SALT OF THE EARTH TU pro­fes­sor's prairie work changed en­vi­ron­men­tal re­cov­ery ef­forts world­wide

How sand­wiches helped build the VA hospi­tal in Musko­gee

Tulsa World - - Metro&region - Michael Over­all michael.over­all @tul­ By Kelly Bos­tian

In 1916, af­ter para­mil­i­tary forces at­tacked a small bor­der town 70 miles west of El Paso, Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son sent the U.S. Army into north­ern Mex­ico to hunt down the revo­lu­tion­ary leader known as Pan­cho Villa.

More than 15,000 troops passed through Musko­gee on the way to the bor­der. And a cafe owner named Alice Robert­son, filled with pa­tri­otic zeal, met the trains at the Musko­gee sta­tion to hand out sand­wiches, pieces of cake and bot­tles of milk.

The in­gre­di­ents had come from Robert­son's dairy farm, which she called Sa­wokla, a Creek-lan­guage word roughly

Aman stood alone on the dark, wide-open prairie, watched the stars over­head and clicked a cam­era mounted on a tri­pod. The skies were not co­op­er­a­tive for dozens of clicks, hun­dreds of clicks. And fi­nally, there was one.

“Have I showed you my pride and joy?” Kerry Sublette asked as he set­tled be­hind the desk in his Keplinger Hall of­fice on the Univer­sity of Tulsa cam­pus. Sur­rounded by pa­pers, files, stacks, pieces and parts of on­go­ing projects, he took a sip from the straw on the 64-ounce jug he sips ev­ery day and brought up the photo he had sent to his iPhone.

“I was tak­ing pic­tures of the Gem­i­nid me­teor shower,” he said of the re­cent photo of the night sky over the Joseph H. trans­lated as “gath­er­ing place.” More than just a farm and a cafe, Sa­wokla had be­come a pop­u­lar hang out for stu­dents, politi­cians and in­tel­lec­tu­als from all across east­ern Ok­la­homa.

The restau­rant seemed to be a sort of so­cial-net­work­ing hub for Repub­li­can ac­tivists. And when Robert­son ran for Congress in 1920, the same year the 19th Amend­ment gave women the right to vote, she rarely both­ered to leave Sa­wokla to cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to press cov­er­age from the time. She mostly gave speeches to her cus­tomers and ran clas­si­fied news­pa­per ads that de­scribed the cafe's daily spe­cials be­fore briefly ex­plain­ing her pol­icy po­si­tions.

“There are al­ready more lawyers and bankers in Congress than are needed,” Robert­son said dur­ing the cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to state archives. “The farm­ers need a farmer. I am Williams Tall­grass Prairie Pre­serve. The black frame, sprin­kled with bright stars, con­tained the glow of comet 46P/Wir­ta­nen to­ward the bot­tom and a ghostly white streak to one side, the track of one me­teor.

“I must have taken 400 shots and, one, one time, I got one shot,” he said, laugh­ing.

Good things have hap­pened on the Tall­grass Prairie for Sublette, 70, for more than 30 years. The pro­fes­sor of chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing and geo­sciences and Sarkeys Pro­fes­sor of En­vi­ron­men­tal Engi­neer­ing is com­plet­ing his fi­nal se­mes­ter at TU and is set to leave a legacy that amounts to quite a bit more than a ghostly streak in time.

Tech­niques de­vel­oped by Sublette and his stu­dents have changed the sci­ence a farmer. The women need a woman to look af­ter their new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The sol­dier boys need a proven friend.”

Given lit­tle chance when the race be­gan, Robert­son de­feated a three-term Demo­crat to be­come only the sec­ond woman elected to Congress and the first from Ok­la­homa. It took the state an­other 84 years to send a sec­ond woman to Washington, D.C.

The Musko­gee Daily Phoenix ex­plained the sur­prise vic­tory by re­port­ing that Robert­son ben­e­fited from a heavy turnout among veter­ans, who re­sponded to her “record of gen­eros­ity to sol­diers and life of sac­ri­fice for oth­ers.”

Vot­ers re­mem­bered the sand­wiches she had given to the troops aboard the trains.

In Congress, Robert­son made good on a cam­paign prom­ise to se­cure fund­ing for a veter­ans hospi­tal in Ok­la­homa. And the orig­i­nal 25-bed fa­cil­ity opened

Why is brine so bad?

With em­pha­sis that the com­par­i­son is fo­cused on land, not wa­ter. “Com­pared to a brine spill on land an oil spill is noth­ing. It's much eas­ier to do oil spills all day long. It's gar­den­ing, ba­si­cally.”

Oil­field pro­duc­tion wa­ters in some parts of Ok­la­homa have the high­est con­cen­tra­tion brine (salt­wa­ter) in the world.

“In Ok­la­homa we have lost a lot of land to brine spills.” The brine kills micro­organ­isms, kills the seed bank and kills plants, which changes the soil struc­ture and the soil erodes away to leave a moon­scape. The land is, lit­er­ally, gone.

Brine con­tam­i­na­tion spreads. “It spreads and it gets into the ground­wa­ter. Un­less it's at­tended to the dam­age just widens over time.”

Ex­ca­vat­ing a brine-spill area only speeds up the to­tal im­me­di­ate loss. “If you ex­ca­vate, it will never be the same. Maybe in ge­o­logic terms, but not in hu­man life­times.”

The soil can re­cover with­out be­ing re­moved. “There are ways to do it, but the knowl­edge of how to treat bride spills is sparsely dis­trib­uted, and it takes time and it takes at­ten­tion.”

“Be­cause it is some­thing that not a lot of peo­ple know, they are vul­ner­a­ble to the guy who comes to the door and says, `I have a so­lu­tion to your brine spill prob­lem.' They give them magic pixie dust to put on it. That's not how it works, but un­for­tu­nately there are a lot of those guys out there.” on Flag Day in 1923, by which time she had failed to win re­elec­tion and had taken a job as a wel­fare worker at the hospi­tal. It be­came one of the seeds that even­tu­ally grew into the U.S. Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs.

Ninety-six years later, the VA will soon break ground on a 140,000-square-foot health care cen­ter at 91st Street and South Mingo Road, where the fed­eral govern­ment has made an ini­tial com­mit­ment of $20 mil­lion to open the fa­cil­ity in 2021.

Mean­while, the VA hospi­tal in Musko­gee will no doubt re­main as busy as ever. But more than half of all veter­ans in east­ern Ok­la­homa live in the Tulsa area, ac­cord­ing to VA re­ports.

It might have made more sense to build the hospi­tal it­self in Tulsa a cen­tury ago. But Robert­son came from Musko­gee, and her dis­trict reaped the ben­e­fits.

She died in 1931 at the hospi­tal that she helped to build.


Univer­sity of Tulsa pro­fes­sor Kerry Sublette talks about a brine spill re­me­di­a­tion site with Tall­grass Prairie Pre­serve Di­rec­tor Bob Hamil­ton in 2017.


Alice Robert­son se­cured fund­ing for a veter­ans hospi­tal while serv­ing as Ok­la­homa's first con­gress­woman.

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