In September 2017, Williamsport’s Community Arts Center saw its biggest movie crowd ever; nearly 1600 viewers turned out for Surrender! The Sudden Death of Alvira, Pennsylvania.
Now folks have another chance to see this local documentary on the big screen when it plays at Lewisburg’s Campus Theatre on Sunday, March 31.
Also available on DVD, Surrender! covers the White Deer Valley’s long-abandoned ordnance works, making spectacular use of its 62-minute running time to lay out this quiet but gripping tale:
In the war-torn 1940s, the U.S. military found itself woefully lacking in explosives — and factories to make them. So the government peremptorily bought up 72,000 square miles — including 8400 acres of farmland in Lycoming and Union counties.
Once encompassing the town of Alvira, this area now includes the White Deer Golf Course, the Allenwood prison, various state game lands and the Lycoming County Landfill.
Given little notice and even less choice, more than 400 residents were displaced in a matter of weeks; some 200 homes, farms, schools and businesses were “set ablaze, bulldozed or dynamited out of existence.”
In their place went a $50 million complex with 55 miles of roads, 17 miles of railroad track, a hospital, a fire department, a bus system and numerous 44-foot-wide “igloos.” (Used for storage, these earth-covered domes are familiar, through their extant ruins, to countless local hikers, hunters and history buffs.)
This plant turned out 180 tons of TNT per day; yet it closed after a mere 11 months, as the defense industry realized that “World War II’s endgame would be played out not by mixing toluene, sulfuric acid and ammonia hydrate but rather by colliding isotopes in the barren desert reaches of New Mexico and Nevada.”
Residents insist they were promised they’d get their land back once it was no longer needed; but numerous subsequent studies — some as recent as 2009 — showed widespread soil and water contamination. Ultimately, only 500 acres returned to the owners.
Adding another wrinkle are facts unearthed by the film’s makers —Williamsport residents Steve and Martha Huddy — showing that the site was also used to store many tons of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.
This has since been removed, and a recent study showed no abnormal radioactivity; but the Huddys had a devil of time tracking down these details through the Freedom of Information Act. Their appeal for more documents was denied, and they never received conclusive assurance that all the dangerous material had been taken away.
Quoted frequently in this review, the film’s beautifully written narration is handled by Steve Huddy, with just the right blend of firmness and authority; his tone of level-headed clarity keeps the piece from feeling alarmist or propagandistic.
He’s aided by a handful of interviews in which Alvira residents recall their shock, distress and frustration.
Huddy said he was gratified to see many of these families at the 2017 CAC premiere. In some cases, three generations were represented that night—though a few older interviewees had passed away before the film’s completion.
Financed solely by the Huddys and produced with the assistance of five historical societies — principally Lycoming County’s — the film has modest production values, with a modicum of live footage spliced into hundreds of archival photographs; yet even this low-key tone works nicely: Surrender! is a meditative and nostalgic film about farmlands, families, back roads and broken dreams; glitzy Hollywood treatment would detract from its authenticity.
Especially moving are descriptions and footage of contemporary ruins in the area: “Remains of stairways now lead into thin air; and close by, spring foundation plantings of daffodils and grape hyacinths patiently work their way up through Alvira’s soil each year to celebrate a family now 70 years gone.”
Farm foundations and discarded possessions (a typewriter, an ancient shoe) mingle with factory silos, rusting machinery and cement skeletons, suggesting that both Alvira and the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works shared a similar fate —“victims of necessity or progress … now lost to the vastness of time.”
Surrender! will run at 1 p.m. Sunday, Mar. 31, at the Campus Theatre in Lewisburg. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at www.unioncountyhistoricalsociety.org or any Union County library. They will also be available on the day of the show. In addition, Steve Huddy will be on hand to introduce the film, and for Q&A afterwards.
DVDs of Surrender! can be purchased at Williamsport’s Otto Bookstore, the Muncy Historical Society, the Montgomery Area Historical Society or directly from the filmmakers at 570-419-5772. They will also be available Sunday at the Campus, and Huddy will be happy to sign them as well.