Chief historian retires from Harpers Ferry National Park
A love of history led Dennis Frye to settle on a career path at an early age.
“From around the age of 12, I knew I wanted to be a park ranger,” Frye said last week, as he prepared to step down from a career with the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park that has spanned 32 years.
Serving as Chief Historian for the park, Frye never traveled far from home when he decided on this career path. In fact, growing up in Boonsboro, Maryland, he began volunteering at Antietam Battlefield and then Harpers Ferry as a teenager.
“We used to play war in the forts on Maryland Heights,” Frye reminisced. “We were completely surrounded by history. It consumed us.”
Frye’s first job at Harpers Ferry Park was as a “sweep” in the blacksmith shop, what he labeled as “bottom of the chain.” From the bottom, Frye moved up, becoming a journeyman blacksmith and participating in the Living History program within the park.
“Harpers Ferry is the oldest continuous Living History program in the National Park Service, celebrating 45 years this year,” Frye said.
Frye’s years of volunteerism paid off, as after his high school graduation from Boonsboro High, he was admitted to Shepherd College as a cooperative education student, which included a paid apprenticeship and led to a permanent position in the National Park System. Frye spent his entire park service career at Harpers Ferry.
During his tenure there, Frye was afforded many opportunities to delve into his passion: history.
“People make history,” he said. “It’s not about dates or chronology and should never be about memorization.”
“Historians make the best storytellers,” he added. “I’ve worked my whole life to be a good storyteller, as a lecturer, a ranger and a writer.”
Frye, who has authored 10 books, has learned the art of telling the story. The latest addition to his literary career, “Antietam Shadows: Mystery, Myth & Machination,” was released last month. In addition to his books, which focus on Civil War history, Frye has authored 99 articles, which have appeared in every major Civil War publication. His specialties, he said, are the Civil War and Antebellum periods.
Writing and rangering didn’t take up all of Frye’s professional time; he took a 10-year hiatus from his position in the park service to work in the private sector. Four of those years were spent as an associate producer for Ted Turner Productions, which filmed Gods and Generals. Much of that filming was done in the local area, including Harpers Ferry.
“I was the antithesis of Hollywood,” Frye said. “I was an historian there to give as much historical accuracy as possible.” Along with providing historical data, Frye was also responsible for recruiting and managing the re-enactors who worked on the film.
In addition to the Turner Productions civilian job, Frye also worked as an adviser for the Civil War Trails Program, where he wrote many of the exhibit signs throughout the West Virginia and Maryland portions of the trails.
Frye never thought he would return to the National Park Service. But as fate would have it, he was called to testify on Capitol Hill with regard to expanding the Harpers Ferry Park boundaries in 2004 to include Schoolhouse Ridge and the Murphy Farm. Park Superintendent Don Campbell hired Frye back in the chief historian position, the same position from which he’d left 10 years earlier.
It’s from that position that Frye now moves on to enjoy more writing and history projects. He plans to go back to his roots as a tour guide in Harpers Ferry and Antietam.
“I do not intend to divorce myself from my passion,” Frye said.
The preservation and protection of Harpers Ferry will continue to be a priority for Frye, but he said there will be some time for other endeavors. He and his wife share a love for gardening, for dogs – especially rescue dogs – and for their 1840 historic home, which Frye refers to as “a child that never leaves.”
Looking back, Frye said he sees his greatest legacy as making the education of students and visitors his No. 1 priority.
“The legacy is that each of those students becomes an ambassador for our park at a young age. If it’s a positive experience, they become a lifetime champion for the park,” he said.
That legacy will long live on, as Frye has led by example for hundreds of thousands of visitors, young and old alike, instilling his love of history through his storytelling, as an author and a ranger.
“I’ve been blessed as a public historian,” Frye said. “I work with a public and my classroom is a whole national park. It’s a really physical place where history happened. You can’t get that feeling in a classroom.”