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.”