Aberdeen Proving Ground was established in 1917 as an answer to an immediate need for national defense. The United States Army was not fully prepared to meet its new obligations as a consequence of America's declaration of war on the Central Powers in April 1917. One of the urgent issues was to obtain facilities for testing war munitions.
Due to its proximity to New York’s populated suburbs and busy harbor, the then-Sandy Hook Proving Ground at Fort Hancock, N.J., was unable to expand to test all incoming war materiel. As demands for munitions to fight the war in Europe increased, the Ordnance Department's need to obtain test facilities for munitions and equipment became urgent. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker commissioned Sandy Hook’s commanding officer, Col. Colden L. Ruggles, to find a new site for the Army's ordnance testing.
The qualifications for the new site were specific. It had to be near the nation's industrial and manufacturing centers, yet far enough away from population centers so year-round testing would cause neither community disturbance nor public hazard. Ruggles' search took him to the Chesapeake Bay area.
He first considered Kent Island, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, but encountered so much opposition from the inhabitants that he quickly abandoned the idea.
Influenced by Maj. Edward V. Stockham, who lived in Perryman, Ruggles then shifted his attention to an area along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay near the city of Aberdeen. The site was fertile farming area, partly located along the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Susquehanna River, which had been explored and mapped by Captain John Smith and company from the Jamestown settlement in Virginia in 1608. The entire area was included in a land grant that King Charles I of England gave to Lord Baltimore in 1632.
Tomatoes, wheat, and a sugar corn called "shoepeg," which could not be cultivated successfully anywhere else in the country, were the area's specialties. The canning industry produced more than 300,000 cases of shoepeg corn and tomatoes worth $1.5 million annually; the area's fishing industry had an estimated yield of approximately $700,000. Understandably, the farmers were reluctant to part with their farms, many of which—Poverty Island, Planter's Delight, Shandy Hall, and Swamp Quarter—had belonged to their families for generations.
It took an act of Congress and two presidential proclamations to persuade the farmers to leave their property. The Congressional act provided financial compensation for the 35,000 acres of upland and 34,000 acres of swamp and tidal lands which President Wilson's proclamation claimed for the U.S. government. The farmers received approximately $200 an acre for their land and were assisted in resettling in other parts of Maryland. Approximately 3,000 people, 12,000 horses, mules, sheep, cows, and swine evacuated. Even the family graveyards were moved.
The government took formal possession of the land at Aberdeen on Oct. 20, 1917, and immediately began building testing facilities. The new proving ground at Aberdeen would be used for proof-testing field artillery weapons, ammunition, trench mortars, air defense guns and railway artillery. The mission was later expanded to include operation of an Ordnance training school and developmental testing of small arms.
On Jan. 2, 1918, during a blinding snowstorm, Edward V. Stockham fired the first gun at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Despite the snow, within two hours, the regular work of ammunition acceptance testing was underway. The assigned workload increased very quickly and on March 28, 1918, the Ordnance Department reorganized the proving ground. Four departments were set up to facilitate testing: Proof, Service, Administration and Military. However, just as the newly reorganized APG was effectively performing its wartime testing missions, the war came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918.
The administration building, or post headquarters Bldg. 310, was designed as APG's primary administration building during the fall of 1917. The high-style classical revival south wing of the building, with its imposing portico, came to symbolize APG's importance to the U.S. Army. Bldg. 310 served as post headquarters from its completion in 1918 until 1995, as APG evolved from a proving ground to one of the Army's major ordnance research and development centers to meet military needs during the 20th century.
APG's peacetime mission emphasized research and development of munitions. Much of the work done during this period by the military and civilian personnel was in developmental testing of powders, projectiles and bombs, and the study of interior and exterior ballistics. Some construction continued in the years immediately after the war, but it was limited to facilities that were necessary for conducting tests.
In 1923, two major construction projects were completed. A new hospital, Bldg. 45 on the small golf course, was erected. At the same time an airfield, hangar and quarters for an aviation squadron were created. The airfield was used by aircraft that supported the creation of bombing tables. The techniques these tables provided improved the adequacy of aerial bombing. Phillips Army Air Field was named in memory of 1st Lt. Wendell K. Phillips, who was killed in an aircraft accident at Aberdeen. The original airfield is now a portion of the industrial area.