The Fort El Reno “Ghost Tour” on November 15th (in El Reno, Oklahoma) went off without a hitch. My hosts, Bob Warren and Jessica Wells, couldn’t have been more helpful or gracious. Bob Warren looks like Richard Farnsworth, the character actor, complete with a Stetson hat, cowboy boots, a craggy visage and star appeal. Jessica, who led the section of the cemetery ghost tour I was on, was very knowledgeable about the many haunted sites and why they may have become haunted. The fort is big, with over 1,675 acres and we toured (on foot) from 6 p.m. until 11:00 p.m.
Some of the hauntings had to do with the Major (Konat) who shot himself in the green-tiled upstairs bathroom (in the tub, no less) in the 1930s after his wife left him. Some had to do with Indians imprisoned unjustly. Some are still just mysteries. [Perhaps they will appear in additional “Ghostly Tales of Route 66”?]
We drove from Oklahoma City to El Reno and found the Fort during daylight hours, which is a ways from town. We journeyed into town to have one of their famous onion hamburgers (Johnnie’s or one of 2 others), first. Every year, they build the World’s Largest Hamburger, with the help of the fire department and 3 local restaurants. (They hold the Guinness Book of World Records for this.)
Fort Reno was established to protect the Darlington Agency during the Cheyenne uprising of 1874. The Indian agent, John D. Miles, assisted Captain Winter in the selection of the site of the military post named in honor of Major General Jesse L. Reno (not to be confused with a different Reno who served with Custer.) It was an Indian Wars Fort but is not an enclosed fort. Seminole and Creek Indians helped to control things between the Southern Cheyenne, the Northern Cheyenne and the Arapahoe, who did not always get along.
Fort El Reno served the country as a remount depot for the military from 1908 through 1947. Those stationed at Fort El Reno, including the so-called Buffalo (black) soldiers, helped escort cattle drives and made sure that money was paid as it should be. Although the first commandant of the fort, an older Quaker gentleman, was very fair, his successor cheated the Indians and caused problems with his corrupt behavior.
During the Land Run of 1889 in Oklahoma, those seeking a claim could stay for free on the fort’s grounds, while they would have had to pay money to stay on tribal lands. Horses were bred and trained there and served the military. The Fort served as a social hub, hosting polo matches, horse races and jumping competitions. Celebrities like Amelia Earhart visited, landing her Autogyrator (a cross between a plane and a helicopter) here. It was, generally speaking, a country club atmosphere.
One of the most interesting uses for the Fort was during WWII, when it housed 1,335 prisoners who were part of Rommel’s forces in North Africa and captured there. The prisoners were mostly German, Italian (and 2 Russians who served with the Italians). They worked for eighty cents a day on neighboring farmlands and also built chapel, to thank their captors for their good treatment. Many befriended the locals. One poor fellow (Hans Seifert) who was a POW was to be released in just 6 days when he accidentally set fire to himself while lighting a natural gas stove. He died and is buried in the fort’s cemetery, along with about 35 other POW’s.
Today, the Fort is a grazing lands research laboratory, designing feed for cattle and sheep, with many colleges (OSU, etc.) involved. For example, after the tsunami in Thailand, that country’s officials wanted advice on what plants they could use to help with the contamination after the storm.
The Visitors’ Center, which was built in 1936, was extensively renovated in 2005 (the first building burned). Most of the buildings on the site of Fort El Reno are reputed to be haunted, and, this night, there were paranormal investigators and fort employees who would lead us on a five-hour trek around the grounds in freezing weather, holding lanterns.
I took a picture at one building that seemed to show something unusual, and had the experience of being tapped on the right shoulder 3 times, with no one acknowledging that they had done the “tapping.” (This was as we were entering to begin the tour.) Now, when people ask me if I’ve ever encountered anything “ghostly” (as they did in St. Louis at the First Annual Route 66 Festival) I will have the story of Fort El Reno’s Ghost Tour to tell and a picture that is puzzling.( It appears to show a woman, clad only in brassiere or bikini (Didn’t know they wore bikinis in the 1800s).
This ghost tour, taking place as it did on November 15th, was the last of this year. They will not resume until March and there is usually a waiting list and 3 to 4 groups of 20 go off at $6 a head, all of which goes to the fort’s upkeep. We flew from Chicago to take part, and I wore my Chicago heavy winter coat, but my husband packed shorts and kept telling me how warm it would be. (He ended up in the car with the motor running during the final cemetery portion of the trek.)
Onward to Amarillo, where we’ll visit the Cadillac Ranch, where vintage Cadillacs with big fins are buried with their tail-fins in the air and visitors are encouraged to spray paint them.