- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) - Fort Sill’s Air Defense Artillery Warrant Officer Basic Course Class 001-16 does volunteer work at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge one Saturday by removing debris from the fire-ravaged Ferguson House.

Fourteen Fort Sill soldiers donned hard hats and work gloves on a recent Saturday to volunteer their time to a special project on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

The soldiers are part of a continuing partnership between the Army post and the refuge that Bill Sparks, a retired major and member of the Association of the Friends of the Wichitas, established four years ago. Past soldier volunteers have devoted their Saturdays to clearing brush, removing invasive eastern red cedar trees and repairing damaged fences.

This time, the group is helping to clear debris from the historic Ferguson House that was damaged by fire several years ago. Refuge officials are hopeful that once all the burned wood inside is gone, it will be easier to see what needs to be done to restore Ferguson House to its original appearance.

A roll-off box was placed outside the house this past month, and on Feb. 20 three members of the Friends of the Wichitas - Sparks, Eva Cook and Bobby Williamson - removed some of the more hazardous portions of the burned-out roof to get ready for the soldier crew’s efforts. Williamson has a special reason for contributing to the cause - his father worked as a ranger on the refuge, and his family actually lived in Ferguson House until Williamson was 2 or 3 years old.

The Lawton-Constitution (https://bit.ly/1LD0zus ) reports that the volunteers have already made a huge difference in the appearance of the house.

“We’re taking shovels, shoveling out the inside, helping take down this roof and removing all the fire-damaged areas that were inside the building,” said Warrant Officer 1 Robert Schenk, one of the members of Air Defense Artillery Warrant Officer Basic Course 001-16 working at the site Saturday.

The cobblestones, concrete and mortar they will leave untouched.

“This is our first time out here. As a class we’re trying to get 500 collective hours of volunteer service in the community,” he said.

As the community and volunteer coordinator for the class, Warrant Officer 1 Albert LeVasseur is setting up projects for the class to work on, both on the refuge and at the Lawton-Fort Sill Veterans Center. He’s a student in the class, which began in November and will run until August.

“This is our first trip out here, and we’ll probably do about 50 hours combined today, so it’s a good portion of the time,” LeVasseur said. “I’m actually in contact with the veterans center, and we’re going to spend some time with the veterans who don’t have family that come and see them. It’s important to volunteer because we’re not only here to learn but we’re here to support the community. As leaders, we need to go out there and show that the armed services is more than just defending the nation, it’s helping out communities.”

Class members LeVasseur and Warrant Officer 1 Paul Murray were both Advanced Individual Training (AIT) instructors and platoon sergeants who brought their students to the refuge to work on past projects.

“It’s just another opportunity to come and do something else for the community,” LeVasseur said. “The other stuff, we were just cutting down trees and clearing up (the habitat). To do some demolishing and restoration is totally different.”

LeVasseur finds it rewarding to take part in activities like this.

“We’re a pretty close class. We hang out usually on the weekends … in conjunction with every day of the week. But to go out and do something like this builds camaraderie. The teamwork is a big part of it, because it brings us all closer together,” he said.

They got to the refuge at 7 a.m. and planned to work until noon or 1 p.m. The roll off box was overflowing by 10 a.m., and they had to pile the debris on the ground.

Warrant Officer 1 Sean McSherry, who was manning one of the wheelbarrows, said he is studying to be a 140 Echo, or Patriot missiles tactician/technician.

“We’re here for nine months, so while we’re here, we want to do things such as college and give back to the community as well,” he said.

Murray was an instructor with Bravo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 6th ADA, when he brought AIT soldiers out to the refuge in April 2014 to remove eastern red cedars. Now he’s a student in Warrant Officer Basic Course and still volunteering at the refuge. He estimates he’s put in a couple of hundred hours at the Wichita Mountains.

“I enjoy coming out here,” he said, adding that he enjoys fishing at Burford and Jed Johnson Lakes looking at the wildlife.

Murray never had an opportunity to see Ferguson House before the fire.

“I’ve lived here in Lawton for six years now and I’ve seen it sitting here burned on the side of the road,” he said.

Ferguson House sits on the north side of Oklahoma 49-115 east of the Refuge Visitor Center. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 11, 1981. On the afternoon of Aug. 27, 2010, during a prescribed burn near Ketch Lake on Fort Sill, a cedar tree exploded, which blew an ember onto the cedar shingles of Ferguson House, causing the fire that totally burned the shingles and roof supports.

The 1½-story cobblestone structure was built by carpenter Sam Reimer of Medicine Park and rancher Ben Ferguson in 1926-27 as a residence, workshop, filling station and storage structure for Margaret and Ben Ferguson. The house is half in and half out of the ground. The Fergusons had been compelled by the Army in 1926 to give up their land and home and relocate to the new home, which was built three-quarters of a mile north of the original location. At that time the house was on Oklahoma 49 and adjacent to the National Game Preserve.

According to the nomination form for the National Register, Ferguson was one of the ranchers who paid for the right to graze cattle on the refuge until the concession ended in 1937.

The Fergusons occupied the house until 1942, when emergency wartime legislation resulted in Fort Sill’s taking the property to extend the artillery range. After the war, in a land “swap” to square off the boundaries between Fort Sill and the refuge, the property passed from the military to the Fish & Wildlife Department. The Ferguson House continued to serve as a residence for Fish & Wildlife employees for many years afterward.

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Information from: The Lawton Constitution, https://www.swoknews.com

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