San Mateo County History

Tales of the San Francisco Peninsula
Theron G. Cady
A series of articles first published in 'Peninsula Life Magazine'
Published by C-T Publishers, San Carlos, California, 1948

Camp Fremont
        Thirty years ago, at the outbreak of World War I, the United States Government was seeking a suitable location for a large army training camp.  The site selected had to be within a reasonable distance of San Francisco and large enough to accomodate thousands of troops.  The search ended at Menlo Park, situated at the southern end of San Mateo County.  Here the government found the climate ideal and the location perfect, for at the time, the locality was regarded as one of the three best places in the world for such purposes.
        Soon after the site had been chosen, things began happening in Menlo Park.  Spur tracks were laid across the highway from the present right-of-way, and large block-long warehouses were erected adjoining the new tracks.  Thousands of carpenters turned to with hammer and saw, and, within a few weeks, the appearance of the entire town was changed.  El Camino Real, which, at the time, was nothing more than a muddy rut through town, was resurfaced and put into shape to handle the heavy traffic that was soon to come.  Other streets were repaired and constructed, sewers were installed and long rows of barracks, laid out city fashion, dotted the landscape.
        As the building of Camp Fremont progressed, the town itself hurried to keep pace with the many activities.  Buildings fronting on El Camino Real were given a new coat of paint, and San Francisco merchants attracted to Menlo Park because of the soldiers, came down the Peninsula to open shops in every available vacant store.  One of these was "Canary Cottage," an ice cream and candy store which occupied one end of an old wooden building on the west side of El Camino Real just a few doors north of Santa Cruz Avenue.  The building had been scrubbed clean inside and out and painted a light canary yellow.  On the plate glass window, an artist spend days painting a large canary bird while other workmen installed the fountain and other equipment.
        Finally, Canary Cottage was ready for the grand opening--and what an opening it was.  Not one soldier entered the place, and few townfolk ventured inside.  Why the soldiers and civilians shied away from Canary Cottage will never be known, for, after remaining open a short time, the place closed, never to repoen.
        Across the street from Canary Cottage and adjoining the brick building which now houses the City Hall, a large theater was built.  It featured first run pictures and presented five acts of second rate vaudeville nightly.  From the start, the theater was a success and to get a seat often meant standing in line for an hour or more.  The soldiers regarded the place as their own, and the performers often received a "bad time" if their presentations were not to their liking.  On one occasion, a lady singer stopped cold in the middle of her act and walked off stage.  The soldiers had joined in with her singing, and it was impossible for her to be heard.  Other acts received the same treatment, which was far superior to the "bag popping" often indulged in by Stanford students in the old Varsity Theater in Palo Alto.
        During the year and a half that Camp Fremont was located at Menlo Park, it became one of the largest concentration camps in the country.  Troops numbering over 43,000 were quartered and received their overseas training there.  All lines of training were conducted at Menlo Park, and long lines of infantry and cavalry were a common sight day and night.  Besides horsemanship, taught by grizzlied veterans of West Point, men from Flanders in France were brought to Camp Fremont to teach recruits the art of bayonet fighting.
        In the fields around camp, miles of trenches were dug and often blown up by hand grenades and small bombs so the men who had offered themselves could see how best to protect themselves in actual battle.  Cannon practice was a daily occurance, and, all during the day, the big guns could be heard booming away at some distant target in the hills.  Every means of modern warfare was portrayed at Camp Fremont, and, during the time the troops were stationed there, the 1,000 acre tract which comprised the camp was a living sea of khaki clad men.
        Today the buildings, theater, and men of Camp Fremont no longer remain.  Where once stood rows of barracks, there now stands modern homes with happy children playing in spacious yards.  The old trenches have been filled in, and the block-long warehouses have made way for buildings which serve different purposes.  The big guns have long been silent and few, except the old-timers, remember Camp Fremont as it was thirty years ago.
        The only remaining thing to mark the site of Camp Fremont is a small stone monument in a park on Santa Cruz Avenue.  Standing beside the stone marker, surrounded by shrubs and green lawns, is a flagpole from which waves the stars and stripes.  It is not the same flag that flew there thirty years ago, but visitors to the park need little imagination to hear the buglers sounding "colors" as they did when Camp Fremont was the home of 43,000 fighting men.
© 1948 Theron G. Cady. All rights reserved.
Posted here with permission of his granddaughter, Andrea Van Norman.
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