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Boomer Town

June 2024
5min read

Oklahoma’s “rightful capital” retains the tenacious spirit of its founders

“Miles of wagons; a welter of horsemen; random shots fired in the air … from the four corners of that land besieged by settlers one cry goes up, ‘Oklahoma! Oklahoma!’” wrote the Cuban revolutionary José Martí, who was on hand to see the first Oklahoma land rush just over a century ago. Although most of the downtown area’s nineteenth-century buildings still line the wide streets, it’s difficult to imagine Guthrie as the capital city during those frenzied times, for the pace and purpose of the town have changed so dramatically. Guthrie is chiefly remembered today as one of those towns that sprang to life overnight not because of oil or gold but because of the free land the federal government offered in one of five Oklahoma land runs a century ago.

During the 1880s a group of Boomers—as the farmers and the developers thirsting for new land were then known—pressed Congress to open the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. When they finally did get access to nearly two million acres, the last large block of Western land available under the Homestead Act, the Boomers dashed in (a good many of them jumped the gun, sneaked in illegally, and became known as Sooners, thereby giving Oklahoma a nickname that has stuck to this day).

The exuberant false fronts on Guthrie’s brick Victorian buildings suggest the residents’ confidence that their community would become the center of politics and culture for the new state. Indeed, Guthrie was named the territorial capital in 1889, but in 1910, after a hard-fought battle, the capital shifted to Oklahoma City, and Guthrie settled into its new existence as a small town—and an excellent example of turn-of-the-century prairie life.

Still, Guthrie was founded by speculators and entrepreneurs, and even now the visitor can feel some of that same energy being brought to bear as the town struggles to revitalize and restore itself.

Although Guthrie residents were bitterly disappointed by the loss of their capital status, today the town draws tourists who come to see current musical comedies and plays at the Pollard Theater and crowd the Saturday-night rodeos at the Lazy E Arena ten minutes outside town. But none of these modern distractions diminishes the sense of the old Guthrie that burst into being a century ago “like a lump of self-raising dough,” as O. Henry put it.

Guthrie lies thirty miles north of the present capital, along the Cottonwood Creek near its confluence with the Cimarron River. Driving toward town along Route 77, you pass acres of scrub trees and the Southwestern red marrow of the vibrant clay that was used to create most of the buildings in the town.

Many Oklahoma settlers came from Kansas, Texas, and Missouri, where they had been hard hit by the droughts of the early 1880s. Most of the roughly fifty thousand land seekers arrived by train, bringing their goods with them over relatively short distances and often hopping off when they saw a good spot. Fifteen trains carried at least twenty-five thousand people to Guthrie before the end of that first day on April 22, 1889. While most moved on, ten thousand set up in Guthrie.

Within just months after its founding Guthrie had the accouterments of cities long established, including sixteen barbers, six banks, seven hardware companies, fifteen hotels, nineteen druggists, thirty-nine doctors, forty restaurants, and eighty-one lawyers hanging their shingles. In the fall of 1889 Westinghouse installed an electrical station with a capacity for more than seven thousand “candles,” or light bulbs, the first municipal system west of the Mississippi.

Guthrie claims two thousand historic buildings and has the largest restored commercial district in the National Register of Historic Places. The town managed to attract its own world-class architect, Joseph Foucart, a Belgian who had worked on the Paris City Hall before coming to Oklahoma in the 189Os. Trees were scarce, but the abundant red clay made brick the obvious building material. The six of Foucart’s commercial buildings that still stand in Guthrie’s downtown area offer a full range of the popular styles of the day: a lively mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and Queen Anne teeming with ornate cornices, arched windows, onion domes, and minarets—most of it in brick.

Guthrie is sometimes called the Fraternal Capital, because it contains the largest Scottish Rite Temple in the world, with 16 of the 150 rooms open to visitors year-round. The interior was designed in the early twenties by Marion and Kathryn Davidson, who later decorated the interior of Rockefeller Center.

The classic Greek facade of the Masonic temple is so imposing that it looks like a state government building, almost as if it were meant to replace the capitol Guthrie lost in 1910. No official has ever been inducted on its broad steps, but in 1907 the state’s first governor, Charles Haskell, was sworn in on the steps of the Carnegie Library on Oklahoma Avenue.

Haskell, a Democrat and no fan of the new capital, was constantly battling with Frank Greer, editor of the State Capital , the Republican newspaper. Finally, Haskell moved his offices to Oklahoma City, where he had generous campaign backers. He had his secretary of state steal to Guthrie to remove the state seal and bring it to Oklahoma City. After this indecorous start the capital officially moved the next year.

The Carnegie Library now serves as a wing of the state-run Oklahoma Territorial Museum, whose exhibits are devoted to life during territorial days and the railroad era.

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

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