Montgomery County

Old Fort Johnson readies to reopen

Old Fort Johnson is cleaner than it has ever been.

Old Fort Johnson is cleaner than it has ever been.

Feeling the time-polished, wooden floors, smelling the fresh paint, it’s hard to imagine the inches of reeking muck left by receding flood waters a year ago.

The artifacts are back in their glass cases, the portraits back on the walls, the furniture snug in respective corners. Aside from the bright new rope cordons — the old ones are molded — there’s not much proof of Irene’s damage.

“Here in the yard,” said Museum Director Alessa Wylie as she strolled across the lush green lawn, “it’s hard to tell, but you would have been under water.”

The fort has come so far in just a year, Wylie and caretaker Scott Haefner have taken it upon themselves to demonstrate the extent of the flooding.

On Saturday, the site will open to the public for the first time since last August. The party will feature fresh bread from the 18th-century oven and games for the kids. It will look a lot like any of a few pre-flood events, but each building will carry a loop of blue duct tape marking the height of the water.

“It came up over the door handles,” Haefner said, motioning a line about 5 feet high along the front of the fort.

During the flood, he said, the fort was lucky. Unlike Guy Park Manor, which was in the heavy current and still bears the marks of destruction, Fort Johnson rested in somewhat of a backwater. It flooded, but wasn’t torn apart.

“That’s actually one of the problems we’ve had,” Haefner said. “From day one, people would drive by and it didn’t look that bad.”

Because of the solid exterior, organizers had a hard time raising money to repair interior damage, which was significant.

A few hundred buckets of mud had to be lifted out of the basement. The walls had to be suction dried with a special machine. The monthly garden tea parties, a Fort Johnson fixture for years, won’t happen this year because every chair and tea table was ruined.

In all, it took $145,000 to bring the place back to normal. Roughly a third of that came from donations and grants, with the rest drawn from the endowment.

However great the expense, Wylie said, the volunteer labor was worth more.

“We couldn’t have done this without the legions of volunteers,” she said, adding that the fort is actually in better than pre-flood condition.

The electrical and heating systems were updated in the process and thanks to the work of plaster maestro and volunteer Wendell Salisburg, the centuries-old walls look as fresh as the day they were built.

Just three weeks ago, Haefner was able to move back into his usual residence in the upstairs of the visitor center. With the fear of mold, and his second-floor bedroom filled with artifacts, he had to live in borrowed quarters in Amsterdam for 11 months.

At first he thought the nightmares of rushing water he suffered after the flood would return with his old surroundings.

“When we were packing up the fort, the water pushed open the basement windows and made this waterfall sound,” he said, “Then when I came back for some of the portraits, the sounds had stopped. The basement was full. That was so much scarier.”

Since scrubbing the smell of river mud out of the floors, the nightmares, like Irene’s destruction, have faded.

Old Fort Johnson re-opens from 10 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

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