Climate changes and the environment have caused tremendous impact and constant conversation in today’s world, but these changes have been affecting Oklahomans for thousands of years. Exhibits in Oklahoma Historical Society museums across the state address these changes.
The Red River Journey botanical walk at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City presents a showcase of the varied environment of Oklahoma and how it has affected Oklahomans and state history. In addition, there are other exhibits around the state for visitors to learn how climate changes and the environment have shaped the history of Oklahoma.
“Providing context for the current day conversation about climate change is the impact of the environment on the course of history,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Especially in a state like Oklahoma, which straddles several ecozones, the environment has posed challenges and opportunities that demand accommodation and adaptation.”
Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center near Spiro presents the history of how people, in most of what is now the United States, experienced environmental changes long before European intrusion. The Sod House Museum north of Cleo Springs displays how Great Plains pioneers built houses with sod on treeless grassland. Ranching on the tallgrass prairie in northeastern Oklahoma for more than 130 years is described at the Fred Drummond Home in Hominy.
In Altus, the Museum of the Western Prairie displays efforts since 1897 to overcome water shortages with irrigation, dams and reservoirs in southwest Oklahoma.
Red River Journey
The Red River Journey was the first exhibit placed at the History Center, said Dan Provo of the Historical Society staff. Part of the original plan was to celebrate and interpret examples of the impact that Oklahoma’s rivers, varied land forms and the rich diversity of plants had on the state’s history.
“Located along the exhibit are more than 50 interpretive markers that outline significant events, people, trails and landforms that played critical roles in shaping Oklahoma history, plus 30 markers that highlight Oklahoma native plants and geological features,” Provo said.
Funded by grants from the Meinders Foundation and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the exhibit has been updated and revised since the History Center’s opening in 2005.
“The Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center helps visitors understand how weather changes affect ecosystems,” said Dennis Peterson, center director. “Stable, lush weather patterns can often encourage greater plant and animal development. That allows for surplus in hunted, grown or collected foods, which allows for human growth, which allows for communities to interconnect. Unstable weather patterns can have the opposite effect.”
From about the period of about A.D. 700-800 to 1300, the southern half of what is now the United States experienced a lush, wet and predictable environment, Peterson said. This led to what archaeologists refer to as the Mississippian Culture, with at least 60 tribes stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the east coast.
“In the late 13th century, the climate changed to a drier, more unpredictable rain pattern,” Peterson said. “The Spiro Mounds center reflects how the environment has changed many times and how animal and human populations have adjusted to those changes in what is now Oklahoma.”
Sod House and others
The Sod House Museum is a home built by Marshal McCully, who settled in the Cherokee Outlet Land Run of 1893, said Renee Trindle, director of the museum. The Great Plains had few trees or stones, so he built his two-room home with sod bricks held together with buffalo grass at a cost of $6.20. The closest water was a mile away, so water had to be hauled until a well was completed.
In Osage County, the Drummond Family has practiced “the old” and “the new” styles of ranching by perseverance, hard work and learning to adapt to the changing climate by planning for future changes, said Beverly Whitcomb, director of the Drummond Home.
In southwest Oklahoma, the need for water was so crucial that in 1887, the Oklahoma Territorial Legislature offered tax incentives to individuals for developing and maintaining irrigation systems. Two years earlier, Olustee farmer William L. Fullerton had built a dam across Turkey Creek to develop a reservoir and irrigation system. By 1912, Fullerton had 12 miles of irrigation canals.
The city of Altus completed the Altus dam and reservoir in 1927, said Jennie Buchanan, director of the Museum of the Western Prairie. In 1939, a federal project raised the dam and expanded the lake, supplying water to 40,000 acres of cropland. As a result, Jackson County produced more bales of cotton than all the Oklahoma counties combined until 2012, when a drought made releasing water for irrigation no longer possible.
These tremendous exhibits reflect dramatically how climate and environmental change have affected the lives of Oklahomans in a variety of areas. Visitors can learn how Oklahomans have reacted to these drastic historic changes with extensive projects throughout the decades and even centuries.