There were no towns and few stores. But back in 1918, before the Navy base was built and before a place called Dahlgren existed, 5-year-old Jim Payne had one thing he loved: freedom.
"There was no big brother," Payne remembered 70 years later. "We were completely responsible for ourselves, for our own families and, to a lesser extent, for our neighbors. We might see our sheriff once in six months...and there were no other officials to annoy us. It was great!"
Payne went on to work on the base for several decades, becoming a leader in the Navy's Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance program (HERO). He died a few years ago in Northern Virginia. But some of his relatives still live in the area, near the family farm that lay just outside the new base.
In a memoir written in the late 1980s, Payne said, "We raised everything we ate except sugar, flour, salt, pepper and the like. Sometimes at Christmas one of the stores would get tropical fruits and nuts, a real treat. The Potomac River and the creeks provided plenty of seafood."
With the road to Fredericksburg often closed by rain, the King George County area that became known as Dahlgren was pretty isolated--but not completely.
"Washington, Norfolk and Baltimore were easily available by steamboat with dozens of stops along the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay," wrote Payne. In fact, he added, "It was much easier to visit my relatives in Washington than those in King George."
Though only 5, Payne remembered when the base opened in 1918.
"Most people and equipment came by water but some of the Marines came by road in their huge trucks...The Marines would occasionally stop for a drink of water and to rest in our yard."
Before the days of high security, Payne remembered that, once the base got going in the 1920s, it was easy for nearby civilians to just walk in. There were no gates.
Payne attended the Dahlgren School for 11 years. He was one of three in his high school graduating class.