Tony Souther remembers April 13, 2019, as if it were yesterday. It was a day that ranged from jubilation to terror.
As manager of Caddo Mounds Historic Site near Alto, Souther was overseeing Caddo Culture Day, the site’s biggest and most anticipated annual event. Almost 100 people were there taking part in or viewing centuries-old ceremonies based on Caddo traditions.
Although some activities were moved inside because of rain, all were continuing as planned.
Many people were inside the museum attending a Caddo drumming ceremony when the lights went out and the wind and rain suddenly picked up. Seconds later, an EF3 tornado tore off the roof of the museum and blew down some of the walls. Dozens inside the museum were injured, some severely. One person who was nearby in the parking lot was killed.
“It was chaos,” said Souther, who was shaken up but not injured.
One of the state’s most important historic sites was left in ruins and the mounds were covered with debris.
Now, nine months later, the site is back open. Saturday marked the first time the public could enter the property. A portable building serves as a temporary museum/visitor’s center.
“We’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go,” Souther said prior to the reopening. “People need to know there is much more to come. There’s a lot left to do.”
The Texas Legislature has allocated $2.5 million to rebuild the museum and expand its exhibits. The State Historical Commission has made recovery of the site a priority.
“After it is all done, we’re going to be bigger and better than we were before,” Souther said.
The Caddo, a tribe of farmers and traders, had a large settlement on the property near what is now Alto as early as A.D. 800, according to information from the Texas Historical Commission. The Caddo were famous for building large earthen mounds that were the centers of religious ceremonies and burial grounds of its leaders
The mounds at the site are some of the last remnants of what were much larger structures and are considered to be sacred by tribe members.
In the 12th century, the settlement was abandoned when the tribe splintered and spread across a larger area. In the mid-1800s the U.S. government forced most remaining Caddo onto land in western Oklahoma, the current headquarters of Caddo Nation.
In the 1930s, the mounds began drawing attention of archaeologists who uncovered artifacts and urged the state to take steps to protect the property. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired 70 acres around the mounds and in 1974 designated it a historic park. After more excavations, 23 acres were added to the site now under stewardship of Texas Historical Commission.
The state built a museum/visitor’s center and began sponsoring activities and programs paying tribute to the Caddo. The site draws thousands of visitors each year including many school groups. Some Caddo Nation members make trips to the mounds each year to honor their ancestors.
Souther said many at Caddo Culture Day in 2019 were caught off guard when the tornado struck. In the ensuing confusion, people were crying out for help and trying to find family members, he said.
About 40 people at the site were injured.
Jeff Williams, the president of the Friends of the Caddo Mounds support group, was inside the grass house, a replica of a Caddo family dwelling on the property, with two others.
Williams said he knew they were in danger when he heard the unmistakable roar of a tornado.
The grass house collapsed and temporarily trapped Williams, who was able to free himself and crawl from the rubble out a small opening. The two others with him were thrown from the structure.
“My leg was hurt pretty bad,” he recalled last week.
“When I got out I was immediately pummeled by flying debris,” Williams said in a televised interview in the days after the tornado. “I was hit pretty bad.”
“Thankfully there were several medical personnel and veterans (attending Culture Day),” Souther said. “They did a great job of helping people and keeping everyone calm as we waited for help.”
Ambulances could not get to the injured because fallen trees and debris blocked the road. Air ambulances had to wait until the dangerous weather moved out before they could lift off.
Eventually six people were taken by helicopter from the site to hospitals.
The National Weather Service later reported that at least four tornadoes touched down in the region that day. Dozens of structures were damaged or destroyed and four people were killed.
On the day after the tornado, Mark Wolfe, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, and Joseph Bell, deputy executive director for historic sites, went to the site.
“We expected to be horrified by the damage, and we were. What I don’t think we expected was the inspiration, compassion, and hope we saw on display from the many people affected by this tragedy,” Wolfe said on the commission’s website.
“We will rebuild and reopen Caddo Mounds State Historic Site,” he vowed. “We don’t know how yet, and we will likely need your help to do it — but for now, we will focus on the injured, the traumatized, and those who are grieving.”
Williams said that from the first day after the tornado, members of Friends of Caddo Mounds and others showed up and offered to help.
“But the first thing we had to do was to take care of our own,” said Williams, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University. “So many of us (in Friends of Caddo Mounds) had been there and had been hurt.”
An early priority was to clear debris.
“The debris was everywhere,” he said. “There were jagged pieces and boards with nails still in them. It was really unsafe.”
The Texas Historic Commission sent a damage assessment team to the site and launched plans to remove what was left of the museum. Offices of the staff were moved into smaller buildings on the property that had suffered less damage.
The portable building moved onto the property will eventually be replaced by a new museum that will be bigger than the old one, Souther said.
Williams said efforts have begun to replace the grass house that was built five years ago under the guidance of a Caddo leader. The project became the focus of a PBS documentary and received national attention.
Rebuilding the grass house involves gathering willow and other tree limbs that will form the frame and the switchgrass that volunteers will layer across the frame using a technique perfected by the Caddo.
Some involved in the restoration of Caddo Mounds say it’s important to preserve the site as a legacy to indigenous peoples of Texas and as a burial ground.
“Rebuilding the site is critical because it is such an important spiritual place for the Caddo,” said CC Conn, treasurer of Friends of Caddo Mounds.
She was at the site when the tornado hit and said that having gone through the experience with the members of the Caddo Nation who were there has created deep bonds. “We are all more bound to each other than ever as survivors,” she said.
“It is a great honor to be a steward of this sacred land,” she added.