to eat,” she said, noting that in the tough economic times that followed the “Great Depression,” success was often measured by how often one ate.
She rode the bus to schools in Bel Air and after high school, attended a two-year junior college in Southern Maryland.
APG affected her life almost right away.
“It was just always there,” she said. “You got used to seeing Soldiers all the time.”
From USO dances to church outings and everything in between, Baker said Soldiers were a part of the fabric of life in Aberdeen. She recalled once when one of her friends came home from school and found that her mother had rented out her bedroom to an APG Soldier.
“It seemed everything revolved around them,” she said.
It’s no wonder she eventually married one.
In 1944, Charles “Chuck” Baker, whom she’d been dating for some time, and who had earlier joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, decided he wanted to make her his wife before he went off to face the coming war. A pilot during the war Chuck became a flight engineer at the war’s end when the planes he flew were no longer needed. Within Barbara Baker’s treasure trove of glossy black-and-white family photos are pictures of Chuck posed smilingly in front of B-29 bombers. She and Chuck attended the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2004. Chuck passed away in 2010.
Even their union had APG ties. Baker said Chuck’s grandfather was an Aberdeen landowner of property that became a part of APG where she, Chuck and her daughter eventually worked for a time. And there’s even more history to her APG story.
Chuck Baker had two older sisters, one of whom married a gentleman of Danish heritage who wanted to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was accepted despite his limited English, which he eventually mastered. After graduating Kai E. Rasmussen, would on to become one of the first to bring the importance of Japanese language specialists, Japanese-American Soldiers loyal to the nation, known as Nisei, to the attention of the War Department. He hand-picked and trained personnel at the hastily assembled Fourth Army Intelligence School – today’s Defense Language Institute – at The Presidio, San Francisco in 1941. More than 6,000 Nisei served covertly in the Pacific during World War II. Rasmussen, who is credited as the school’s founder, also served at APG for a short time while awaiting orders, Baker said.
History is Baker’s passion. One of her prized possessions is a page from the June 3, 1918 issue of the Baltimore Sun. Under the headline, “Proving Ground Awards,” appears a Bureau of Ordnance of the War Department list of the land owners in Baltimore and Harford counties who received monetary awards from the government for the purchase of their properties. The largest award of $400,000 went to John Cadwalader, a banker, Baker said, and the owner of 8,000 acres. The next highest award of $225,000 went to Charles W. Baker, Chuck’s grandfather. Even tenants received monetary awards with the highest princely sum of $4,000 going to Henry A. Price while the tiniest award of $40 went to James W. Collins. Just over $3 million was paid to land owners and about $113,000 was distributed to tenants.
Baker said people had to find someplace else to live; it was as simple as that.
“They didn’t pay them very much, and they had to leave. They had no choice,” she said.
Twice a week, Baker volunteers at the Aberdeen Room Archives & Museum located at 18 North Howard Street, just off W. Bel Air Avenue, in Aberdeen. Established in 1987 the museum receives, catalogs, stores and displays artifacts related to the history of the City of Aberdeen as well as the proving ground.
The APG centennial is a “big deal,” she says.
“So many people had opportunities here they wouldn’t have had any place else. And of all the families that were stationed here, many of them stayed and raised their families here. Even those who left will remember Aberdeen Proving Ground the rest of their lives.”
Baker said she considers herself a “Rosie the Riveter” since she served on the post as a secretary from 1942-44. Born in 1921, Baker will celebrate her 96th birthday this year. While her age is an achievement to be proud of, she doesn’t plan to dwell on it in 2017. She is far more interested in toasting the centennial of an old and dear friend.