For some, Saturday’s gathering at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site beneath a blanket of grey sky was a time for levity — an opportunity to celebrate the progress made since deadly tornados ripped the cultural site apart nine months ago. For others, the ceremony carried a more somber current as they remembered the terror of the EF-3 tornado that leveled the museum and buildings there.
What the event meant to everyone assembled, though, was hope for the continued protection of a sacred site and an important piece of East Texas heritage.
Though Caddo Mounds State Historic Site is still years away from being as fully functional as it was before the April 2019 storms, it officially opened again to visitors Saturday.
A Long Road
Inside a small, two room portable building, the site’s staff had arranged a collection of informational displays and gift-shop items, as well as a coffee and tea bar to cater to the two dozen or so visitors who attended Saturday’s ceremony.
“It’s taken us several months to heal and get back to where we could do anything,” said Jeff Williams, the president of the non-profit Friends of Caddo Mounds State Historic Site organization.
The site’s five-member staff, and hundreds of volunteers, with the help of various non-profit and philanthropic organizations, worked steadily since April to clean up the ravaged site off state Hwy. 21, just six miles southwest of Alto.
“It literally took people working side by side to pick up debris,” Williams said, describing the cleanup process in the days and weeks after the storm.
One of the few things that survived the storm was the Snake Woman’s Garden — an educational garden plot that details Caddo agricultural practices.
It was at that garden where a Cedar tree and a muscadine vine were planted Saturday to mark the site’s reopening. Each of the plants carry significance to Caddo people: cedar is used as a cleansing herb and aromatic, and muscadines are a food source often used in Caddo grape dumplings.
Members of the Caddo Nation requested cedar and muscadine be planted at the site for the ceremony.
Caddo Nation elder Marilyn Threlkeld and Cherokee Nation council member Ron Black Eagle both worked alongside the site’s director, Tony Souther, to establish the plants during the ceremony.
Threlkeld added tobacco to the hole each plant was set into and Black Eagle performed a ritual with first handfuls of soil for each. The plants were watered with spring water from the site as per traditional Caddo custom.
Threlkeld, who lives in Binger, Oklahoma, where the Caddo Nation’s headquarters are, was among the members of the nation who were at the site when the tornados hit.
She and her husband took shelter in a vehicle during the storm, which injured 20 of the 60 people at the site and killed one person.
“Our fathers and grandfathers used cedar for blessing and cleansing,” she told the crowd assembled Saturday. “That’s why we planted it here. Let it grow and give thanks.”
Power of a Place
Threlkeld said she’d been back to the site one other time since the April storm, in the summer during a cleanup event, though she’s been visiting the mounds at least once a year since the 1970s.
“Every time I come down here, it’s peaceful for me to be around the mounds that our ancestors built,” she said.
Her return in the summer was difficult. It reminded her of the terror and uncertainty of the storm. Saturday’s ceremony was cathartic for her, she said, despite the trauma she suffered there.
“To me, it’s a healing process,” she said. “It’s a beginning.”
Saturday’s ceremony, while in the spirit of new beginnings and cleansing, was nonetheless difficult for some of the dozen or so survivors who attended it, like assistant site supervisor Rachael Galan.
Galan’s husband, Victor, suffered serious injuries when an exterior wall collapsed on him.
Saturday was the first time Galan had spent much time at the site since the storm, she said.
“This is just kind of a first step for me,” she said. “The tornado was tragic, but there’s so much good energy here. I felt it the moment I started working here.”
Galan took solace in seeing the community turn out for Saturday’s event, especially the return of members of the Caddo nation.
“It’s pretty powerful,” she said.
Though Caddo Mounds State Historic Site officially reopened Saturday, it will take several years for things to be rebuilt.
Souther said the temporary visitor’s center will continue to host rotating displays until the new museum is built, but there’s no definitive timeline for that.
Hopefully, construction on a new museum will begin within about a year, though it could take two or three years to complete.
“Theres still a lot of work to do,” he said.
Since the tornado, the Caddo Nation has been working with the site on potential plans for the future, and Threlkeld said among those she’d like to see some kind of shelter should another storm ever hit the site.
Over the years, she’s seen several administrators come and go from the site. Knowing that there are dedicated staff to care for her ancestor’s ceremonial and burial site has long been a source of comfort for her, she said.
And it’s clear that Caddo Mounds State Historic Site holds a special place for the people who’ve come to know it, whether their relationship extends generations back to before Anglo settlers, as a place where they’ve worked for nearly a decade like Souther, or just as volunteers in the past nine months.
“More and more people have gotten connected to this site,” he said.
Souther said when he arrived in 2012, the site averaged 3,500 to 4,000 visitors. Until the tornado, that attendance had grown to between 11,000 and 12,000.
The cleanup brought some 199 volunteers to the site, he said, and at least 80 more have come to help since then.
He hopes people will return to the site both as visitors and volunteers as they continue to rebuild in the coming years.
“We’re back to being open while we wait for the new museum to be built,” he said. “This is a day I’ve been waiting for for months now.”