>
 

 


The Final Six-Pack
Nominations for the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Book for 2007


Read an excerpt from

Prairie City
Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press


IV
A Society in the Making
 
Living was never quiet or static at Prairie City; it was as restless and fluid as the population. The independent, the ardent, the young in spirit who had left the settled ways of older states entered with zest into every social activity.

They gathered at each other’s homes in crowds for Sunday visiting, feasting on light bread and venison, or eating turnips and clabber with laughter and appreciation in a comradeship too real for false pride. They spent long evenings together, talking, popping kaffir corn, pulling taffy. Everywhere they met they sang, and when they returned late at night with two or three families packed in a lumber wagon they sang the whole way home. They liked religious songs, not deeply spiritual, but gay and tuneful; popular ballads they had brought from the old home; and light-hearted ditties of their own that were already springing up from the fresh Oklahoma soil. Best of all they liked humorous parodies of familiar songs, depicting the incidents of the Run or the trials of pioneering. A feeling deeper than laughter underlay their appreciation.

Always they felt the white light of history converging upon their everyday acts. Consciously they adopted Oklahoma slang, Oklahoma folk sayings, Oklahoma ways of doing things as an esoteric ritual showing that they were the initiate, they knew the password. If a traveling photographer came through the country, they denied themselves food to buy pictures of their dug-outs or their sod schoolhouses, confident that these photographs belonged to the unrolling ages. And they gathered in houses and groves to celebrate the anniversary of that tumultuous twenty-second of April when they had entered into possession of their land.

They never tired of dancing. The host furnished a house; the guests did everything else. The unmarried young men would make
a trip to Orlando for oysters and crackers, somebody would bring a violin, all would help to take down the beds and move the furniture outdoors. Here bachelors holding down claims, cowboys from the Strip, half-grown farm boys, did their courting, swinging the daughters of homesteaders. And married couples made bunks along the wall for their sleeping children and danced the whole night through. When the east was grey with dawn, they brought in the table and served the oyster stew; then they moved the furniture back in place and returned without resting to morning chores and a day of farm work.

The dance steps were varied — polka, schottische, waltz, two-step. Sometimes instead of dancing they “played party games,” where the couples dlipped and whirled in intricate figures to singing and clapping of hands. The more modest touched hands only; in these groups if a man would “swing a girl waist swing” it was an insult to her and casus belli to her escort.

A few austere souls frowned on the dancing, but all joined in the literary at the sod schoolhouse. It was vaguely felt to be educational; certainly it furnished courting facilities, intellectual stimulus, and hilarious entertainment. Even today old-timers remember their shocked disapproval when Perry Eaton — a bachelor homesteader given to dime novels — tried to carry out a Wild West tradition by shooting out the lights. This was the only disorderly incident.

Children “spoke pieces” in sing-song tones, with conscious strutting, while their parents watched in pride. The Peters girls in clear, sharp voices sang dismal ballads of tragedy and unrequited love. Pat O’Hagan brought down the house by his “funny songs” and witty impersonations. People stamped and cheered and shouted with laughter when Mrs. Clark read a burlesque newspaper with barbed references to neighborhood happenings and personalities:

“Jim Cobb’s molasses is said to have a peculiar flavor.
“Wonder why Professor Jenkins never tips his hat to the ladies.
“Lost — A triangular piece of pants cloth, last seen on the teeth of a bulldog belonging to Mabel Peters’ pa. Finder return to Hugh Channing.”

Children egged on by adults recited labored parodies of familiar lines:

“Hugh stood on the burning deck
With his arms around his Mabel’s neck.
Her father cussed; he would not go,
Because he loved his Mabel so.”

And men made careful preparation — sometimes even writing and memorizing their speeches and debated philosophical question or current political issues. Even the most frivolous listened respectfully as they argued:

“Resolved: That moral causes have greater influence than physical in the formation of national character.
“Resolved: That the right of suffrage should be extended to women.
“Resolved: That all the laws enacted by Congress for the past thirty years have been in favor of the money trust.
“Resolved: That man will do more for love of woman than for love of money.”

It was an un-self-conscious crowd that gathered at Union schoolhouse — and other schoolhouses — laughing gustily at crude witticisms or moved to tears by sentimental songs. Everyone knew that Mrs. Lockwood had only one dress — of hickory shirting — which she washed at night and ironed in the morning, clad in her petticoat and her husband’s shirt. The children wore cast-down garments of every shape and hue. The men’s clothes were loaded with patches, and two or three went barefooted and unashamed.
“These clothes have got to last till harvest,” they said; “then I’ll dress like a dude.”

