BILLINGS — Trees cover much of the old red schoolhouse that Henry Bellmon attended nearly 80 years ago, but nothing covers his memory of it. He walked a mile and a quarter to school, carrying a lard bucket with a hearty lunch fixed by his mother.
“My first memory is the first day of school, eating fried chicken and sitting on the (school’s) porch,” Bellmon recalled. The one-room school had one teacher and 45 to 50 students in grades one through eight. Bellmon, whose mother pushed him to learn as fast as he could, was advanced one grade. “I learned almost by osmosis,” said Bellmon, explaining he could easily hear what kids in higher grades were learning and reciting. The old school, now boarded up, sits at the corner of State Highway 15 and the farm road that leads past Bellmon’s farm and continues past the more than 100-year-old farm house where he was reared. Bellmon, who is 86, spends some days at the farm east of Billings and other days at Kingfisher where his second wife, Eloise, is from. He sat in a chair in his den recently, discussing farm life and whether things had changed much during his 86 years. On an end table is a replica of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima where Bellmon fought as a Marine and was awarded the Silver Star for bravery. Down a hallway are photos including ones of him and President Nixon, and of his late wife, Shirley, with Patricia Nixon and Judy Agnew, wife of vice president Spiro T. Agnew. Another picture is of Bellmon in 1965 on the beach of Iwo Jima, where he was a tank commander in 1945. Wherever he’s been in his life — the governor’s office, U.S. Senate or the Pacific island battlefields — Bellmon always is drawn back to the land where he learned how to be self-reliant and how to make ends meet through the Depression and droughts of the 1930s. Schools Because Billings didn’t have a school bus and Marland did, Bellmon went to high school at Marland until his senior year when he transferred to Billings High School. Marland was about 12 miles from the farm, but the bus route was 26 miles one way because the bus wound through the farming communities picking up students. He couldn’t participate in basketball because he had to ride the bus home. “But I was not a very good player anyway. There was no football team there,” Bellmon said. Bellmon was an outstanding student, said his brother George. He and his three brothers were no different from most of the other kids. “We had about the same situation, as far as I know.” Bellmon said. “It wasn’t a bad life. I had no regrets.” ,b>Billings and Marland Billings and Marland were about the size they are now. His parents didn’t go into Marland much. Billings was where they attended church. “It had two grocery stores, two cafes, three filling stations, a bank, which they still have, and several churches,” he said of Billings. His mother was superintendent of the Methodist Church’s Sunday school for 25 years, he said. But the family’s life revolved around the farm. The farm life The Bellmon homestead is not far from his present farmhouse. His father bought it probably 105 years ago, Bellmon said. It had two rooms then but was expanded over the years. Until Bellmon’s first year at Oklahoma A&M, now called Oklahoma State University, it had no electricity “Electricity was turned on before Thanksgiving” of his freshman year in college, he said. Asked what values he learned from farming, Bellmon said: “There are some religious values — you put your confidence in another year’s crop and wait a year before you can harvest.” Farmers get up early in the morning, and Bellmon has displayed that trait throughout his life. “I’ve seen him get out of bed at 4 (a.m.) and drive 20 miles and get on a bulldozer when the weather was inclement,” said brother, George, said of the times after World War II when they were in business together farming, building ponds and doing other work with bulldozers. Other times, George said he saw his brother, Henry, just lay down at night and go to sleep near a job site rather than drive all the way back home. Farming wasn’t a battle with nature, as far as Bellmon was concerned. “I didn’t think of it as a battle as much as a cooperative effort. We did what we could and Mother Nature did the rest. We were never without food. Mother put up dozens and dozens of jars of meats and peas and beans. We stored probably 20 bushels of potatoes in the cellar.” At some point, someone had to go into the cellar and see if any potatoes had spoiled. “An experience you’d like to forget is picking up a spoiled potato and squeezing it to find out if it was.” His father saved a wagon load of wheat each year which was turned into flour and used to make a product called cream of wheat. It would last a year or until the next harvest, Bellmon said. One thing he didn’t enjoy was driving horses. “I detested driving horses on ground that had gotten hard and cloddy,” he said. Bellmon and his brothers helped work the farm, but there was fun too for the four boys. “Basically, we prowled up and down the creek, hunting for squirrels and rabbits...we skinned possum and skunks and sold their hides for 50 cents to a dollar each. We got spending money that way. We didn’t participate in organized athletics because there was no opportunity.” Often, the boys from neighboring farms would get together in somebody’s cow pasture and play baseball, his brother, George, 83, recalled. Attraction of the farm “In farming, you don’t move around much. You are tied to the land, although I did make a living in Oklahoma City,” Henry Bellmon said. It was no secret that while Bellmon was governor, he and first lady Shirley Bellmon went back to the farm as often as they could on weekends. Even living in Washington as a U.S. senator couldn’t keep Bellmon away from the farm.
“His desire when he was in the Senate was to go back to Oklahoma every weekend and spend part of that time at the farm. Most of the time that desire was realized,” said Andrew Tevington, an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County and Bellmon’s press secretary in Washington and chief of staff and legal counsel while Bellmon was governor a second time.
Bellmon liked to be on the farm, getting his hands dirty and doing all the things farmers do, Tevington said.
“We always knew when he had been on the farm and had been working. It gave him time to think, and he would come back with more ideas than we could handle,” Tevington said.
“This was home,” Bellmon said of the farm.
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Former Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon poses outside his family's home near Billings, Okla. By John Clanton, The Oklahoman