Hills that once bustled and boomed with thousands of United States soldiers practicing for warfare, now ring gently with the sound of worship services and restored wildlife.
Where troops once drilled with rifles and tanks, families now gather for weddings, marriage retreats, and community events.
Where men once gathered from all over the country to prepare for battle, now men and women gather to prepare for a different kind of battle – world wide disaster relief.
“You’ve heard the phrase, ‘You will beat your swords into plowshares,’” said William Lenches, executive director of Abilene’s 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum. “Beating swords into plowshares happened very quickly.”
As soon as the base was decommissioned in 1945, pieces of the camp were auctioned off and turned into churches and buildings in downtown Abilene. Army vehicles were given to citizens who turned weapons vehicles into grocery trucks.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Lenches said, describing the camp’s restoration.
Lenches provides the historical knowledge while the camp’s owners, Norm and Angel Poorman, provide the vision for the camp’s future.
A Turning Point for Abilene
The construction of this camp was perhaps the biggest turning point in the evolution of the city of Abilene, Lenches said. Before 1940, Abilene was a rural city with less than 27,000 inhabitants. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced massive increases in the size of the military, Abilenians knew their small town would make a perfect site for a military base. The city purchased some land and worked with local farmers to lease out the land to the military for $1 a year.
That was too good for the military to pass up. Good weather and lots of land with hills and valleys allowed for thousands of troops to come through and train with guns and tanks on various tactical maneuvers.
By the end of 1940, construction had begun on the massive camp. Barracks and mess halls were constructed. Abilenians suddenly had a massive economic boost as soldiers came to town for entertainment, shopping, and banking.
“It wasn’t just the money,” Lenches said. “Men were coming in from all over the country bringing their diverse accents, bringing their ideas, bringing their ingenuity, and marrying a fair number of Abilene’s young ladies. A little agricultural town was exposed to ideas and cuisine and art and everything from all over. It made Abilene wealthier and bigger, and more metropolitan.”
From Abilene to Germany
On the camp’s 65,000 plus acres, soldiers practiced live fire with their weapons, learning and training for a year before going to the European theatre. They practiced going up and down the hills, marching and maneuvering. Despite Texas’ reputation for good weather, the Abilene climate proved to be brutal for the soldiers.
“One of our veterans, Charlie Fitts, has always said that Camp Barkeley is the only place where you can be marching in ankle-deep mud and have dust blowing in your face at the same time,” Lenches said. “It toughened these men up to such an extent that the fatigue and privation they experienced in Europe did much less to phase them than others.”
After training at Camp Barkeley, the 12th Armored Division went on to Germany to fight many battles and eventually liberate 10 Nazi concentration camps. There the men were shocked by the horrors they saw.
“All of our guys – Christian, Jewish, agnostic, whatever – when they saw these camps, their gut reaction was ‘How can a human being visit such horrors on another human being?’” Lenches said.
He said several veterans dedicated their lives to talking to anyone who would listen to them about what they saw in Germany. Seeing the concentration camps for themselves, they knew that it would be hard for people to believe – not for political reasons, but because it was so horrible, no rational human could imagine it, Lenches said.
Written on the wall in the museum are the words a veteran said about the camps- “We saw it, we smelled it, we liberated it. These are the pictures we took.”
The mission of liberation remains the focus for Camp Barkeley today. Although most of the camp’s land returned to farmers or became part of Dyess Air Force base, 1,000 acres were put on auction in 2006 when an Abilene family stepped up to purchase it. Norm and Angel Poorman, owners of Children’s Dentistry of Abilene, originally wanted to use the land for themselves as a family ranch. But turning points in their own lives sparked a new vision.
Not long before that, Angel had a heat stroke on a tennis court that led to a temporary paralysis.
“Laying there, looking outside, I heard the voice of God say ‘Are you ready to get busy living for me?’” Angel said.
“We were successful, but when you lose your health, you realize you have nothing,” Norm said.
As their faith grew, they realized they wanted to give the land of Camp Barkeley to God to be used as a worship and pastor’s retreat.
Norm first took steps to restore the land, joining a USDA Land Reclamation group and following their guidance to clear 500 of the 1,000 acres of land. The goal was to create hiking trails and bring out the beauty of the land. From there, they worked on the buildings, restoring the camp’s old mess hall and creating dorms in the same style as the 1940’s soldier’s barracks.
In the 2010s, their nonprofit work expanded to create Iris Abilene, a global nonprofit training center, and later formed the United Rescue Alliance, which provides disaster relief. The land itself provides funding for these nonprofits in the form of a rock quarry on site.
“It’s the emotional and spiritual with the tactical and practical,” Angel said. “We take both of those together and we train and respond in nations.”
Lauren Hassell has served on the staff since 2013. She said the United Rescue Alliance worked to help the people of Abilene during coronavirus by partnering with the United Way to help families. She helped create an online platform to help connect 60,000 households with resources in Taylor County and surrounding areas.
“The land was originally created to train people to bring liberation,” Lauren said. “What I love about working out here is that we all are called to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and this allows that to happen.”
On first entering the camp, one can see the dorms, worship center, and restored mess hall. Further up the hill, a concrete barrier stands where soldiers practiced shooting at targets on metal levers.
Soldiers would stand under the concrete barrier so they could be shielded from the fire of other soldiers shooting from the hill behind them. The names of soldiers that were carved or painted on the concrete can still be seen today.
Near the top of the hill, the live rock quarry spills out over the scenic view of Abilene below. Further up, at the top of the mountain, the old quarry built by the army forms an amphitheatre. This space will be used for worship events or concerts. A seating area can be used for small group gatherings. Here, couples can get married overlooking one of the most scenic views in the city.
“This is a place that when people walk on this land, our heart is that they see themselves as part of history,” Angel said. “However you came into that gate, that you would change because you experienced being part of something bigger than yourself.”
Fast Facts about Camp Barkeley:
• The camp was named for World War I hero David Bennes Barkley of Laredo, Texas. The name was spelled wrong in a press release, so the camp was thereafter spelled with an extra “E” – Camp Barkeley.
• When the camp was decommissioned, the buildings were broken down and materials distributed. Many buildings downtown, such as the American Red Cross building on North 2nd Street, still have some of those materials in their walls.
• In 1945, the Camp housed 840 German prisoners of war.
• At its peak of operation, the camp was home to more than 50,000 soldiers and was one of the largest United States Army bases in the country.
• Over 300 oral histories of veterans are logged and available to hear on the 12th Armored Division museum website.
• Over 2,000 volunteers have been trained for missions at the restored camp.
by Haley Laurence