Oklahoma celebrates 100 years of colorful history

By Ron Jenkins
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) 11-07

Natural disasters evoke strong images of Oklahoma’s first 100 years, along with oil derricks and wheat farms and a resilient, diverse people – from cowboys, Indians, settlers and roughnecks to colorful aviators, entertainers and politicians.

Heading into its second century, a modern-day Oklahoma is emerging with thriving urban centers, natural gas replacing oil as energy king and an economy that is diversifying as leaders turn to research and high-tech models of other states.

It’s a state, officials believe, that is finally shaking off its Grapes of Wrath image, even as they celebrate the spirit of Ma Joad declaring, “We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people,” the final line of director John Ford’s movie based on the 1930s Dust Bowl novel by John Steinbeck.

“It has been a colorful and vibrant history,” Gov. Brad Henry said in an interview a week before the state turns 100. “There certainly have been challenges and difficult times, whether it was the Dust Bowl, the oil bust or natural disasters. But Oklahomans have come through to be stronger every time.”

Henry said the world got to see what Oklahomans are made of as they pulled together after bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, which killed 168.

Oklahoma was a place of trial and tragedy before it became the nation’s 46th state on Nov. 16, 1907. Indian Territory was the destination point for Indian tribes driven by the federal government from the eastern part of the country, most notably the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears in 1838-39.

Choctaw leader Allen Wright gave Oklahoma its name by combining two words in the Choctaw language that meant “red people,” according to the Chronicles of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has been a state of constant motion throughout its history. While most early settlers scratched to make a living off farming, some newcomers struck it rich after the first commercial oil well hit Black Gold in 1897.

Tulsa laid claim to being “the oil capital of the world” as oil barons set up headquarters in the northeastern Oklahoma town.

Oil activity across the state produced such companies as Marland Oil Co., later Conoco; Phillips Oil Co., Sun Oil Co., Cities Service and Kerr-McGee. E.W. Marland, the head of Marland Oil in Ponca City, would become a congressman and the state’s 10th governor.

The Oklahoma Capitol, built in 1914, is the only Capitol in the country with working oil wells on its grounds.

In the late 19th Century, cowboys drove cattle across Oklahoma from Texas and outlaws rode through Indian Territory, including the likes of the Doolin brothers, the Dalton brothers and Belle Starr. Bill Doolin was the leader of the infamous Wild Bunch gang.

U.S. District Judge Isaac Parker, who had jurisdiction over the territory from the border town of Fort Smith, Ark., sought to end the lawlessness and killing of roaming bandits, sending 79 people to the gallows over two decades.

The Cookson Hills, where many outlaws hid out, would later yield the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd, the much romanticized bank robber of the 1930s.

Oil booms and land runs led to rapid growth of the state’s two largest cities – Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Guthrie was the territorial capital and many Guthrie residents still talk of a night in 1910 when they say the Great State Seal was smuggled out of the Logan County Courthouse and taken to Oklahoma City by agents of Charles N. Haskell, the state’s first governor.

“We had the seal – and, consequently, the capital – stolen from us,” says Frank Davis, a former judge and ex-House member from Guthrie.

The Great Land Run of 1889 was among six land runs that lured settlers to Oklahoma from across the nation and countries such as Poland, Germany and Ireland in search of free land and a way to make a living.

Black pioneers, some former slaves of Indians, took part in the runs and founded more all-black towns than any state in the country. Earlier, blacks fought alongside whites for the Union in the Battle of Honey Springs outside present-day Muskogee.

Out of Oklahoma’s rich western heritage came some of the most famous early day cowboy movie stars, such as Gene Autry. A native of Texas, Autry got his start as “Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy” on KVOO radio in Tulsa.

Bill Pickett, an early black cowboy, invented the rodeo event of steer wrestling at the famous 101 Ranch near Ponca City. Tom Mix, Hollywood’s first western cowboy megastar, also worked at the ranch and was a town marshall in Oklahoma.

Cherokee cowboy Will Rogers, a master rope trick artist in Vaudeville, went onto fame as an actor and humorist and prolific newspaper columnist. He is easily the most well-known Oklahoman and was hailed as the state’s favorite son.