For the wheat grew green and rank during the winter of 1890-91. It furnished pasture for the cows, and the cows converted it into cream and yellow butter for the settlers. All the wild new land lay in disciplined beauty that third spring — dark corn growling, sturdy kaffir on fresh sod, stiff oats, and dimpling, waving fields of wheat. Nobody had ever seen such wheat.

But harvesting was a perplexing problem. The acreage was still small — twenty to forty acres of wheat to a farm, and a smaller patch of oats — but a hinder cost one hundred and forty dollars. (“All on account of that blasted Republican tariff,” said Jim Cobb; “they ship binders across the ocean and sell them cheaper than they do right here.”) A few of the older farmers were fortunate enough to have machines, which they had brought from the old home. Others on the strength of their prospects managed to borrow money from a grain buyer or make the purchase on credit from an implement dealer in one of the railroad towns. To some the cost was prohibitive; they had to rely on hiring their neighbors to cut their fields.

There was the additional problem of storage. The previous winter most of the farmers had built crude stables — a framework of poles holding thick walls of hay and supporting a roof of hay — but the scanty store of corn and kaffir had been piled in the open. Now granaries would have to be built to hold the wheat until it could be hauled fifteen or twenty miles to market at Hennessey. More credit, and more expedients.

Dick Martin has never forgotten who staked him to a granary. Dick had punched cattle all the way from Texas to Montana; he knew the rutted trails of half a continent and all the ins and outs of a trade where a man’s life might depend on his nerve and skill. Now he was married and settled on a claim. He was a steady farmer — the men said he was “broke to harness” — but some of the grubby ways of homesteading irked his spirit. Struggling against an embarrassment that colored his tan and almost choked his speech, he went to a lumber dealer in a railroad town and asked for credit. The man asked too many questions about his circumstances and prospects. Dick’s head went up and his manner became lofty.

“My mistake,” he apologized. “I thought you had your lumber there to sell. It does look pretty, all stacked, and I wouldn’t think of messin’ it up. I’ll find another place, where they aim to sell their lumber.” And he walked out, stepping lightly, managing in spite of broken work shoes to convey an illusion of jingling spurs.

Dad Colby had also gone to town that day to cash a pension check. He had heard part of the dialogue and guessed the rest. He found Dick on the street, nerving himself up to try the bank.

“You wanted that lumber pretty bad, didn’t you?” he asked.

“I sure did,” said Dick; “but that stuck-up son-of-a-gun made me so blamed mad I didn’t care. I don’t know what I’m goin’ to do with my wheat.”

“Spring this on him,” said Dad. “I didn’t figure on using it for awhile. I heard you wanted to sell your saddle. We might make a deal on it. If not, you can pay me back after harvest.”

There was sixty dollars in the roll he handed over. Not a word was said about interest or security. When Dick went back to the lumber-yard, there was a confidence plainer than any jingle of spurs in his walk.

Thus each homesteader struggled with his individual difficulty. And as the wheat ripened, all was merged into the stress and toil, the zest and excitement of that first harvest. As one long day of perfect weather followed another, the grain fell evenly before the sickle and was piled into smooth golden shocks. For the first time in all the brooding ages the prairie landscape stretched field after field to the horizon bearing this crown of ordered beauty.

Something of this feeling of mystery and wonder came to the people as they worked. Characteristically they planned a celebration; nothing else would express their thankfulness for the harvest, their pride in the new land they had tamed, their joy in the work of their hands.

They could not wait until the crop was garnered and sold. There were few threshing machines in the country. Joe Spragg managed somehow to purchase a separator; he already had the engine that had done service at his sawmill. Other outfits were shipped in, crew and all, from Kansas — one even came from Illinois for an early run before the Northern grain was ready. And many of the farmers stacked their wheat while they waited their turn. Meanwhile nearly all the older boys and bachelor homesteaders and a good many of the married men went to Kansas to work in the harvest (current wage, one dollar a day) during the slack season that followed the cutting of their own crops.

As soon as their first fields were threshed, stories began to circulate of the marvelous yield — of Tom Lockwood’s twenty acres turning out thirty-seven bushels to the acre, of Pat O’Hagan’s thirty-acre field producing at the rate of forty-three bushels, of John Clark’s four hundred and sixty bushels from eleven acres, of an average yield of twenty bushels. And the oats, it was said, were threshing out sixty bushels to the acre. If the people suspected exaggeration in these accounts, they appreciated them the more; it showed faith in the country.

