At the heart of Michael S. Malone’s new nonfiction book is a tiny chamber clawed out of the earth more than 100 years ago, a cave that still exists in the riverbed near his great-grandfather’s Oklahoma homestead.
That cave captivated Malone on his only visit to the farm as a child. The property already had passed out of his family’s hands, and while the old house and towering barn held little interest for him, the cave was so outside his range of experiences that it shocked him, seared into him, held him fast.
“It impressed me not because of the extraordinary emotional resonance it carried for everyone else in the Hasbrook family — I knew little about that, other than the extraordinary fact that my grandmother had been a baby there — but for the sheer oddness of the place,” Malone wrote. “It was just a door, flanked by stacked river rocks, in the creek bank. I not only had never seen anything like it, I didn’t even know such places existed. It was like something out of a musty old fairy tale — and when my father managed to yank the creaky door open, exposing the arched vault and boxes of root vegetables inside, it was as if I was looking into the center of the earth.”
In truth, he was looking into his family’s past.
“Charlie’s Place: The Saga of an American Frontier Homestead” gallops across America and through four or five generations, ranging from Oregon to Virginia to California. But its heart is that cave, dug by Malone’s great-grandfather, Charlie Hasbrook, in the ground near Enid.
Malone’s book is part adventure story, part true crime and part memoir — all told with Malone’s usual skill. A lauded journalist, Malone has authored about 15 books. He was the first tech reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, putting him in an ideal position to cover Silicon Valley and the rise and inevitable bursting of the dot.com bubble. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He helped found “Fast Company” and “Wired” magazines and headed up the now defunct digital economy magazine, “Forbes ASAP.”
“Charlie’s Place” tells about Hasbrook’s journey to the territories and his participation in the Land Run. Hasbrook held onto his claim with tenacity, digging the cave out of the creek bed, lining it with muslin and eking out an existence with his family in conditions few of us could imagine today.
“One of the first things Charlie did was build a paddock on top for the animals,” said Malone, 58, who lives in Santa Clara, Calif. “My grandmother was born in Kansas … but she spent her infancy in the cave. My uncle was born in the cave. They had boxes and a stove in there. They’d put the kids in boxes at night with blankets around them, and the adults slept on a cot. The logistics were crazy.”
How did his great-grandmother care for the children in such conditions? Did she leave them in the cave while she went to collect water each day? Did she bring them with her? How must it have been in the spring, when worms would burrow through the walls?
The book considers other significant events in the family’s history. For years, rumors had circulated about Hasbrook’s mother and her possible role in the deaths of her two husbands (one of whom was Hasbrook’s father). Her descendants had candy-coated the story, minimizing the drama, but Malone dug into it and reached a painful conclusion.
“She was very likely an accessory before and after the fact. … The truth was almost too much to bear,” he said.
The story has a happy ending, though.
After Malone’s father died, his widow became fixated on reclaiming the Oklahoma homestead. Malone set out to make that happen for her, balancing business meetings with calls to an Enid real estate broker. Along the way, he said, he became obsessed with the property.
Eventually things worked out. Malone owns the homestead now. The property is being restored. The house and barn, Malone said, are safe. So is the cave. A tenant farmer is tending to the acreage, and Malone hopes one day to make it a “living, breathing farm again,” possibly occupied by his youngest son, a budding botanist.
“It took so much for Charlie to get that place and to keep it,” Malone said. “We owe it to him never to lose it again.”