In exploring all that Oklahoma has to offer, there is a place where cultures both ancient and modern intersect, where one can experience the evolution of the U.S. Army and the technology used to secure and defend our country’s freedoms. There is a place where nature itself is supreme, offering a look at a vanishing aspect of the American frontier, and where a person can spend time in spiritual reflection, as well. Come along for the short drive to southwestern Oklahoma, and discover the Lawton/Fort Sill area.
The area is best-known for a popular outdoor attraction in Oklahoma, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Although the refuge is an incredible place for outdoor recreation, Lawton boasts plenty of indoor amusement, too.
Within the city of Lawton, two museums offer comprehensive views of the area’s history. The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center (701 N.W. Ferris Ave., 580-353-0404, www.comanchemuseum.com) is a fascinating look at the history of the Comanches.
Inside the museum, young family members of the gaming generation will enjoy an interactive bison hunt, set up just like a first-person video game. The most substantial portion of the museum, however, is devoted to an outstanding exhibit on the Comanche Code Talkers of World War II. Seventeen young Comanche men were recruited by the U.S. Army and tasked with creating a code that would be unbreakable to anyone, even to other members of their own tribe. Fourteen of the men were deployed overseas during the war, and 13 of them were at Normandy on D-Day in 1944. The codes they devised were never broken. The museum exhibit is a personal, often poignant glimpse at these American heroes.
One block from the Comanche museum, the Museum of the Great Plains (601 N.W. Ferris Ave., 580-581-3460, www.museumgreatplains.org) is a multi-faceted venue covering the history of the area. Most of Oklahoma came to the United States via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and prior to selling the land, the French referred to it as “le pays inconnu,” or “the unexplored land.” Indeed, it was wild country. The museum’s displays range from modern art and photography to early agricultural technology used on the plains. Hands-on exhibits for children include excavating, beading and weaving.
Outside on the grounds of the museum stands a real Frisco railroad locomotive and a frontier trading post. Moved from its original location on the Red River, the main structure of the post dates from the 1840s. The great bonus here is the presence of costumed living history interpreters who display a deep knowledge of trading practices from the period on the frontier, from clothing to blankets to coffee to tinware to firearms, many of which are on display and can be touched.
While in Lawton, a visit to the historic Mattie Beal Home (1006 S.W. 5th St., 580-678-3156, www.lawtonheritage.org) is in order. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, the home sits on land claimed by Kansas native Mattie Beal, whose name was the second drawn from more than 164,000 registrants for the original land lottery of the Lawton district in 1901. After she married local businessman Charles Payne, the couple began construction of the home in 1907. It is an architectural delight, with elements of neoclassical Greek Revival, Baroque ornamentation and a Mediterranean roof. The curving front door and entry are especially striking.
The U.S. Army’s Fort Sill and Lawton are inextricably linked, both in history and today. The fort dates from 1869, and is the only post established during the “Indian wars” of the late 19th century that is still actively used by the U.S. Army today. Named by General Phillip Sheridan for his friend, General Joshua Sill, who died in the Civil War, the fort is a treasury of history, and mirrors the evolution of the U.S. Army. At the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark (435 Quanah Rd., 580-442-5123), learn about the early days of the fort as a frontier outpost and visit the original barracks and guardhouse. Comanche chief Quanah Parker is buried at Fort Sill, as is the Apache leader Goyathlay, whose name means “one who yawns.” He is better known by the name given him after a battle with Mexican soldiers: Geronimo.
There is a modern component to be explored at Fort Sill as well. The U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum (238 Randolph Road, 580-442-1819), is in some ways one of the most intriguing attractions in the area. It contains an example of one of the earliest types of artillery, dating from Europe around 1500, little more than a metal slingshot. But the museum covers, in great detail, the evolution of American artillery weapons, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan.
There are surprises here, too: the caisson that pulled the casket of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a bit of twisted metal from the World Trade Center, and most striking of all, a section of the Berlin Wall, with the word “freedom” scrawled in red across one section. Outside, across the road from the museum, artillery pieces ranging from full-size tanks to modern rocket launchers cover a field and are well worth exploring.
Northwest of Fort Sill, along State Highway 49, lies the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (580-429-3222, http://wichitamountains.fws.gov). It was established in 1901, comprising 59,000 acres in the ancient Wichita Mountains. After having become almost extinct in Oklahoma, bison, elk and wild turkey were reintroduced to the area. More recent additions to the refuge include prairie dog, river otter and burrowing owls. Upon entering the refuge on Highway 49, one notices a particularly striking feature: the absence of fences. The true open range has almost vanished from the American continent, but it lives within the refuge. Longhorn cattle and bison are visible from the roadway, and with the cooler autumn weather, more animals are visible than during the heat of summer. Hiking trails, either self-guided or with refuge staff, offer opportunities to view many forms of wildlife. The refuge’s Visitors’ Center is a busy place with exhibits and dioramas on the natural history of the area, and the types of wildlife that reside within.
Located in the refuge, the Holy City of the Wichitas (580-429-3361, www.theholycitylawton.com) is a step back to Biblical times, and is home to the nation’s longest-running outdoor Easter pageant since the 1920s. The rock structures built into the side of a hill give a true feel of ancient Israel, and the Holy City’s chapel is available for special events.
Don’t forget to sample some local “flavor” in Lawton. While the area boasts many delightful eateries, we heartily recommend the Burgess Grill downtown (617 S.W. C Ave., 580-355-7473). Family-owned since 1962, it is the type of cafe locals know and love. With more than 20 burgers on the menu—including such great names as the Hodgepodge and the Kamikaze—it is tasty cafe fare at family-friendly prices. But ask about unexpected off-menu specials, too, such as excellent stir fry and fried rice.
While in the area, step off the beaten track for a visit to the quirky town of Medicine Park, with its abundant arts and crafts shops and winding creekside walkways as well.
This region of southwestern Oklahoma offers much for families to enjoy. Historic, contemporary, often surprising, the Lawton/Fort Sill area is filled with the delightful blend of attractions and activities that make exploring Oklahoma a true joy.