Driving east on an arrow-straight highway across the middle of the Oklahoma panhandle, we tried to remember what we knew about the Dust Bowl (not much) and we speculated about the lasting effects. We later learned that, John Steinbeck notwithstanding, the only part of Oklahoma that was in the Dust Bowl was the panhandle; farther east the drought and dust storms were less severe. Being us, we've bought a book, and we know already that those abandoned and ruined farmhouses are indeed probably left over from those who fled west in the thirties. Of course ever since then, farming has been continuing to consolidate, so that today one farmer or rancher works a lot more land, meaning even more farmhouses are empty. Certainly the day of the small farm is pretty well gone. This day we saw intensive farming and ranching efforts, including late crops, lots of fertilizer, contour ploughing, even terracing offered at 12 cents a foot. We hope that the lessons of modern agriculture will prevent a repeat of the dust bowl. In the thirties, the biggest dust storms spread the soil as far east as on ships in the Atlantic Ocean.
The panhandle was called No Man's Land for a while, as the northern boundary of Texas was at 26 degrees 30 minutes North latitude, while the southern boundary of Kansas was at 27 minutes. Until Congress got everything straightened out, it was a 34-mile wide strip without a government! The town called Slapout caught our attention; we haven't discovered the origin of the name.
By the way, we thank our farming friends; the grain we photographed was grain sorghum, also known as milo, a cattle feed, and Bob and Elsa are a little bit more savvy about what goes on in the mysterious world of agriculture! Our next question is for train buffs. What's the A T & L railroad? Its engines are colored green and white.
The farther east we drove, the wetter the land and the richer the foliage, as flat plains gave way to shallow valleys and the occasional river or small pond. Here and there a town, identifiable by crossroads and post office, but mostly open land. Approaching Oklahoma City (OKC to the natives) we Pei's Myriad Conservatory began running into more and more of the lakes which dot the southeastern part of the state.
We reached OKC early enough to visit the Historical Museum before stopping at our motel. Things are on hold because a beautiful new building is under construction to hold the museum, so we'll have to come back. Meanwhile we entered through the basement and enjoyed the exhibits.
Oklahoma is a bit of a hard luck state. Jefferson didn't think it would be a state at all, and eventually most of the remnants of the eastern Indian tribes (and a lot from elsewhere in the country) were driven to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. The territory was administered by the Federal Government as Indian Territory. After the Civil War a number of freed slaves set up all-black towns in the territory, in the hope that Oklahoma might become a black state. But so many settlers homesteaded Nebraska and Kansas in the 1870's and 1880's that the drive to homestead Oklahoma made the Federal Government (once again) forget all its promises to the Indians. Oklahoma City was born in one day, April 22, 1889, when The Unassigned Lands were opened to homesteading and 10,000 land claims were made in one afternoon.
Unlike the southwestern Indians, the tribes in Oklahoma have integrated and intermarried with the settlers. The Cherokee Nation now counts some 2,000,000 members; one of their more famous members was Will Rogers, descended from the Vann family. The current speaker of the Oklahoma House is part Cherokee.
But we're getting ahead of our story. Oklahoma is the state where one governor was allowed to continue in office, not because he was innocent of Inside the conservatory wrongdoing, but because the state did not want to have three impeached governors in a row. Oh by the way, Oklahoma was the 46th state admitted to the Union, so it is not represented on a 44-star flag.
Oddly enough, the discovery of oil did not make a permanent change for the better, economically. Although the state proudly boasts of the oil gusher on the capitol grounds, the museum merely said that the oil business was not well managed and oil exploration was not pursued. There's probably another story here, but we haven't sniffed it out.
Certainly the Dust Bowl was as much a human tragedy as a natural disaster, aggravated by poor crop management and extremely undercapitalized settlers. There were many farmers who rented small farms and worked them by hand; these formed a large portion of those who fled west, especially to California. They were displaced by tractors.
Which is not to say that Oklahoma citizens have given up on the horse. Far from it; there is a greater ratio of horses to people in Oklahoma than in any other state. In fact the National Reining Horse Association was meeting in Oklahoma City at the time of our visit. If there's a cowboy out there who's reading our reports, can you advise us of the function of the NRHA? In other words, does a reining horse do anything besides stop . . . fast?
Our first sightseeing stop the next day was the Myriad Garden and Conservatory, designed in 1964 by architect I. M. Pei. The gardens occupy two downtown blocks. The dirt excavated for the central pond has been shaped into hills forming a bowl, planted with native trees and filled with Pei's gracefully curving walks and bridges, leading to a small amphitheater. The conservatory is a spectacular 224-foot-long, seven-story cylinder containing a lush array of (mostly tropical) plants and an adventure path leading even these travelers behind the back of the waterfall. They range from ground covers to tall palm trees, including both American and exotic foreign specimens.
We felt we must visit the National Memorial Center, the museum commemorating the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in 1995. We have seldom been as impressed or moved as we were here. The memorial itself tells the story of that catastrophe from the morning, as the city woke up and started work, to the explosion, captured on a tape recording from across the street, through the rescue work and investigation, and finally the creation of the present memorial. It is told with dignity; a combination of sound, pictures, videos, and artifacts. A new exhibit, pairing the Murrah building bombing with the September 11th attack, will be traveling to several cities during the next year or so.
We drove around the city enough to tell you that the new and fancy homes are located to the far north of town, with many of the wealthier residents electing to live on small ranches out in the country. They're easy to spot, of course, because the large homes could not be afforded by most farmers and ranchers. But in balance, OKC is decidedly middle class, National Memorial Center and its demography has been affected by a sizable influx of Hispanic Americans in recent years. So it's definitely a multicultural city.
We took a drive about 35 miles north to the town of Guthrie, which was the first capital of the territory. Almost all the old 1890s buildings have been preserved, and downtown Guthrie has been placed on the National Register. It's really quite attractive. There were two newspapers in town, one Democrat and one Republican, and the latter picked on the first territorial governor so badly that he moved the capital to OKC! A few years later the Republican paper went out of business and the other paper bought out the presses. The planned site for the state capitol was sold to the Masons for $1, and they erected a hall which seems enormous for the tiny town of Guthrie.
Oklahoma City has some surprising educational institutions. The Frances Tuttle Vo-Tech institution teaches, among other things, ice carving. The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is a residential two-year high school for students from around the state who are gifted in science and/or math.
The first morning we were at breakfast when we were startled to see a dozen or more very tall young women walking through the lobby, their Adidas duffles slung over their shoulders. They were from Missouri and had stopped for the night on their way to a women's basketball game in Texas, according to the nice grandmotherly woman sitting next to us. She was the nanny for the coach, and dandled a long-legged toddler on her knee.
Throughout our visit, we have been greeted by friendly folks; drivers wave to each other, conversations start everywhere. It's a good feeling to be in middle America again.