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Interpretive and education center opens Saturday at Fort Necessity

| Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005

Hard hats were still required last week as workers from the Design and Production exhibit company readied the multimillion-dollar education and interpretive center at the Fort Necessity National Battlefield Historic Site for its grand opening.

It will take a little while longer to finish all the details of the 14,000-square-foot center, but park officials said it will be ready to accept visitors by the end of the week.

An opening ceremony is scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday with historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough giving the keynote address.

The opening is being celebrated Saturday through Oct. 10, and numerous activities are slated. In addition to delivering the keynote address Saturday, McCullough will hold a 1:45 to 2:30 p.m. book signing at the center. Pre-eminent French and Indian War artist Robert Griffing will also sign his prints at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 9.

Period entertainment and a "Market Fair" with artisans demonstrating 18th-century crafts will be featured all three days. There will be encampments of 1754-era re-enactors and warriors. The re-enactors and park rangers will demonstrate musket fire at 1 and 3 p.m. Saturday, and at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Oct. 9 and 10.

Park ranger and project manger Leroy Renninger has worked on the planning and construction of the center for five years. As it nears completion, he said it has exceeded his expectations.

"We are excited to have this wonderful new facility opening, and know that the community is equally enthused," said park superintendent Ken Mabery. "People have been waiting to see this new facility. Plans are in place to inform and entertain visitors expected--there will be something for everyone."

Renninger said the center offers the most extensive audiovisual experience of any museum in the region.

An original movie is under production telling both the story of Fort Necessity and the National Road that will play in the center's theater, starting in the spring. There are videos and audiovisual programs playing now on screens at various places in the center to highlight different parts of the story.

But there is much more to the audiovisual experience than watching videos.

Visitors will meet a figure of the American Indian Half King at the entrance to the museum. At the push of a red button, Half King will give a traditional American Indian welcome.

Following the path a little farther through the exhibit, a visitor will come face to face with George Washington as he appeared in 1784 when he made a return trip to the region.

Push a button and he reminisces about the events at Fort Necessity. Park officials have paid careful attention to the details of the presentation, down to Washington's Tidewater Virginia accent.

Behind Washington, a Colonial soldier fires a musket from a ledge in an exhibit representing Jumonville Glen -- the May, 1754, skirmish between the French and British in which the French Envoy Jumonville perished -- leading both to the Fort Necessity battle and the French and Indian War.

D&P exhibit employees worked feverishly to finish painting the base of the concrete ledge to make it look like the rock outcropping at the glen. They said they didn't mind working under the Colonial soldier's gun, but that the sounds of the battle could be disconcerting.

Visitors will be immersed in the sounds of battle, both at the Jumonville display and in a round room that replays the Fort Necessity battle.

Murals by Griffing that wind around the wall depict the British under the command of a young George Washington on one side, the French and their American Indian allies on the other. Visitors in the middle hear the sounds of battle.

It's Renninger's favorite display. "You feel the reverberation (of the musket fire)," he said.

Special-effects lighting also simulate a rain storm to demonstrate the downpour that accompanied the battle of July 3, 1754.

There are displays to educate visitors about the three sides that participated in the French and Indian War -- the British, the French and American Indians who fought on both sides of the conflict. There are also maps showing where battles were fought on four continents in the conflict that widened into the Seven Years War outside North America.

The exhibit then makes a smooth transition to the history of the National Road.

The center shows a path of history, and Washington, who was an early advocate of a National Road, is the thread that ties it together.

Among the exhibits along the National Road in the center is an early 19th-century tavern.

The park service has worked closely with the National Road Heritage Corridor organization on displays. The group also will sponsor the Market Fair at the celebration.

Donna Holdorf, executive director of the National Road Heritage Corridor, was at the center last week to help plan details for the opening.

The spacious facility also has enabled the park service to display numerous artifacts, including the burned stumps of the original Fort Necessity left after the French set the fort afire in the aftermath of Washington's surrender.

As much as there is to see and hear at the interpretive center, the park service wants it to be only the starting point of a visitor's experience at Fort Necessity.

"This is to whet their appetites," said park ranger and interpretive center manager MaryEllen Snyder.

Visitors will be directed to the reconstructed Fort Necessity and encouraged to explore Washington's first battlefield.

The center also has a strong educational component.

A large classroom is incorporated in the facility for student programs. Community groups also will be able to use the theater for programs. In addition, the park now has museum-quality storage for artifacts for the first time.

The park service is expecting a large crowd for Saturday's opening and has arranged for parking at Braddock Inn, along Route 40. A free shuttle to the center will run every 15 minutes starting at 8:30 a.m. The market fair and other programs will start at 9 a.m., and visitors are advised to arrive early for the 11 a.m. opening.

Admission to the center is free for opening day but there's a $5 parking fee at the Braddock Inn lot.

Tickets for the interpretive tour and celebration on Oct. 9 and 10 are $7 for adults and $2 for children ages 5 to 16. Parking also is available those days at the Fort Necessity site.

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