A Whole World In Your Own Backyard
The Town of Malta seems a pretty boring place, until ...
The world, we all pretty much know, is a big place. Lots of continents, hundreds of countries, seas and oceans, mountains and deserts, billions of people. The enormity of the world makes it exotic — a feast too big to eat even for the most insatiable explorers and travelers.
So why then I am talking about Malta, a nondescript town on a sandy patch of land in upstate New York’s Saratoga County?
Ask my friend Lisa Smith.
Last week, from her Japanese-Zen influenced home that fronts Willapa Bay in serene Seaside, Washington, Lisa Smith read a post I had written here about buying your first home. It was there, buried in the comments section, that the ever-curious Lisa Smith noted that my spouse, Diane, noted that the first home she ever bought more than 35 years ago was a townhouse in Malta.
If that name stirs any sense of excitement, maybe it’s because the town of Malta carries the same name as the country of Malta, that archipelago between “Sicily and the North African coast — a nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers including the Romans, Moors, Knights of Saint John, French and British.”
That Malta, set in shimmering green-blue waters, does conjure centuries of world history and human migration. So the name “Malta” rightfully triggers the imagination, especially for curious people like Lisa Smith, an inveterate world traveler who lived in Abu Dhabi and scaled an NYU program there.
Lisa has also toured India, graduated from Harvard, ran public TV radio and stations in Seattle and Oregon. She’s also been long paired with the award-winning journalist and book writer Buzz Bissinger. In other words, Lisa Smith has a nose for stories, as much as she possesses a delicious little streak of sarcasm.
So what was I to make of Lisa Smith’s quip about the apparently insignificant town of Malta?
More important, what was I going to do about Lisa’s pithy remark? I decided that I would take it as an invitation.
The Saratoga County, New York town of Malta, it turns out that, is just like all other places in the world: Just another name on a map and yet also a place where there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
In fact, the seemingly nondescript town of Malta can make the case that any named place on Earth is its own world. Even more strange, it’s one of the places that taught me, as a newspaper reporter and writer, to look harder and longer and you’ll be surprised what you find.
In addition to Malta being the town where Diane bought her first home, Malta was a town I covered for the Albany Times Union. In the late 1980’s, Malta was a part of my news beat in Saratoga County. My job to know what was going on there, and to dig out stories, and to monitor Malta’s local government.
For me, covering Malta served as a primer on how America planned, regulated and protected its citizens and natural resources. I saw how conventional and orderly local governmental bodies carried out their duties. How town budgets were negotiated and passed. How water quality, fire station grants, street plowing and extensions were managed.
In Malta, I saw how developers had to demonstrate the impact new housing developments would have; how commercial development was cautiously promoted, how senior citizens would get access to services.
And based on what I heard about in the town board meetings, I’d go out and explore for further background or news feature stories that the Times Union would run to show how suburban America was being built out.
That included writing about Luther Forest, a section of Malta that was the site for a new housing development where Diane — who I didn’t know at the time — had bought her first house!
The Luther Forest housing development was a planned community, which meant it had a homeowner’s association and a general manager to keep the place running tip top. The manager’s name was Barney Granger, a lanky and taciturn man I spent a lot of time trying to chase down for information or a quote.
It wasn’t easy. Barney Granger was always hellbent on riding away from me in a golf cart or his green Ford Ranger pickup. But this quirky memory of Barney Granger in his Ford Ranger is just a little sliver of the real story of Luther Forest.
Like a lot of places that seem to have no true personality or any easily identifiable points of interest, Malta’s Luther Forest is riddled with intrigue — not that you could easily tell without doing a little digging, or sky gazing.
But the acres of towering pine trees, and the fenced-off areas that warned about criminal trespassing, were a clue. It turns out that the “boring little town of Malta” is actually a nexus of American history from World War II to the Baby Boom era of suburban sprawl to today’s Tech Age of semiconductors and massive retail warehouses.
The center of the Malta story is how the 7,000 acres of pine forest started in 1898 by a man named Thomas C. Luther turned into a rocket test site for the U.S. government in the 1940s, after Luther gave some of the land to the U.S. government to serve as a site to test rockets and rocket fuel. That’s when things got really interesting.
After WWII, the U.S. started a secret military intelligence program called Operation Paperclip in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians were taken from Germany to the United States. That included Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket team, plus former members, and some were former leaders, of the Nazi Party. The goal of the Operation Paperclip was to gain military advantage during the Cold War and during the Space Race.
In 1945, Luther Forest became the home of the Hermes Project Rocket Test site. Von Braun’s team and 400 General Electric scientists worked at the Malta Rocket Test Station to help the U.S government improve upon Germany's expertise in missiles. That lasted until the 1960.
Von Braun, who eventually became the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and was the chief architect of the super-booster that launched American astronauts to the moon, came to Malta for weeks at a time. When he came to Malta, locals were said to hear the ground rumble and smoke plumes filled the air.
It’s said that Von Braun enjoyed his time in Malta, because Luther Forest reminded him of Bavaria.
In the 30+ years since I first covered Malta and learned about Operation Paperclip, Malta has further enhanced its standing as the nondescript little town where big things happen.
The Luther Forest Technology Campus is a $3.5 billion development that spans 1,400 acres. It is home to Global Foundries, a multinational semiconductor contract manufacturing and design company incorporated in the Cayman Islands and headquartered in Malta. “The company manufactures silicon chips designed for markets such as mobility, automotive, computing and wired connectivity, consumer internet of things (IoT) and industrial.”
Global Foundries has brought hundreds of jobs and boosted the development of more suburban housing in Saratoga County. It’s also opened the doors for Amazon to propose a new million-square-foot warehouse on 235 acres south of the Global Foundries headquarters.
That plan for an Amazon warehouse was scrapped this year, but not before the little town of Malta and its local planning board had once again flexed its muscle against the big boys from a multi-national company.
In other words.
Malta? There must be a story there.
Right, Lisa Smith?