By Ben Sherman, Fort SillDecember 13, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- As the sun settled in the western sky on a cold, blustery Sunday evening, the Fort Sill National Landmark Historic District magically transported back to the late1800s.
Soldiers marched around the Old Post Quadrangle, wearing woolen uniforms adorned with crossed muskets, sabers and cannons while carrying percussion cap rifles and candlelit lanterns. With them, women wore ankle-length dresses and bonnets that gave little protection against the harsh Oklahoma winds.
This was the scene for this year's annual candlelight stroll Dec. 9, 2012 at Fort Sill, Okla.
"The candlelight stroll is an opportunity to show the community the history of Fort Sill and specifically the Old Post Quadrangle. We take people on a guided tour and have living history interpreters at each location who talk in a first-person historical characterization about life on Fort Sill during the 1870s and 1880s," said Frank Siltman, director of museums and military history at Fort Sill.
He said they were close to capacity on each of the seven tours, even with the freezing temperatures. Two interpreters guided each tour, with two to three historical re-enactors at each station.
The tour's first stop was the Old Post Chapel, which was built in 1875 for $2,500 by elements of the 11th Infantry and 4th Cavalry regiments under the command of Col. Ranald McKenzie. The Rev. Frank Wright, a minister of the Dutch Reformed church portrayed by Mark Meghee, greeted the groups as they settled into the cozy chapel.
"I am the son of a chief of the Choctaw Nation. I've been assigned here at Fort Sill for five years, since 1889," said Meghee in character. He said the chapel was a place for 'refining the rough edges of the Soldiers, providing spiritual enrichment and consoling those who had suffered loss.' It was also a place of education for the children of the post during the week, he said.
The tour group then moved to Sherman House, to be greeted by Gen. Benjamin Grierson and his wife, Alice, portrayed by Bill Kindt and Lori Siltman. Grierson was the first commander of Fort Sill in 1869 after the post was established. He asked Alice to speak of the burdens that living on the plains placed on her and the children.
"I didn't really know what I was getting myself into when I decided to join Ben out here on the frontier. Our family remains close, but it's been hard," Mrs. Grierson (Lori Siltman) said. The Griersons thanked the tour group for coming to their home, pointing out that they "don't get many visitors out here in Indian Territory," and offered to show them the rest of the house.
Along the way the group met the current residents of Sherman House, Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, and his wife, Connie, who also thanked the group for taking the candlelight stroll.
At the next stop on the tour Pvts. Moses and Reese of the 10th Cavalry 'Buffalo Soldiers' Regiment welcomed the group. The Soldiers gathered the visitors together on the porch of their barracks to sing "Joy to the World" and "O Come All Ye Faithful."
"I want to tell you what life was like for us black privates in the 1870s," Moses (portrayed by Wallace Moore) said. "The holiday gaieties that the officers enjoyed, of plum puddings and the stuffed goose; we didn't have such things. About all we could hope for was maybe a day off. We made $13 a month, and there wasn't a whole lot of money leftover for buying gifts. But, we did the best we could."
Moses and Reese led the tour into Cavalry Barracks where the visitors could see how plain the living quarters were.
"Some of the black Soldiers learned by watching the white officers and they learned about the true meaning of Christmas. But, you have to remember it can get awful lonely if you're away from home at Christmas time, out in Indian Territory, in the middle of nowhere," Moses said.
Dr. Scott Neel, director and curator for the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum, directed his first candlelight stroll this year. Overall, he believed the tours were a success.
"We had some last-minute changes in the route. I think it worked out better this year, based on what the tour guides are telling us. The staff enjoys dressing up in period clothes and being in character," Neel said. "We had a lot of first-timer visitors who had not done the stroll before, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves."
Indeed, the reaction from the visitors was enthusiastic. Helen Legako from Fletcher, thought it was all pretty neat.
"I've lived here all my life, and this is only the second time I've come to this. It's exciting to discover what is out here," she said.
R.L. Smith from Lawton, echoed a common feeling among the participants.
"It was just wonderful, marvelous. Probably one of the best kept secrets around this area," he said. His wife, Billie, went further.
"I felt it was very educational and loved experiencing the history. People always complain there's nothing to do around Lawton and Fort Sill. Well, this is an example there are plenty of things to do," she said.
Neel was excited about this year's turnout for the candlelight stroll and is already making plans for next year's event.
"This year we sold out the tickets in a little over a day. So for next year we're considering doing two nights, because there's been that much interest. We had a waiting list this year of people wanting to come from as far away as Oklahoma City and Norman," Neel said. "The staff from our other museums on post all pitched in to help, so it wasn't just the Fort Sill historical museum staff. I think it was a very good night."