Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fort Sill Historic Sites

MANGUM, OKLAHOMA -- Tuesday, Dec. 23, was a gloomy, freezing day when I set out from Mangum for the 65-mile journey east along the Wichita Mountains for a visit to Fort Sill, located just outside the town of Lawton. Visiting relatives over the holidays and working on a number of projects -- including a book called Mysteries of the Old West for Pagan Publishing -- brought me to the "Sooner State" and I figured I would check out some of the sites at the historic artillery post as long as I was just down the road from it.

My first stop on post was the old, square, stone structure that can be seen from I-44 and which I assumed to be the original fort built on the site, or a reconstruction of it (part of which can be seen in the image at right). Gerald Stuck, the caretaker for the horses used by the "Half Section," Fort Sill's historic artillery demonstration unit, told me that is a mistake many people make -- along with the assumption that it is the post museum and is open to the public. It is, in fact, the old stables originally used for the quartermaster's draft animals, and the museum itself is located up the hill about a half mile away. He was gracious enough to chat with me for a few minutes, however, and to tell me a little bit about the Half Section, for which he is currently the commander.

I made my way over to the Fort Sill Museum and spent the next couple of hours there, where I enjoyed a 21-minute film about the origins of the historic post and took the time to view all the exhibits in the former infantry barracks. John "Chad" Chadwick, the guide on duty and a former resident of my own state of Virginia, was a great source of additional information and I really enjoyed the time I spent chatting with him.

Once I was done at the museum, I made my way over to the original Post Guardhouse which, among other things, had been used to house Chiricahua Apache military leader Geronimo after his surrender to the U.S. Army. The famous Indian chief died of exposure during his return from a drinking binge in Lawton one cold winter night.

My final excursion on Fort Sill was over to the other side of post, to the Indian cemetery where Geronimo himself is buried. There are some local rumors that the famous warrior's skull and some of his bones were stolen by a miscreant visiting the fort in 1918, but Chad explained that the miappropriated remains had been taken from a crypt and could thus not have been those of Geronimo -- whose grave was unmarked at that time. As the picture here shows, however, it is suitably marked today.

Other historic highlights on Fort Sill include an Indian museum, which was under renovation and closed the day I was there, and a new artillery museum scheduled to open in the summer of 2009. I would not have had time to spend any time at either of those sites anyway, and will just have to try to hit them on a return visit. One of the most important maxims I have learned in my many years of travel -- and one that is inevitably hard to live by -- is that "You can't do everything."

But if you have the chance, I do recommend you visit the historic sites at Fort Sill! And I can hardly caution you not to go there on a cold, dreary day in the winter. After all, I had a great time during my visit, and a lot more personal attention than I likely would have gotten on a warm day during the summer when crowds of people were there.

The Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum is located at 437 Quanah Road, Fort Sill, OK 73503-5100; telephone (580) 442-5123; fax (580) 442-8120.

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