The spirit of '89 was dying.
Just a couple of months after Oklahoma City instantly became a town of 10,000 people, civic boosters could feel the momentum slipping away. They envisioned a July Fourth celebration as the reboot needed to get the country excited again about the city's prospects.
What happened next is well recorded by history; a newly constructed grandstand filled with hundreds of people collapsed. One child died, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other celebrants were injured.
“About the only thing we knew, and all of us historians have gotten hung up on the fact the grandstands collapsed,” admits Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“One, they wanted to celebrate. Two, the grandstands collapsed and one person was killed and many were injured. That's about it.”
The story changed, however, on April 24 when Chad Williams, director of the museum's research division, carefully unrolled a sealed poster that was recovered two days earlier at the opening of the Century Chest time capsule at First Lutheran Church.
Dozens of items were displayed that day, but the poster — a full-color work of art likely produced about a month after the Land Run — remained sealed until Williams was able to carefully unroll it back at his office.
What Williams saw left him stunned; he immediately called Blackburn to rush to the research office to see the poster. No one alive knew this poster existed. No other copies are known to exist.
Contributed by Judge B.N. Woodson and wife Nelle Woodson, the poster was distributed at train stations throughout the country promising “feats of horsemanship and lassoing by wild Indians and cowboys,” “horse racing,” “speeches by eminent orators,” “infantry, cavalry and artillery drills by U.S. troops,” and “typical Indian foot racing.”
Fireworks shows and “Indian war dances” by Cheyennes and Comanches would conclude each evening of the three-day celebration.
Or so promoters hoped.
Nicole Harvey, who assisted Blackburn and Williams in using what they found on the poster to research that fateful day, discovered that the arrangements weren't quite locked down when the boastful promises were plastered throughout the country.
The posters were painted and hand-lettered using a lead-based paint that created vivid colors not seen today. They were printed, likely in June, by the George W. Crane Publishing Co., which had offices in Kansas City and Topeka, Kan.
Some confusion still exists over the location of the festivities. Blackburn believes organizers hoped to set up a park west of town, but photographs and maps from time show they settled on a spot near Reno Avenue and the Santa Fe Train Depot — about where the Zio's in Bricktown is currently located.
It was Bricktown's first Fourth of July celebration. And just as the modern-day celebrations are geared toward promoting business and interest in downtown's entertainment district today, similar goals were being pursued back in 1889.
The stakes, however, were far more dire. The July Fourth poster boasted a city government was elected the night the town was settled. It also declared Oklahoma City the “Queen City of the Beautiful Oklahoma Country.”
The truth wasn't as wonderful. Control of the city still was being fought out between two warring political parties — the Kickapoos and the Seminoles. Fistfights were common as settlers fought over land and just about anything else that might be a source of disagreement.
“There was a lot of uncertainty in Oklahoma City,” Blackburn said. “Guthrie was head and shoulders ahead of Oklahoma City. It was the capital. So that's where all the politicians, the bankers, and the railroad men were centered. Oklahoma City was settled too late for planting, so there were no crops. And there was no mineral wealth yet. It wasn't a trade center — it was too far away from major cities.”
The city wasn't incorporated yet. Its first mayor, William Couch, was months away from dying in a gunfight, and Capt. D.F. Stiles, whose troops were set to entertain visitors that July Fourth, ultimately had to declare martial law to restore order.
“These are frontier days,” Blackburn said. “It's a very physical society, where a fight is the idea of a good time. There are no aunts and mothers telling folks to behave themselves. So the controlling aspects of community are gone. You've got a community living on the adrenaline of the Land Run.”
Promoters went to Darlington, just west of Fort Reno, to get permission from the Interior Department to pay 200 Indians to perform for the festivities. Instead of Cheyennes and Comanches, the event featured members of the Cheyenne, Caddo and Arapaho tribes.
“This is at the start of the old Wild West shows, the 101 Ranch, Buffalo Bill,” Blackburn said. “Geronimo surrendered just three years earlier, and he's still a prisoner of war. There is no more threat of Indian rebellion. But there is this curiosity about the Indians. People from the north wanted to see more. So people were told, ‘Come see this vanishing reality of the frontier west … come see this wonderful new city on the prairie.'”
Eyewitness to history
One of those who made the trek was Etta Dale, who made the Land Run with her parents. She shared the story of that July Fourth in a 1938 interview conducted by the Works Progress Administration. She was 18 when her father made the April 22, 1889, run and staked his claim in what is now El Reno. He then bought a lot and built a two-story wood frame home in Oklahoma City.
“We arrived in Oklahoma City on the third day of July, 1889, and went the next day to the Fourth of July celebration,” Dale recalled. “They were staging quite a celebration with the usual orators speaking from a special stand. They had peanuts, popcorn and cold drinks, firecrackers, bunting and waving flags, band music, dancing and a rodeo performance.”
There were no trees, however, and no shade to protect visitors from the burning hot sun.
“The people who were running the cold drink stands placed them under the bandstand, that being a little better than to be out in the hot, broiling sun,” Dale said. “My companions and I had just patronized the cold drink stand that was under the bandstand, and had just stepped out from under it when the seats and bandstand collapsed.”
News accounts portray a chaotic scene that ensued, with no real organized police, fire or emergency response able to respond. It was Stiles, who had a street named after him only to lose that honor in recent years when it was renamed after modern-day businessman Russell Perry, who led his men to save those injured.
One child was killed, the son of Dr. J.A. Ryan, whose 20 acres later were developed as Heritage Hills by Anton Classen. Dale recalled how years afterward crippled 89ers would be spotted around town, and all would know they were survivors of the disaster.
“It was a tragic experience,” Dale said.
‘Just hanging on'
Oklahoma City, initially promoted as paradise in the prairie, was being written off as a lost cause. A news account detailed how a man with a broken leg had lost his coat in the incident and returned “two months after the fall of Babylon” to retrieve it because of a bank book concealed in the pocket.
Many people abandoned Oklahoma City, including civic giants like Charles Colcord and the Johnson brothers, who later returned to start up First National Bank.
A few stayed, most notably Henry Overholser, who invested heavily in those early days, and businessmen Gristmill Jones and William T. Hales.
That winter, Blackburn said, the population shrunk in half as it tried to subsist with rabbit meat and turnips.
“This was a catastrophe for people trying to build a city,” Blackburn said. “They had bad luck and drought … Not until '96 or '97 did things start picking up. Guthrie had all the leading resources, connections and money. Oklahoma City was just hanging on.”
But when new rail lines entered the city and the drought ended, the city boomed. On that July Fourth of 1889, Oklahoma City proved it could not be broken. It could survive disasters and tragedy. It would rebuild time and again, and thrive, even if its citizens engaged in a bit of hyperbole to sell their dream to the rest of the world.
“That's why Oklahoma City boomed in 1898,” Blackburn said. “They had this pent-up energy with nowhere to go. These people did not have the cushy advantages with politicians and banks. People were more resourceful. It's a case of hybrids outrunning purebloods. We're tough.”
Poster to be on display
The July 3, 1889, poster and other Oklahoma City treasures recovered from the Century Chest will be on free public display at the Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive, starting July 4 through September. It will be followed by other rotating exhibits from the Century Chest until a full exhibit is opened in the museum on April 22, 2014. All of the items are being donated to the state by First Lutheran Church, 1300 N Robinson.