Boomer Town


The State Capital Publishing Museum at the other end of town, with its rows of old printing presses, type, and documents from Guthrie’s past, is housed in Frank Greer’s old publishing company. On the first day of the rush, Greer distributed his newspaper from a tent. He’d had it printed in Kansas the day before and shipped in by train so that he could get it to homesteaders at the end of the day.

A Boston newspaper recently called Guthrie the Williamsburg of the West. But, says Jane Thomas, former president of the Logan County Historical Society and owner of the Harrison House Inn, the title doesn’t really suit Guthrie. “We’re real, and we don’t have a Rockefeller putting up money to pay for our restoration.”

Thomas would like to see the town become a living museum while retaining the energy of its origins. Her ambition outstrips the present reality; Guthrie still has a way to go. A row of refurbished commercial buildings in the former red-light district near the railroad station lies vacant. The boarded-up 1902 railroad depot where Harvey girls once served Western travelers is next on the list of Guthrie’s restoration committee.

Throughout Guthrie commercial and residential properties await restoration by some preservation-minded benefactor, but the boomer spirit is very much alive. The biggest push for restoration began in the mid-1980s, spurred on by the oil boom, and the tidy brick streets that line the downtown and the old-fashioned light posts are witness to those prosperous days. It was then that a group of local investors bought up the Harrison House, the bed and breakfast where I stayed. It’s a former office building, with the old bank lobby serving as an antiques and collectibles store.

Guthrie was named for John Guthrie, a railroad official and panjandrum of Kansas politics who may never have actually set foot in the town. Carry Nation did, though, and she used Guthrie’s presses for printing her temperance pamphlet The Hatchet .

Before their movie careers, Lon Chaney worked at Guthrie’s opera house and the Western star Tom Mix tended bar at the Blue Belle Saloon on South Second Street. The Blue Belle is a good place to grab a hamburger, and upstairs, in Miss Lizzie’s Bordello of Respectable Shops, visitors can browse through modern-day Victoriana in rooms that once served as Guthrie’s most popular bordello.

I visited the town over Halloween, when round bales of hay along the roadside were painted to look like jack-o’-lanterns. The Chamber of Commerce arranged to have the nearby children trick-or-treat through the business district, where many of them stopped at my hotel. Although there were a few cowpokes in the bunch, most of the kids were Ninja Turtles or horror-movie creeps. One girl about four years old was dressed befitting Mulhall’s Wild West Rodeo, which was home to Will Rogers and Tom Mix for a time and located not far from Guthrie.

“Are you Lucille Mulhall?” one storekeeper asked her, referring to the first cowgirl on the rodeo circuit during the 1930s.

“No,” she said without hesitation. “Dolly Parton.”

—Laura Allen TO PLAN A TRIP