Land!

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The land had been divided into 11,000 sections of 160 acres each. As the gun went off, people rushed in from all four sides of the district to scramble for land and lots, but there were enough sections, for only one in ten. Guthrie, the provisional territorial capital, was considered the choice site for prospective merchants and tradesmen, but Oklahoma City, thirty miles to the south, attracted almost equal interest. Several other towns, such as Stillwater, Kingfisher, and Norman, drew smaller groups.

After Guthrie and Oklahoma City overflowed, other towns formed quickly along the railroad that crossed the middle of the territory. Some survive as hamlets, but most disappeared after their speculative value dwindled.

No law existed in the territory, and order was kept by a scattered group of United States marshals and soldiers. (Captain Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur, commanded the troops at Guthrie.) They had no authority to determine ownership of property or settle quarrels. All they could do was to try to keep the homesteaders from killing each other.

To regulate the masses of people a plan of government by consent was followed. Officials were elected by towns that had no money for salaries. It took five years for a homesteader to take title to his land—or fourteen months if he paid $1.25 an acre; therefore there was no tax base in the territory. Nevertheless, Guthrie elected a mayor the day after the opening, although with difficulty. The first election was nullified: supporters of each of the candidates voted by joining a particular line and filing past a counter; some had run back to get into line again. Oklahoma City, which tried an election a few hours after the opening, at least had a ballot box—an empty coffee pot—but there was so much pushing and shoving that the voting had to be postponed for a few days.

A Department of the Interior ruling stated that each town was to occupy only 320 acres of land, since the territory was expected to be primarily agricultural. Guthrie overflowed its allotted limits on the first day of the run and soon covered four times the planned acreage. The problem was solved by forming four towns, each with its own set of public officials. Police pursuing a wanted man could not cross the dividing lines—which were merely streets—nor could delivery wagons go from town to town without paying special taxes in each.

None of the towns had been surveyed before the crowds came, and some settlers put up their tents on lots that were later found to be in the middle of streets. These unfortunate people lost their claims and had to be evicted, sometimes by soldiers with bayonets. The principal thoroughfare of one new community was cleared by laying a heavy log across its full width and hitching a team of mules to each end. As the mules pulled the log down the street, two marshals walked ahead of the log, Winchesters cradled in their arms. The reluctant claimholders struck their tents.

Gamblers who came from the mining towns of the West with their faro and chuck-a-luck games inadvertently helped the struggling towns during these precarious days: since town officials could raise money in no other way, they fined the gamblers each morning and raised enough money for surveying and grading the streets.

Citizens were sometimes extraordinarily resourceful in making a living in an area where there was no employment and little money, and where the soil was years away from supporting communities. One woman, remembered as Button Mary, who had known all the boom towns of the West, charged ten cents for replacing missing buttons; anyone who refused to pay received a painful prod with her needle.

Three men started a bank, even though they did not have enough money to buy a bundle of shingles for their building. Each made out a note for $10,000, after which they exchanged the notes among themselves and opened for business—with an announced capital stock of $30,000. They used a potbellied stove for a vault until they could buy better facilities. The bank prospered, and proved a boon to the community.

One man built a public rest room on his lot, surrounding it with leafy branches which he renewed every other day. He made enough money to start a harness shop. Another group made bricks from the red clay of the vicinity; five buildings still stand in Guthrie that were made from their bricks.

A blacksmith, watching a dentist treat long lines of patients, decided to become a dentist himself, advertising by hanging the teeth he extracted on a line across the door of his tent. William Wrigley, Jr., rolled his first slab of chewing gum in a tent store at Guthrie. G. W. Knowlton, an early-day barber, perfected his Danderine formula there. Fred Bonfils, who became a Denver publisher, built stores in Guthrie that are still in use. Tom Mix tended bar there after saloons became legal, and Lon Chaney was a carpenter.

Two men who believed every trade was too crowded found a novel way to make a little money. They felled two huge trees and made a foot bridge across the unfordable Cottonwood River, which bisected the town. Then one went up in the brush and fired a gun, while the other ran to the busy section of the town with an excited story of a murder. The crowd followed him across the bridge to a grove of trees, but found no body. When they tried to return, each was charged ten cents for a dry crossing.