Candlelight stroll takes visitors to 1870s Fort Sill
December 15, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- The community got a glimpse of Fort Sill's restored Frontier Army buildings during a candlelight stroll around Old Post Quadrangle Dec. 11.
The free annual tour, in its 13th year, took visitors inside four refurnished facilities each with historical re-enactors, who spoke first person about the structures and Army life in the 19th century. The sites featured were the original Post Chapel, Post Guardhouse, Cavalry Barracks and Sherman House, which is the commanding general's residence.
"It's a way to introduce living history, and to see the quadrangle from a different perspective -- at night," said Towana Spivey, Fort Sill National Historic Landmark Museum director and curator. "The quadrangle looks very different at night, and it has a whole different feeling."
The Fort Sill National Historic Museum sponsored the event, which was designed to be a small, intimate tour. Guides with candle-lanterns took groups of about 25 people on the one-hour walking tour which basically covered the four corners of the OPQ.
The "Old" Post Chapel, Building 425, Hamilton at Gannahl roads, was built in 1875. In its setting of quiet beauty, this small Midwestern chapel remains as hallowed a place as any military chapel in the United States. Honoring fallen Soldiers from the Indian Wars to the current fight, the chapel symbolizes the place that religion holds in the lives of the military people of this nation.
Inside, tour-goers heard from Choctaw minister Rev. Frank Wright (re-enactor Mark Megehee, Fort Sill Museum staff). Wright explained how the chapel was also used as a school during the week to teach the children, who lived on post.
The school marm recently got married and left, Wright said. "The garrison commander informed me that until we got a new school marm, that he was willing to find some Soldier who got into trouble, and as his punishment he would be the one who had to teach the children," he said. "That would teach him a lesson."
Sherman House, Building 422, Hamilton Road, has served as the CG's residence. The first post commander Col. Benjamin Grierson and his wife, Alice, (volunteers Bill Kindt and Patti Hartley) spoke about the summer of 1869 when he was trying to decide on a permanent name for then-Camp Wichita.
Col. Grierson explained how he wanted to name it Fort Elliott after Maj. Elliott, "a fine, young, respectable officer killed in the Battle of Washita."
And, the 19th Kansas Volunteers, who were assigned to the camp wanted to call it Camp Starvation. "They had an attitude problem," he said.
But the general decided to name it Fort Sill, after his friend Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill, who was killed in the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee during the Civil War, Grierson said.
Two Buffalo Soldiers (Wallace Moore and Kenneth Reese, Fort Sill Museum living history interpreters) from the 10th Cavalry Regiment greeted the tour outside the Cavalry Barracks, Building 442, Geronimo Road. They told the story of a Buffalo Soldier patrol lost in a blinding snowstorm. Through prayer, one of the old troopers found a guiding star to lead the 21 Soldiers safely back to Fort Sill by Christmas.
Claude Matchette, portraying a U.S. Marshal explained how the Post Guardhouse, Building 336, was constructed in 1872-73.
"Look how thick these walls are," Matchette said, slapping a wall. The limestone came from a quarry about one mile east of the guardhouse and you can still see it, he said.
And, the timber in all the buildings came from the mountains around Fort Sill, which was one of the few Army posts which had its own sawmill, he said.
Out of character, Matchette said about five years ago while working at the guardhouse, Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials told him they weren't sure the timbers were safe.
"Well, they've been here 140 years and they look pretty good to me," Matchette said. "OSHA said: 'OK, we'll leave them alone.'"
Cynthia Jessem and her husband, Herb, made the 90-mile drive from Oklahoma City to attend the tour.
"It's precious," said Cynthia, of the stroll. "I loved the hospitality of the commanding general to open up his home."
Herb said his favorite part was visiting with the Griersons in Sherman House.
"It was just so friendly and homey in there," said Herb, a former noncommissioned officer who trained at Fort Sill in 1966, before going to Vietnam.
Lawton resident Justine Howard said she has been here 19 years, but never visited the OPQ.
"It was wonderful. I really enjoyed it, and I learned some history about where I live," she said.
About 30 volunteers worked in various roles at the stroll, including tour guide Zane Mohler, Fort Sill Field Artillery Museum exhibit specialist.
"People said they liked the interpreters, the stories and just getting out in the night and being guided by candlelight," said Mohler, who was working in his seventh stroll.
Spivey said he wanted tour-goers to get a broadened history of Fort Sill.
"At one point, people thought there was nothing but field artillery here," Spivey said. "I want them to understand that we have this religious history, a legal and outlaw history, the Buffalo Soldiers, and early commanders, who were people and had problems just like everyone else."