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Guthrie, Oklahoma, Seeks a Return to Glory Days, the Sooner the Better

November 19, 1987|BILL JOHNSON | Associated Press Writer

GUTHRIE, Okla. — It was called the biggest land run of them all, that mad dash on April 22, 1889, for a piece of the property opened up in the "unassigned lands" that were once Indian Territory.

The stopping point for many of those who hoped to start a new life on the Plains ended at a railroad station at Deer Creek, where stacks of lumber, camp stoves and other necessities for survival had been stockpiled, awaiting the invasion.

"The scramble for the land began promptly at 12 o'clock, and for an hour crowds streamed into Oklahoma over all four borders," The New York Times reported at the time. "From the Cherokee Strip came the great fleet of prairie schooners. Across the Canadian, from the Chickasaw Nation came troops of sturdy ponies, each one carrying a Boomer.

"From the Arapaho and Cheyenne reservations on the west came a yelling mob of wild horsemen who fired volley after volley to celebrate their final victory. The Kiowa of the Southwest and the Cherokee and Creek nations on the east also furnished their contingent of Boomers."

And O. Henry, after visiting the teeming town, wrote that while Rome wasn't built in a day, Guthrie was.

Dodged Military Patrols

What the short-story writer didn't know was that the groundwork of what would be a tent city of nearly 15,000 by nightfall was started days earlier when the so-called Sooners dodged the military patrols ordered to keep them from the territory and had claims staked out when the first homesteaders galloped in.

Oklahoma traces much of its history to this run that opened the Unassigned Lands, a 1.8-million-acre stretch that after the Civil War had not been given to any of the Indian tribes forcibly relocated years earlier from their ancestral grounds to the then-wild frontier.

Throughout the state the day is honored annually, but nowhere with more fanfare than in Guthrie--originally, Deer Creek--the only city in the nation to serve as both a territorial and a state capital.

These days, Guthrie is hoping for a return to the glory days that ended when the capital was moved 30 miles to Oklahoma City.

"We were lucky in that we have nearly all of our original buildings," says Don Coffin, president of the Guthrie Arts and Humanities Council.

"While Oklahoma City had the money to tear down all its old buildings, we had to sit by and watch," he says. "The result: We still have an authentic Victorian-era city."

Tying Future to Past

Guthrie's gables, ramparts and spindle-topped turrets gleam as they did when Oklahoma joined the Union in 1907. And planners are tying the city's future to its past, whose echoes, they hope, will attract a new run--of tourists.

While plans are already being made for a centennial bash two years hence, this year's '89er day celebration will include a rodeo and a re-enactment of wagon trains crossing the Cimarron River and arriving in Guthrie on April 24.

For 1989, says Coffin, "We're planning the biggest wagon train in 100 years. There will be a horse race into town. . . . And we're going to rebuild a block of wooden structures that will become a permanent set of territorial buildings."

Eventually, city boosters want to remove the asphalt from the downtown streets, revealing old red brick pavement.

Over the years, Guthrie's classic facades were hidden behind metal coverings.

"The aluminum siding salesmen retired after visiting Guthrie," joked Jay Hannah, president of the historical society. "But little by little, it's coming off."

Many buildings have been restored. An estimated 90% of the city's turn-of-the-century buildings are still standing. Work on some structures awaits an upturn in the state's oil and farming economy.

Some Buildings Gone

"We lost a few of our buildings," Hannah says.

Gone are the old City Hall, where the state constitution was written, and the Brooks Opera House, where William Jennings Bryan spoke and John Philip Sousa led his band.

Still, the Pollard Theater is being restored to become home of the only professional, full-time theater in Oklahoma. Performances are to begin in September.

An estimated $12.5 million has been spent getting the downtown commercial buildings back the way they were.

"We have pictures taken a few years ago and then now," Hannah says. "We call it our 'ooh, ah slide show.' "

The Harrison House opened recently as a bed-and-breakfast establishment, each room named for a famous person who stopped by or lived in Guthrie, from cowboy actor Tom Mix to prohibitionist Carry Nation.

At the old Blue Bell Bar, not yet restored, Mix dispensed drinks before heading farther west to seek fame on film.

Above the bar, 17 small rooms surround a lobby; an iron skywalk once connected this area to a hotel across the alleyway.

Fancy Bordello

"That area above the Blue Bell was one of the fanciest bordellos around," says Fred Olds, an unofficial historian of the area. "It rivaled anything to be found in New Orleans."

Across the street from the Blue Bell was the Same Old Moses Saloon.

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