Sunday, January 17, 2010

Plants are at the root of Fort Hood history

Telegram Staff Writer

Soldiers aren't the only ones who roam the grounds of Fort Hood.
There are ornithologists, botanists and archaeologists too.
'They are professionals who study and document the kinds of life at the Army post,' said ornithologist Gil Eckrich, outreach spokesman for the Fort Hood Natural Resources Division.
Sometimes it's an animal species that catches their attention.
'Winter's a prime time for bird watching,' Eckrich said. 'That's why I work Sundays this time of year, so I can come out and take pictures of them.'
But more often, it's the plant life that intrigues Eckrich and his co-workers in the Natural Resources department.
'Especially the plants that aren't native to Fort Hood,' Eckrich said. 'We can't help but wonder where they came from and how they got here.' There were no records of plant types or locations when the Army acquired the land at Fort Hood, so the post's 'plant inventory' is a work in progress. It requires the skills of botanists like Laura Hanson and archaeologists like Sunny Wood, both of Belton.
'They go out, survey the land and take note of what's there,' Eckrich said.
In the 15 years she's worked at Fort Hood, Ms. Hanson has documented more than 1,000 plant species on post.
'I focus on the area that's outside of the encampment,' Ms. Hanson said. 'The area away from the buildings, out where the training exercises take place.'
Her work is nowhere near finished.
'We find and record new species every month,' Ms. Hanson said.
Wood's skills come in handy when botanists or other scouts find the remains of early Fort Hood settlers or signs of their homesteads.
'A lot of times, it's the plants that point to a homestead,' Ms. Hanson said.
Wood nodded.
'It's a sign that's easily visible,' Wood said. 'The porch and house are long gone, but that peach tree in the front yard - it's still there and blooming.'
The locations of the plants and any found artifacts (like old tools or dishes) help Wood match physical chunks of land with the maps of early Fort Hood.
'So these plants came from the people who settled the land,' Ms. Hanson said. 'It's interesting to see what they brought over. Mostly what they planted was utilitarian.'
By that she meant that the plants served a need. They bore fruit to provide food. That's why Fort Hood's a host to dozens of peach, pear, pomegranate and fig trees.
'But there's also the Spanish daggers and bamboo,' Ms. Hanson said. 'These plants are clearly not native to Central Texas. You don't find them in other parts of the area.'
Wood said Fort Hood settlers planted those because of their aesthetic beauty.
'They brought a piece of their home with them,' Wood said. 'It's neat to see who brought what and why.'
Oral histories from early settlers can provide a wealth of information.
'We've always had a strong relationship with landowners,' Wood said. 'We've gotten old pictures and stories that show what life was like then. It gives us a sense of what the place was like and makes our work a lot more interesting. Because it's not just land anymore, it's where a particular family lived.'
But time has taken its toll and there's not a lot of the old homesteaders left.
So while they continue their everyday job of searching the land for life, the Fort Hood historians are reaching out to family members and friends to learn what they can.

The rosebush

Down at Fort Hood's Cold Spring Road, there's a rosebush.
'You can't miss it,' Eckrich said. 'It's on the northeast installation, and it's one of the biggest, prettiest rosebushes around.'
But it's not native to Fort Hood, so it stirred conversation between Eckrich, Ms. Hanson and Wood.
'That was a year and a half, two years ago,' Eckrich said.
All the talk prompted a co-worker Brian Petrie, an equipment operator with the Nature Conservancy, to go take a look. He too thought it was a handsome rosebush.
On a whim, he decided to tell his 96-year-old aunt about the plant. He thought she'd be interested because she lived on Fort Hood in her youth.
His aunt, Leo Galloway of Flat, did more than remember it.
'She's the one who brought it Fort Hood,' Eckrich said.
She said she planted it in the mid-1930s with seeds given to her by her grandmother.
'Mrs. Galloway even has a photograph of the old Cold Spring General Store,' Eckrich said. 'And right beside it is that rose bush in full bloom.'
Petrie and his relatives now have a keen interest in family history. They want to learn more about Mrs. Galloway's kin, so they can help finish the story of the rosebush.

The future
None of the plants on Fort Hood are under the protection of state historical markers.
'But my job is educating the public about what is out here,' Eckrich said. 'So I go out to different clubs and tell them about our homestead plants, plants like the rosebush. People can't appreciate it if they don't know it's there.'
Eckrich's outreach isn't focused solely on the public though.
'I also try to make military individuals aware of these Fort Hood treasures,' Eckrich said. 'I point out which plants are special and ask if training exercises can take place away from those specific areas so that nothing will get damaged.'
For Wood the archaeologist, his eventual goal is to create a catalogue of homestead information that pairs property with plant type.
'That's something that's always on the back burner,' Wood said. 'I think it would be a valuable source of information to have.'
Did you know?
The land at Fort Hood was once home to more than 20 small-town communities.
'Imprint on the Land,' a book of oral histories by early Fort Hood settlers, can be viewed online at Resources Files/Imprint on the Land.pdf

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