Rogers, who was born in Oologah, made 71 movies before his death in 1935 in a plane crash that also took the life of Wiley Post, the record-setting aviator who wore a patch over his eye. Later in its history, several Oklahomans became astronauts, including early space pioneers Gordon Cooper and Tom Stafford.

Oklahoma has been the birthplace of many other famous entertainers and actors, including James Garner, Ron Howard, Chuck Norris, Roger Miller, Patti Page, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Toby Keith and new country superstar Carrie Underwood.

Two novelists who won Pulitzer prizes were born in Oklahoma – Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” and N. Scott Momaday, the state’s centennial poet laureate, who was honored for the 1969 novel, “House Made of Dawn.”

In the years before Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were combined into a single state in 1907, an oil boom ignited a rush for riches that lasted three decades.

Others turned to the land and Oklahoma became a leading producer of wheat and other crops, but poor farming practices, drought and winds combined to create the Dust Bowl, leading many to flee to California and other western states.

William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray was one of Oklahoma’s most colorful politicians. A transplanted Texan, Murray was president of the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention and later served as governor. He was defeated in a bid for president in 1932, losing to Franklin Roosevelt.

Later Murray turned against Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, even though his state was reeling from the Great Depression. Murray called out the National Guard more than 40 times as governor, once to police the oil fields and once during a Red River toll bridge dispute with Texas.

Oklahoma produced a speaker of the U.S. House in Carl Albert, who was born in the tiny town of Bug Tussle in Pittsburg County.

Tramping out of Okemah in the 1920s was a teenager named Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl balladeer who wrote hundreds of songs, including the anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Oklahoma, with intense conservation projects and creation of hundreds of reservoirs and lakes, slowly recovered from the land blight of the 1930s and agriculture rivaled oil as the state’s major economic force for the second half of the state’s first century.

The state got serious about diversifying its economy after another oil bust in the early 1980s shook the economy and devastated state revenues.

Besides its western heritage and the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma is known as much as anything for the achievements of the University of Oklahoma football team. The Sooners, named for early settlers who jumped the gun during the land rushes, have won several mythical national championships.

The university is now led by David Boren, a former Democratic governor and U.S senator, who has been at the forefront of efforts to build a research-based economy in the state.

Corporate takeover figure T. Boone Pickens contributed $165 million last year to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, to foster athletics at the state’s second land grant institution.

One of the state’s most famous athletes, Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, was an All-American at an Indian school in Pennsylvania, before becoming the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon champion and a professional baseball and football player. Major League Baseball Hall of Fame members born in Oklahoma include Mickey Mantle, Carl Hubbell, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell and Paul and Lloyd Waner.

Oklahoma is a conservative Bible belt state that did not repeal Prohibition until 1959. Democrats dominated its early politics, which was marked by populism and a distrust for government and big business. In recent years, the state has elected mostly Republicans to high office.

An exception has been Henry, who in 2006 became only the third governor to be elected to successive terms. The others are Democrat George Nigh and Republican Frank Keating. Republican Henry Bellmon also served two terms, two decades apart.

Keating led the state after the bombing of the federal building in 1995 that was at the time the worst act of domestic terrorism on United States soil.

Four years later, an F5 tornado slammed through the Oklahoma City area, kicking off an outbreak of 66 twisters in Oklahoma and Kansas that left 48 dead.

Oklahoma, in the middle of “Tornado Alley,” has been plagued with many natural disasters. In 1947, a tornado left 107 dead and nearly 1,000 injured in Woodward. Two years before it became a state, a tornado flattened Snyder, killing at least 97.

Henry said the Oklahoma of today is “a brand new state,” like the lyrics from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, “Oklahoma,” that gave Oklahoma its state song.

He points to investments in education, research and development and medical facilities in recent years, including plans for “world class” diabetes and cancer centers.

“We’ve created more high-tech jobs than virtually any other state. I believe the future looks incredibly bright. It is a beautiful state and with California is the only state to have 10 ecosystems. We have 300 days of sunshine and Oklahoma is a great place to raise children.

“We’re becoming known as one of the most creative, vibrant, innovative young states in the country.”