SALT OF THE EARTH TU professor's prairie work changed environmental recovery efforts worldwide
How sandwiches helped build the VA hospital in Muskogee
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.