July 27, 2008

Saviors of Fort Ti to be subject of book

Pell family story subject of book


TICONDEROGA -- Deborah Pell Dunning is writing a book about the Pell family and its restoration of Fort Ticonderoga.

The book might not be called "The Pells of Ticonderoga," but that will be its theme.

It was her family that took what had been a crumbling 18th-century ruin and turned it into the impressive national historic landmark visitors see today.

Pell Dunning said she's always wanted to be a writer, and has decided the story of the Pells needs to be told.

"I knew I wanted to live in Ticonderoga someday. It was home. My roots were here. It was like a genetic vibration in my DNA."

Her parents lived in California then came back to Ticonderoga when she was 5 years old and again when she was 18. She most recently lived in Florida, where she was involved in the real-estate industry. Then she returned permanently to Ticonderoga, she said.

"I could not stand Florida. I love the cold weather. I'm here to stay."

Now she's collecting stories from people who worked at Fort Ticonderoga over the years and working with other members of the Pell family to blend their history into a book that will probably take a year to write.

"I love the fort with every bit of my heart," she said. "If I can impress on people the idea of keeping this place the way it should be, that's what I want to do. I've never taken my eyes off what's happening there."

Her great-great-great-grandfather, William Ferris Pell, acquired Fort Ticonderoga in 1816. He built a summer home called Beaumont for his family in 1820. It burned in 1825, and he rebuilt it as the Pavilion, a hotel, in 1826.

In 1908, Stephen H.P. Pell, a grandson of William Ferris Pell, along with his wife, Sarah Thompson Pell, purchased all interest in the property from cousins and began the restoration of the fort and the acquisition of cannon and other artifacts for the museum collection.

They also created the King's Garden, opening the fort to the public in 1909.

"It's incredible to think of the amount of work achieved in one year, especially without the aid of modern construction equipment," Pell Dunning said.

In 1931, the Pells transferred the property to a not-for profit corporation to protect it, with the intent to keep it under family control.

John H.G. Pell carried on the management of the fort after his father, Stephen, died in 1952. He expanded the museum collection and oversaw the addition of lands to the fort complex. John died in 1987.

Many of Stephen and Sarah Pell's descendants and other Pell cousins serve on the Fort Ticonderoga Association Board of Trustees and continue to be active in the operation of the fort.

Pell Dunning has the scrapbooks kept by Stephen and Sarah Thompson Pell as a source of photographs and clippings.

"I wanted to find people who worked at the fort. I'm looking for stories from people who were there. I want texture and detail. The fort had loyal, dedicated employees who came back year after year. They must have a lot of information."

Pell Dunning can be contacted at by anyone who'd like to share their memories of the fort.

She's spending time now writing down her own memories.

"I have a lot of the book already written in my head. This is a one-woman story, and it's my family's story."

The book will not be a gossip volume, she said, but neither will it be a whitewash of a family that's had its successes and failures.

"It's a legitimate, scholarly effort. My family is non-confrontational. We look for the good in everyone. You couldn't have picked a better family (to steward Fort Ti)."

She said she spends six to eight hours a day writing and doing research.

"I love writing, and I love this book project. I'm meeting this week with two women who worked at the fort.

"I'm excited that they're going to tell me their stories."