USDA desecrates historic graves at Fort Reno Cemetery

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Infant Julia Clark’s headstone, in Fort Reno’s historic cemetery, before the USDA desecrated the stone by power washing. (Photo by Carol Mowdy Bond)

By Carol Mowdy Bond
Contributing Writer

During August and September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture desecrated numerous historic headstones and graves in the Fort Reno Cemetery, causing irreparable damage.

After bulldozing eight or nine historic Fort Reno structures since March during COVID-19 closures, the USDA turned its attention to the fort’s historic cemetery. The bulldozing of structures and cemetery desecration are not the only problems. The USDA closed the fort’s museum and visitor center in March, and stopped all fort events, claiming COVID-19 procedure requires the closures, and those closures remain in effect.

U.S. Senator James Inhofe has repeatedly asked the USDA to cease demolition and destruction, and to be forthcoming with information. The USDA, which owns the fort and property, is accountable to the U.S. Congress. Dr. Patrick Starks is the USDA’s current interim director at the El Reno site, which sits on historic Route 66.

Fort Reno is listed on the National Register of Historic Places which is part of the U.S.

National Park Service. Many of the cemetery’s headstones were installed in the late 1800s, and green moss was growing on some, creating an alluring historic cemetery environment. Nearly 200 people are buried in the cemetery. Of those graves, about two-thirds were buried during the 1800s. The earliest grave is said to be marked 1874. Native Americans are included in those who were interred in the cemetery.

Initially the headstone desecration was relatively limited. Marie Hirst, director of the Historic Fort Reno Board Inc., photographed historic headstones that were damaged during August. Hirst said the USDA’s lawn crew used their equipment to ram against some tombstones, leaving large black marks and other damage.

Then during September, a citizen visited the cemetery and photographed headstones broken off into pieces, as well as headstones with different-than-normal appearances.

As a result, Hirst returned to the cemetery and began taking pictures of workers in the cemetery. Of one picture, Hirst said, “This man is digging up headstones that are 120 to 130 years old.” Hirst also photographed other workers near him. She also photographed headstones that workers power washed, thereby removing the original patina which protected the headstones and also removed their historic appearance.

Hirst said that someone at the USDA authorized the power-washing, also known as pressure-washing. This type of cleaning of surfaces uses high-pressure water spray.

Because of the power-washing, the original patina of the headstones is permanently gone. Patina is a surface coating. The headstones now have a pure white appearance, rather than the aged, historic appearance they previously had. Hirst said the headstones will now deteriorate rapidly because the power washing removed the protective surface coating.

Hirst also took video of historic headstones that are no longer sturdy in place because the intense pressure of the power washing caused the headstones to loosen from the soil and they now wobble. She also photographed headstones with large, newly broken off pieces on the ground. Then she went back later and photographed how someone put the headstones back together in a manner that is unacceptable for repairing a historic headstone.

Hirst called an employee at the State Historic Preservation Office who verified the USDA did not have a memorandum of agreement related to the cemetery, and thus did not go through the federally-required process before authorizing the power-washing and digging of the headstones.

Hirst said, “So I contacted my friend, who owns the company that was doing the work. I advised him of what is going on, and the information I received. My friend called his men back in, and said they would not continue to do any work at the fort at this time. He had been hired by the USDA, and he had assumed that all the paperwork was in order to hire his company to do the work.”

“They disturbed eight headstones by the time I left at 11:30 a.m. By 2:30 p.m., I was able to call the company, doing the work, with my information,” Hirst said. “I will have to return and see how far they got before my friend pulled his workers out of the cemetery.”

Hirst said, “The USDA is trying to erase the evidence of their neglect by getting rid of the black tire marks they left on the headstones in August.”

“I have no idea when the USDA took over caring for the cemetery,” Hirst said. “Now the USDA is doing all the mowing and weed eating. The Historic Fort Reno Board Inc. wants is to be able to open our museum and continue to raise funds to preserve the history and buildings at the fort. And we need to be included in all discussions pertaining to all activities at the fort that impact the preserving of the fort’s buildings and cemetery and site, and promoting our history to the public.”

Hirst and the board are trying to determine why the destruction and demolition at the fort are occurring. And they are trying to get the USDA to stop. But Hirst said the USDA will not communicate with them. Of the time consuming and expensive process of dealing with the USDA, Hirst said, “We need help. We need more board members, and we need volunteers and other things. People may contact us at (405) 262-3987 or email director@fortreno.org to learn what we need, and to offer to help.”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a federal law with several goals, including providing protection for Native American burial sites. The Fort Reno cemetery includes Native American graves. You may read about the law on the web at http://www.nps.gov/archeology/tools/laws/nagpra.htm.

By federal law, the USDA is required to include historic groups with an interest in a site or structure, such as the Historic Fort Reno Board Inc., in all discussions and actions and paperwork that impact the fort. But the board claims the USDA has not included their group, and has not communicated with their director, curator, or members. The National Historic Preservation Act is the federal law that sets legal guidelines/protocol/steps to be taken, for any federal agency with a project or any activity that impacts a historic structure or site. The law’s Section 106 review process requires that a federal agency follow a protocol, or series of specific steps, before beginning any actions that will impact a historic site or structure, and must include historic groups such as the Historic Fort Reno Board Inc. in that process.

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Officials within our State Historic Preservation Office, which is an arm of the National Historic Preservation Act, claim the USDA must answer all questions related to the problems occurring at Fort Reno. But one of the officials said last week that power or pressure-washing is the worst way to clean a historic headstone. The official said monuments conservator Jonathan Appell has come to Oklahoma many times to offer workshops on cleaning/repairing/maintaining headstones in the safe and correct manner.
The State Historic Preservation Office employee also referenced the web site http://www.gravestonepreservation.info/. The website states if a historic headstone is cleaned, the work must always be done as gently as possible using the least aggressive approach. Work should always begin with clean water, a soft scrub brush, and a plastic scraper.
Fort Reno is a federal installation, and has belonged to the USDA since the 1940s. At one point, the property’s official name became the Agricultural Research Service Grazinglands Research Laboratory. In 1970, the USDA created in-house research programs at the location.

Created on 10,000 acres of land given to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes by the U.S., the fort’s origins began in 1874 or 1875, with the first structures built in 1876. Early on, the fort was home to the 9th and 10th Cavalry, who were Buffalo Soldiers, and they built the structures that were constructed by 1891. By 1930, the fort included more than 100 buildings, accommodating more than 800 horses, more than 100 military personnel, and 30 civilian employees.