Oklahoma's military past comes to life at historic Fort Reno

Our state's history is flavored with tales of land runs, cattle drives and Buffalo Soldiers. But the story of Oklahoma's Fort Reno, 7107 W. Cheyenne, four miles west of El Reno, can't be told without also talking of German prisoners of war and a renowned Western artist.

First established in 1874 as a military camp on the vast plains near the North Canadian River, a permanent military post christened Fort Reno was created and developed there two years later. Although little remains from the 19th-century fort, what's left combines with artifacts and written histories to showcase an interesting piece of Oklahoma's military past.

Originally sent to the territory to quell unrest among the American Indian population, Fort Reno troops kept the peace during the Land Run of 1889, and companies of Buffalo Soldiers stationed at the fort policed the territorial lands prior to settlement. Celebrated Western artist Frederic Remington spent three months there in 1888, and copies of the works inspired by his visit hang in the visitor center.

Shortly after statehood, Fort Reno became an Army quartermaster remount station, where soldiers were charged with raising and training horses and mules for the military. Black Jack, the riderless horse present at the state funerals of Presidents Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was one.

During World War II, Fort Reno served as a prisoner-of-war camp for more than 1,300 German soldiers captured during fighting in North Africa. These prisoners, most of whom served in German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps, constructed the camp's chapel in 1944. The visitor center houses a small collection of their artifacts and letters. Seventy prisoners, including eight Italian POWs, are buried in a special section of the fort's cemetery.

Today, more than a dozen buildings still stand along Fort Reno's parade grounds, including cavalry barracks, a guardhouse and a school dating from the 19th century. A restored 1936 building that originally served as officer living quarters now houses the visitor center, as well as a museum with artifacts discovered at the fort.

What remains is surrounded by almost 7,000 acres of U.S. Department of Agriculture grazing lands, and the landscape provides 21st-century visitors with some perspective of the solitude the 19th-century soldiers who manned the camp must have experienced.

The fort is open seven days a week. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.fortreno.org.

Price writes online at www.travelblur.com.

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