Hauling a load to Hennessey was a hard day’s work for the half-starved, skinny horses; most of the wheat would be left in the granaries until winter. But everybody hauled a few loads soon after threshing. The price was good that year —65 cents or more a bushel. Families bloomed out in new clothes, farmers bought needed machinery, people no longer did without necessary groceries. The larger purchases were made at Hennessey, but Goodwin’s store also bulged with new stock — pretty lawns and Indi linens on the shelves, boxes of dress shoes lining the wall, horse collars hanging from the ceiling. And in the midst of these blessings the settlers planned their harvest festival.

They decided to do it in style. A group of substantial farmmers met one evening in Goodwin’s store, formed a company, and subscribed to stock of the “First Annual Harvest Picnic.” They went to the county seat and had posters printed, to be placed in all the stores and blacksmith shops and country postoffices in the county. The young people cleaned and trimmed the grove on Joe Spragg’s farm, cutting out the matted briar vines and underbrush; they built a platform, decorating it with flags and bunting; and they placed seats under the trees. A program committee arranged for songs and recitations and speeches, and a silver cornet band was engaged to come from the county seat to furnish music.

The date set for the festival was Saturday, August 8. It was a bright, clear day, not too hot for comfort in the shade. By nine o’clock people began to arrive, unhitching, tying their teams to their parked wagons. Within an hour the grove was packed with humanity; fully a thousand people were gathering in knots to talk or drifting over to the seats in front of the speakers’ stand.

The program began at eleven. The band played. The people sang “America,” looking out on the fresh land they had settled finding new meaning in the familiar words. “Let music swell the breeze…” How cleanly the wind swept across the stubble. “And ring from all the trees . . .“ The brave, precious trees of prairie country! “Long may our land be bright . . .“ How bright it seemed! How bright its future! “Great God our King.” They ended on a note of prayer.

Dad Colby read a lesson from the Bible. Again familiar words had a strange significance.

“For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water…

“A land of wheat, and barley, and vines…

“A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it…

“When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee…

“Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein:

“And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied;

“Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God...

“And thou say in thine heart, My power, and the might of mine band hath gotten me this wealth.

“But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant, which he sware unto thy fathers.”

The youngest Lockwood child, relaxed on his mother’s lap, looked up wonderingly as a tear dropped on his face.

Arthur Goodwin introduced Charles Lester as the speaker of the occasion. It was understood that a truce should be declared
on politics — a limitation that did not handicap Lester’s style. This was his opportunity, and he made the most of it. He began with the discovery of America, paid tributes to Pilgrim and Cavalier, lauded the deeds of “this glorious republic,” and finally reached “the settlement of our beloved Oklahoma, the crowning feat of American genius. This fairest of all lands, where the sun shines brightest peopled by the strongest and finest of our race. When this new state is admitted to the glorious sisterhood there will be such a big star on the American flag it will splash the blue out to the bounds of infinite space.” Bombastic, of course, and uncritical, but he — and his audience — believed every word he said.

After the program came the dinner. The whole grove was one vast dining hail. Could these people have been actually starving less than a year ago? Here were products of bountiful gardens:
tomatoes (“Have some of this green tomato pie”), pickles, melons, enormous potatoes. (“My husband says he is goin’ to plant potatoes again next week; they’s no reason why we shouldn’t grow two crops a year in this country.”) And there was fried chicken, cake, ice cream, lemonade. . . . Even the horses at the wagons munched Oklahoma’s first oats with the relish of long abstinence. Tom Lockwood proudly exhibited two peaches and five plums carefully preserved in alcohol. “How’s this for Oklahoma fruit? I raised them from that nursery stock I brought from Kansas. I’m prepared to take orders for the same kind. How about setting out an orchard this fall?”

After dinner the crowd gathered again before the speakers’ stand to listen to songs and recitations by the children and music by the band, and to effect a permanent organization. A brief constitution was adopted. The date of the “Farmers’ Annual Harvest Picnic” was set as “the Saturday on or before the first full moon in August.” Officers were elected: Arthur Goodwin, president; Fred Peters, vice president; John Clark, secretary-treasurer. Before the business was finished, the children were wandering off through the grove, and the young people were casting impatient looks at the band.

When the meeting adjourned, the platform was cleared, the band tuned up, and the dance started. Most of the married couples soon gathered up their children and their empty dishpans and platters, and went home to chores and family responsibilities. But the young people danced until the early August dawn; it was their job later to come back and clear the wreckage of Prairie City’s first — and happiest — community gathering.

 

Return to Prairie City links

Meet the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Sponsors

Contact the Webmanager
© Oklahoma Department of Libraries 2003-2005