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.Comments
“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. “You get your head cleared pretty quick.”
The farm was in his blood at college too. He studied agronomy.
“My dad wanted me to go to law school and study law; he didn’t think farming had much future. My mother didn’t express any particular thing, but Stillwater was closer than Norman, and I was able to hitchhike home,” Bellmon said.
He went home every weekend he could, taking his clothes for his mother to wash.
Bellmon earned his own way through college. He also was an unpaid reporter for the Daily O’Collegian, writing stories about agriculture. It was the job that led to his writing a weekly column called “Plain Speaking” while he was governor.
“He’s got a strong mind and a strong back,” his brother, George, said. “He is very much attached to the land.”
His father, George Bellmon , was a native of Kansas who had come to No Man’s Land with his parents and lived in a dugout beside the Beaver River. The family gathered buffalo bones and hauled them to Liberal, Kans., and that’s how they got their “little bit of money,” Bellmon said.
Bellmon’s father’s first wife died on Armistice Day at the end of World War I.
Bellmon’s mother, who was the second wife of Bellmon’s father, George, taught school and looked after her parents until they died.
Edith Caskey Bellmon was about 34, and Bellmon’s father, was about 10 years older when they met and married.
Henry Bellmon was the oldest of the four boys of his mother, Edith, and his father, George.
His father was a staunch Republican who worked as a teamster, but he always kept land.
He was kind of a philosopher who had many sayings, Bellmon said.
One of the more important sayings was:
“You ain’t learnin nothing when you’re talkin,” Bellmon said.
Bellmon took that philosophy into public life many years later.
“My mother managed to keep what I think of as a happy house, a happy home for four boys who were pretty competitive. I think she’s probably the greatest woman I ever knew, with the exception of my wives. She was determined that we get good educations. She was involved in church work,” Bellmon said.
The last time he saw his mother was when he left to go into the Marine Corps.
She worked as a school teacher during the war until she got leukemia, and died while he was overseas.
Bellmon, a Marine tank commander, was part of a Marine group at Tinian Island getting ready to go to Iwo Jima for what would become a hellish battle.
“They called me on the tank radio and told me that my mother died,” Bellmon said.
When the war ended, Bellmon was given leave and took the USS Baltimore from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco.
Nobody was there to meet him, so he got a ride on a bus to a nearby air base, took a train to San Diego and was put on an airplane for Oklahoma City.
“When I landed in Oklahoma City, there was nobody there to meet me, so I hitchhiked home,” he said. “I was a surprise to my dad.”
When he returned to the farm, he met Shirley Osborn. Their families had been friends and the Osborns lived six miles from the Bellmon farm. They married in January 1947.
Bellmon says she was the reason for his success in politics.
She organized the Bellmon Belles, a group of women who helped support him in his campaign for governor which he won in 1962, becoming the first Republican elected governor.
She was part of his campaigns for the U.S. Senate and for a second term as governor.
Shirley died unexpectedly in 2000 while the family was on vacation in Massachusetts. In 2002, Bellmon married Eloise Bollenbach. Eloise and her late husband, Kingfisher rancher Irvin K. Bollenbach, were longtime friends of the Bellmons.
Bellmon turned 21 in the Marine Corps. His father registered him as a Republican.
“I didn’t have any interest in which party I belonged to. I was overseas in the Marines when I turned 21 and had other things to think about better than politics. I would have to say, if I had to do it again, I’d register the same way,” Bellmon said.
The war made him decide to get into politics.
“This sounds like a made up story, but it’s all true,” he said.
The 4th Marine Division of which he was a member was at Maui, Hawaii, waiting for the next island to invade.
There’s a story about Maui that Congregationalists came to Maui to do good and stayed and did well because they turned the land into pineapple plantations and sugar cane fields, he said.
They found that the best workers were Japanese, Bellmon said.
When Marines got to Maui, they associated with Japanese people.
“It was real strange to go to the homes of a Japanese doctor or schoolteacher, which we did frequently, and then get on a ship and travel for a couple of weeks and land on another l island and try to kill all the Japanese,” Bellmon said. “It seemed to me the problem wasn’t between people. It was between governments. If I had a chance to get into government when I got back home I would see if I could improve the situation some, a little bit,” he said.
Bellmon ran for the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1946 and was elected to a two-year term.
He learned a valuable political lesson from that.
Bellmon spent much of the campaign time working on the farm and was defeated for re-election in 1948.
“I learned if you want the job you’d better ask for it, better work for it. People put a high value on their votes. They won’t elect people who won’t work for the job,” he said.
The Noble County farming land
“This area was part of the Cherokee Strip, settled with homesteaders on each 160 acres. That was enough to get by with subsistence style of living, but when the drought of the 30s came and the crash of 29, they reduced the price of wheat and cattle down to ridiculously low levels,” Bellmon said.
When the war came, there were a few who stayed here, but even now it’s very difficult to make a profit, he said.
There are fewer farms.
“What happens when a farmer gets as old as I am and doesn’t have any heirs to give the land to, the farm gets added to the operation of an existing farmer,” Bellmon said.
Bellmon has three daughters.
A nephew does a lot of the work on the Bellmon farm.
Gloria Osborn, Bellmon’s niece who spent time with the Bellmons and their daughters while growing up, said Bellmon always wanted his kids and grandchildren to know about things related to farming.
“He’s a farmer, and he’s proud of it,” she said.
Recently, Bellmon suffered a mini-stroke but was out of the hospital in a few days.
Asked if he is involved in farming since the stroke, he replied without hesitation:
“Oh yeah, I still am. I don’t do much, but I pay the bills.”
Former Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon poses outside his family's home near Billings, Okla. By John Clanton, The Oklahoman