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Oklahoma Runs of 1800s Live On in Art and Stories

Charles Hillinger's America

September 15, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

GUTHRIE, Okla. — Fred Olds has been spending weeks painting a 30x15-foot 1889 Land Rush mural at the Territorial Museum here.

Olds is nearing completion of his 60th Oklahoma Run painting and is known throughout the state as the "Oklahoma Run" artist.

"I suppose you might say I'm in a rut," laughed Olds, 69, a World War II B-26 bombardier who flew several missions over Europe.

His art works depict dramatic episodes during the wild dashes for free land when the Oklahoma Territory was opened for settlement. More than 250,000 men and women came on horseback, bicycles, oxen and in buggies and covered wagons.

"Land-starved masses gathered behind a starting line. At high noon bugles blew, guns fired. The thundering herd of man and beast surged forward. Some flew off their horses and were trampled," the artist said, explaining the exciting action in his latest mural.

"It was like coming out of a starting gate--50,000 eager would-be homesteaders at the 1889 Run, 100,000 rushing madly out of the shoot at the Cherokee Strip in 1893, tens of thousands at the other runs."

There were many more in the race than land to be had.

They came from farms, small towns and cities, from all across the United States.

"Most Americans have a vague notion about what happened. They think there was just one run. There were five runs from 1889 through 1895," Olds said.

Very Much Alive

The runs are very much alive in the minds of the people of Oklahoma. Many still live on farms and in houses on town-lots homesteaded by their grandparents who came here to race several miles for a free piece of land.

Every year on run anniversaries schoolchildren and townspeople reenact the historic event. Local fairs are held on run days. High school, college, community and little theater groups stage plays about the land rush.

At El Reno in Canadian County this summer, Helen Franks Miner, 50, a popular high school music teacher for the past 20 years, wrote and produced the community's annual land rush play that featured a reenactment of the 1889 Run.

Miner is black. "Blacks, Hispanics and Chinese made the run as well as whites. Descendants of the early settlers are living on the old homesteads," she explained. "It was low-income people who came to Oklahoma, looking for a better life in the closing chapter of Frontier America."

Nearly every city and town that sprang up overnight in an Oklahoma run has a land-rush museum or special exhibits commemorating the mad dash.

Oklahoma City has the 1889ers Museum and the Museum of Unassigned Lands and land-rush exhibits in the Oklahoma Historical Society Building across from the Capitol. A huge mural in the state house dome, depicting the 1889 run, includes a giant banner exhorting: "Go Forth and Possess the Promised Land!"

Guthrie, Enid, Alva, Perry, Cherokee, Lawton, Shawnee, Stillwater and Woodward have run museums.

No wonder.

Nothing like it ever happened before or since.

As Minnie Rose Tellaro, 64, pumped away on her backyard well drawing water to do her dishes, the mournful wail of a train could be heard in the distance crossing the bridge over the Cimarron River.

"In '89 my grandfather, Andrew Tellaro, rode a train on those same tracks. He jumped off the train, ran across the prairie and claimed this land," Tellaro said.

She was born and has lived her entire life on the quarter section (160 acres) her grandfather homesteaded April 22, 1889, in the first of Oklahoma's great runs.

"I'm an old stuck-in-the-mud," said Tellaro, who never married. "It's because I like the old-fashioned ways of doing things, living the quiet life in the same old house, pumping my water, using the outdoor privy."

She didn't have electricity until 1979 and got her first TV last Christmas. She still doesn't have running water inside the house or indoor plumbing. "I have pretty much left things like it always was until I got the electricity and the TV. What you don't have, you don't miss," she said.

Her grandfather never spoke English. Andrew Tellaro and his wife, Rose, were Italian immigrants. He was working in a coal mine in Missouri when he heard there was free land available in Oklahoma.

Many Oklahoma run homesteaders were immigrants--Germans, Italians, French, Danes, Poles, Scotch-Irish.

The country homesteaders erected a one-room school every three miles. Tellaro gave an acre of his land for a one-room schoolhouse, where children in the Abell Community of Logan County were educated from 1890 to 1947.

Graduated From School

Minnie Rose's father graduated from the school. So did she and her brother, James, who now lives in Camarillo, Calif.

The original homestead cabin Andrew Tellaro built stood nearby until one recent day when "it just wore out and collapsed. I went outside and there it was crumbled with the roof on the ground covering what was left," Minnie Rose said.

Three generations of Tellaros raised hogs, cows and chickens for a living on their 160 acres. "If we were poor, we never knew it," the homesteader's granddaughter said.

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