Fort Sill museum’s 19th-century frontier illuminates the holidays

By Edward MunizDecember 13, 2023

FORT SILL, Okla. (Dec. 10, 2023) – The Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum hosted the 28th annual Candlelight Stroll at the historic Old Post Quadrangle Dec. 10.

The brisk 50-degree weather and a slight north breeze, the early setting of dusk and original Fort Sill architecture set the stage for participants to travel back 150 years to get a glimpse of what Christmas was like for Soldiers in the 1870s.

Nineteenth-century-era calvary Soldier tour guides marshaled participants out to five stops by candlelight, where they learned the significance of the location and how it was utilized at the beginning of the U.S. Army installation.

Fort Sill museum’s 19th-century frontier illuminates the holidays
A Fort Sill museum volunteer dressed as a 19th-century-era calvary Soldier guides the inaugural Candlelight Stroll 2023 group by candlelight Dec. 10. (Photo Credit: Edward Muniz) VIEW ORIGINAL

First, the group halted at the Guardhouse to visit with Dr. Scott Neel, director of Fort Sill Museums, dressed as a U.S. Marshall from Fort Smith, Ark., who came to the territory to pick up prisoners to take them back to Fort Smith for $1 per prisoner.

Neel invited participants into an intimate cell, the same cells those very prisoners were kept for various crimes 150 years ago. He revealed how the current luxurious glass windows were not part of the original design, but were formerly only iron bars, leaving prisoners scavenging for any blanket to combat the frosty Oklahoma winter wind sweeping down the plains into the cell.

Fort Sill museum’s 19th-century frontier illuminates the holidays
A Candlelight Stroll tour group illuminates a 150+ year-old jail cell at Fort Sill's historic Guardhouse Dec. 10, 2023 while learning the history of what prisoners endured in the 19th century. (Photo Credit: Edward Muniz) VIEW ORIGINAL

Within the confines of the Buffalo Soldiers’ Cavalry Barracks, guests discovered the countless uses of the space. It’s where Soldiers slept on hay-filled mattress sacks, cooked and ate their meals in the attached kitchen area, stored their weapons in the middle of the aisle between their bunks and even climbed into the ceiling to play cards after lights out. The higher the rank, the closer to the cast-iron pot-bellied stoves Soldiers’ bunks were.

Marcia Peppel, a museum volunteer dressed in an era-accurate blue dress and black shawl, said the barracks displayed time-period accurate bunks, in which Soldiers were lucky to have one blanket to keep warm. She also said some of those blankets were found in the ceiling to block the lamplight from escaping the attic as they played cards and drank.

“I guess boys will always be boys,” Peppel jested.

Next, Maj. Gen. Phil Brooks, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, and his wife Lori, welcomed the tour group into the Sherman House with hot chocolate. There, actors were dressed as Col. Benjamin Grierson, the post’s original commander of the 10th Calvary, and his wife Alice.

Fort Sill museum’s 19th-century frontier illuminates the holidays
Actors portraying Col. Benjamin Grierson (right), the post’s original commander of the 10th Calvary, and his wife Alice Grierson (left) welcome a tour group in the Sherman House during the Candlelight Stroll Dec. 10, 2023. (Photo Credit: Edward Muniz) VIEW ORIGINAL

Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum acting curator and event organizer Noelle Scarfone said the Sherman House, the house of commanders’ past, is named after Gen. William Sherman for dodging death, with the help of Grierson, at the hands of Kiowa chiefs. Not only did the Natives try to assassinate Sherman once, but twice on the same porch.

“My favorite stop is the Sherman House because it’s not usually open to the public,” Scarfone said, “so it’s a really great opportunity for everybody to see inside such a historic home.”

The tour guides then took the group to church at the Old Post Chapel, where Soldiers not only went for worship, but where some sergeants would be school teachers for military and Native American children. The chapel is still used for Sunday services today.

The chaplain encouraged the group to end their holy experience by joining in a chorus of “Silent Night” before departing.

The last stop of the night was at a World War I artillery encampment. The mild weather was but a glimpse of the toil and loom Soldiers faced while sleeping in their pitched tents while also worrying if their weapons, given to them by the French, might misfire and explode during a battle.

Fort Sill museum’s 19th-century frontier illuminates the holidays
The frontier chaplain teaches those on the Candlelight Stroll about the history of the Old Post Chapel before leading them in the song "Silent Night" at the end of the Candlelight Stroll Dec. 10, 2023. (Photo Credit: Edward Muniz) VIEW ORIGINAL

Cookies, punch and cider waited for the tour group back at the visitor center to refresh them, warm them and renew the energy it took to travel across the decades.

Participants asked questions and expressed gratitude for all the information shared on their tour. Community member Shannon Ramey said the Candlelight Tour was very interesting and important for community members to be a part of.

“It’s important for our children to learn our history and how things were back in the day,” Ramey said. “We come out here and learn the history of how it was back then, and it makes you appreciate the things you have now.”

Scarfone said the tour depicted both Fort Sill and the beginnings of the United States during the late 1800s, and it is a great way to see how we started as a nation.

“I encourage anybody who has not been out to the event to come out next year,” Scarfone said. “It’s usually the second weekend in December. And it is open and free to the public.”

Tickets were available at the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum Visitor Center starting in November. New tours started every 15 minutes and lasted about an hour. To stay up-to-date on other museum events, follow their Facebook page here:

More photos of the Candlelight Stroll can be found on the Fort Sill Flickr page here: