Between the Deep Fork and the north fork of the Canadian River, the town of Okemah, Oklahoma, sits at the end of a string of sandstone hills that run north toward Jayhawker country. Newly incorporated on “surplus” land once set aside for the Creek Indian Nation, Okemah boasted as much promise as any clapboard town thrown up along the Fort Smith and Western Railroad tracks. Okemah—variously the “city on a hill” In the Creek tongue or the name of a Kickapoo “high man”—was the county seat of Okfuskee County in the new state of Oklahoma.
To this town clinging to the hardscrabble land, newly elected district court clerk Charley Guthrie took his wife and two young children in April 1907. The local paper welcomed him as a man of “irreproachable private life” who “stands unusually high with all who enjoy his acquaintance.” Okemah welcomed optimistic go-getters like Charley Edward Guthrie.
Charley had acquired both ambition and determination from his father, formally Jeremiah Pearsall Guthrie, but “Jerry P.” to the people of his native Bell County in South Texas. Restless Jerry P. had moved his family, including then-eighteen-year-old Charley, from the cattle and cotton country of Bell County north across the state to Indian Territory in 1897. The federal government was awarding land grants as large as 160 acres to anyone with Indian blood; Jerry P.’s second wife, Charley’s stepmother, was one-eighth Creek. It was enough to qualify.
Charley, one of eight children, had grown to be a wiry young man on his father’s ranch, herding cattle by day, studying correspondence courses by night. While he never went beyond the seventh grade, he taught himself bookkeeping and, because bookkeepers were required to write a fine hand, Creamer Method penmanship. (He risked that fine hand by also taking up boxing, learned from yet another correspondence course.) Before long, family legend has it, the son was advising the father on business matters dealing with the ranch—and giving penmanship lessons.
Cowboying held little promise for enterprising Charley, and farming less still after Jerry P. decided to sell out and return to ranching in the Chisos Mountains along the Texas-Mexico border shortly after the turn of the century. Instead, Charley elected to stay in the territory, drifting from store to ranch to store, until he eventually landed in the small town of Castle in 1902.
Charley Guthrie was twenty-three, clerking in J. B. Wilson’s dry general store, when he met Nora Belle Tanner. She was the daughter of one of the first log-cabin schoolteachers in Okfuskee County, Mary Sherman Tanner, and if Kansas-born Nora was not the prettiest girl, she was among the most spunky.* Inevitably people judged fourteen-year-old Nora something of a tomboy because of her spirited attitude. How else would she assert herself in a house with three brothers and sisters, and three half-brothers?
Nora and her new beau Charley had shared interests. They liked to ride horses together—it was said Nora, sitting sidesaddle, rode as fast as any man—and they enjoyed music. Jerry P. had been a fiddler; his son was a sometime guitar and banjo picker, a sturdy bass in the choir at the Baptist church. Nora sang the old songs, hymns and sentimental ballads learned from her mother, songs Nora accompanied with great blocks of chords on the Price and Deeple piano in the parlor of the seven-room home Lee and Mary Tanner had built on their ranch outside Castle.
Charley and Nora made a handsome couple. Charley was well dressed, and if not quite handsome, he carried himself with a certain athletic grace. With younger half-brothers Gid and Claude, he played for the local baseball team against clubs from neighboring towns. Charley was a pitcher with a wicked curveball and “a pretty good hitter,” Claude said.
“He had a lot of pride,” Charley’s youngest daughter would recall years later, pride in his accomplishments, pride in his family. They were Scots-Irish, MacGuthries in a distant past, more recently settled in Tennessee. The Guthries had migrated to Texas in covered wagons after the War Between the States, fervent Confederates still. It was no accident that Charley had a younger half-brother named Jefferson Davis Guthrie.
Nora and Charley were a good match. He was brimming with energy and ideas; she was strongminded and a steadying hand on his enthusiasms. For the next eighteen months Charley was a frequent visitor to the Tanner home on the road between Castle and Welty, welcomed by schoolteacher Mary for his love of books and by father Lee for his humorous yarns. In time the visits became a courtship. Nora was barely sixteen when her parents consented to the marriage.
Married on Valentine’s Day in 1904, Nora and Charley moved into a small house in Castle. When their first child, Clara Edna, was born in November 1904, ambitious family man Charley Guthrie began to read law. He also plunged into Democratic Party politics and the related task of shaping a new state from the red clay of the Indian territories.
With statehood in the offing, Charley Guthrie, a solid Democrat, ran for election as district court clerk and won on September 18, 1907—after 395 votes from all-Negro and heavily Republican precincts were arbitrarily thrown out on the pretext that their ballot boxes had been stuffed.
The new district court clerk moved five miles from Castle to Okemah, a town “partly western in its optimism and quick acceptance of outsiders, and partly southern, in the soft accents of its inhabitants, its prejudice against blacks, and its tolerance of booze, sidewalk fights, and public drunkenness.”
He gave up clerking in J. B. Wilson’s general store for something more ambitious, more enterprising. Real estate was just the ticket for a man like Charley Guthrie in this new and bustling county seat. As an up-and-comer, he joined Masonic Lodge No. 139 and the First Methodist Church; as a dedicated Democrat, he began giving speeches about the looming peril of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party.
Charley Guthrie prospered in Okemah. “Our house was full of the smells of big leather law books, and the poems of pomp and high dignity that he memorized and performed over us,” his middle son would write later. Charley did well enough to buy the first automobile in Okemah, a Chalmers, and took it on a trip over unpaved roads in 1909 to Kansas City; there Nora visited with relatives.
While Charley prospered, others fared poorly. For all its brave talk, Oklahoma was a troubled land in these early years of the twentieth century. Once set aside for the Five Civilized Tribes—the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole—after 1889 the Indian territories had been opened to land-poor and often desperate outsiders seeking 160-acre quarter sections to farm. As many as 125,000 families made their way to this “Promised Land” to take part in the land rush; they hoped to forge a new start on the two million virgin acres opened to the boomers. The sharpers and speculators quickly followed.
Here on the nation’s last frontier was “the greatest wheat country in the world,” boosters crowed, “with corn bigger than saw logs and watermelons bigger than whales.” For good workers, there was also coal, lead, and zinc to be mined from the hills around Henryetta, east of Okemah.
The territories sat empty, a sea of bluestem grass stretching to the horizons, turning ochre, then purple, then copper as season succeeded season. In late fall and winter, the cold northers ripped down the Great Plains; in spring and early summer the winds blew southerly and warm from the Gulf of Mexico. With spring, the rains came too, turning dry washes into deadly rivers, the storms often accompanied by vicious tornadoes that capriciously dipped down to shatter houses and barns, stores and business blocks.
The sodbusters, even the experienced farmers among them, found the going tough. Wheat growers in the northern and western parts of the new state could not operate economically on small acreage; in time they would sell out to the speculators, and the speculators, in turn, would sell to well-financed corporations capable of purchasing labor-saving combines and harvesters.
In the red-bed country around Okemah, cotton was the dominant crop. In cotton-picking time, the farmers lined up fifteen deep, waiting their turn at the six gins. But the small farmers of Okfuskee County had little better luck than those farther west.
In hard times, the small farmer turned to the banks, borrowing at 10 percent interest rates and putting up the farm as collateral. When they could not meet the payments, Oklahoma and neighboring Texas became “the earthly paradise of the grasping banker.”
One by one, then by the tens and hundreds, farmers went broke and sold out, unable to pay off their debts. More galling still, once-independent farmers found themselves renting back from speculators and banks the very acreage they had owned the year before. By 1915, half of Oklahoma’s farmers were poverty-ridden renters, victims of “tooth-and-claw” capitalism. One frustrated tenant, speaking for a thousand like himself, blamed greedy landlords, who told him what to raise, and impersonal bankers, who set high interest rates. “I am a small farmer and a renter in Okfuskee County where you can hardly rent enough land to plant feed stock…Everything is cotton.”
Few succeeded. Cyclic drought, unpredictable weather, and perennially low farm prices shattered that meager dream. “The $25.00 a bale rent you pay the landlord would buy lots of biscuits and calico for the wife,” fumed the Madill Socialist-Herald, “but then it enables the landlord’s wife to wear silk and ride in an automobile, and no matter if your wife does walk.”
Walk she would. The farm tenant’s life was miserable. He provided the labor and the farm animals and paid rents of one-third of all corn and one- fourth of his cotton harvest. At that he earned no more than a bare living from the poor land. He worked twice the hours of sharecroppers in Mississippi and Louisiana, yet his yields were less. His children as young as three might be drafted to pick cotton, and still it was never enough. The Oklahoma Farmer-Stockman in 1913 estimated that the cost of production on cotton tenant farms was twice the market price of cotton.
Frustration and hard times bred desperate men—to the point that insurance companies canceled policies protecting banks from losses to robbers. They had good reason. Henry Starr, the first bank robber to use an automobile, robbed banks for six years in eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas while neighbors looked on benignly. As Starr blandly explained, the banks he had held up were in the “robbery business too.”
By the time Oklahoma entered the union in 1907, corporate business interests, particularly in agriculture and livestock, controlled the state’s economy. For the next decade, these economically powerful forces, guiding a southern wing of the Democratic Party, vied with agrarian reformers, populists, itinerant Industrial Workers of the World organizers, and Eugene Debs Socialists.
Up-and-coming Charley Guthrie knew where he stood: four square with the other “hard hittin’, fist-fightin’ Democrats.” The Democrats were all for an enterprising man, a man like Charley Guthrie, making his own way.
He and Nora began building a six-room house with a wide screened-in porch on South Sixth Street, a home to easily accommodate not only Charley and his wife, but Clara, going on five, and little Roy, two and a half Their home was completed at a cost of $800, and the Guthries moved in during the fall of 1909.
A month later, it burned to the ground. Sparks from a fire in neighbor W.H. Fields’s kitchen ignited the Guthrie house. While they were able to save many of their possessions, Charley’s law books among them, the splendid yellow house on Sixth Street was no more.
It was a serious setback. Charley had insured the home for just $300 of its $800 cost, “leaving him a pretty heavy loser,” a local newspaper reported.
Nora grieved the loss of her yellow house on the hill; Charley Guthrie simply moved his family into the vacant Bewley property; determined to restore the family fortunes.
Early the next year, Charley announced for reelection as court clerk. Endorsed by the Okemah Ledger as “one of the most satisfactory and popular of our county officers,” he faced no serious opposition. Any threat the Republicans might have posed had been cut down by a new literacy law.
Oklahoma in politics was a southern state, its constitutional convention and its first legislatures dominated by southern Democrats. The Negro, proclaimed the president of the constitutional convention, “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, was incapable of becoming “the equal of the white man in the professions or becoming an equal citizen to grapple with public questions.” Charley Guthrie, “hot-headed Democrat” in the words of his half-brother Claude, was a strong Murray booster.
Jim Crow ruled. Oklahoma’s Democratic legislature in its first sessions legally embraced segregation and a voters’ literary test. The one assured they would keep the Negro in his place, the other that the Democrats would stay in office. The literacy test effectively barred Negroes—who tended to vote Republican—from voting at all. (A precautionary grandfather clause virtually exempted whites, the majority of whom were Democrats, from challenge.) Okfuskee County promptly struck a third of its voters from the precinct rolls.*
One threat, a growing one at that, remained to Democratic hegemony in Okfuskee County and Oklahoma: Eugene Debs and the surprisingly popular Socialist Party. Long before Jerry P. had moved to the territory, poverty on the Great Plains had given birth to radical sentiment and radical spokesmen. First came the prairie populists, raging against the railroads, the banks, the gold standard, and high tariffs. Then came Debs, in Oklahoma advocating an idealistic Christian socialism that fused old-time religious teachings with turn-of-the-century political action.
There were, in fact, two forms of socialism. One was the orthodox dogma imported from Europe, atheist, rigidly Marxist in its demand that the land and engines of production be held in common. The other was a peculiarly American hybrid, one that blended the apocalyptic Protestant beliefs of small-town America with the Marxist principle of shared wealth.
Protestantism ran deep on the western frontier, “an enveloping ideology that gave meaning to the world of the country folk,” wrote historian Garth Burbank. It succored the poor in their misery and celebrated the rich in their success, explained good and evil as God’s mysterious way, and comforted both rich and poor in dark times.
Many prairie socialists found it hard to entirely throw over the old faith for the atheistic new. Instead they melded the two, arguing that socialist reform would lead to the Kingdom of Christ. Did not Leviticus 25:23 thunder, “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; and ye are strangers and sojourners with me”?
Socialism in Oklahoma became “the primitive gospel of applied Christianity.” Onetime Presbyterian elder O. E. Enfield, a recent convert to socialism, assured readers of the Ellis County Socialist that he wanted to be called “comrade.” “There is only one title at the sound of which my heart throbs with greater joy, and that is the word Christian.”
The threat of socialism seeped even to Okemah when the Sledge Hammer opened offices in town. Each week, that avowedly Socialist paper published the Rev. B. F. McClanahan’s fierce arguments linking Christianity and socialism. “Under socialism,” he argued, “you might find it much easier to put your religious belief into practice.”
Unwavering Democrat that he was, Charley watched the rise of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma with concern. The Socialist vote had steadily grown until Oklahoma had the largest membership of any state in the union. In Okfuskee County, the socialists had skimmed off 15 percent of the votes in the 1908 presidential election.
Looking ahead to the 1912 elections, Democrats like Charley Guthrie fretted that Debs would steal enough votes from their nominee, Woodrow Wilson, to hand victory to the Republicans. For their part, the Socialists dismissed the stiff-necked Wilson as no better than the Republican contenders, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft. The Democratic Party in Oklahoma, they proclaimed, was nothing but “a political tool of the banker-ginner-merchant-landlord class”—the tool of men like Charley Guthrie, lately taken to land trades when he was not serving as district court clerk.
Guthrie’s response, characteristically, was to fight back. He began a series of essays on October 4, 1911, for the Okemah Ledger, raking the “Kumrids” doctrine by doctrine.
Each week, Guthrie turned in to the editor of the Ledger his fulminations, set out in the steel-pen hand of the Creamer Method. “Free Love the Fixed Aim of Socialism,” his first sally charged. His next announced, “Socialism the Enemy of Christian Religion.”
By the third week, with “Socialism Guards Secret Philosophy,” Charley Guthrie was out on the front page of the Ledger. And there he stayed for the next five months, through “More Evidence of Socialist Free Love” and “Is It True Socialists Never Do Graft?” to the final blow, “Socialism Urges Negro Equality.”
Charley’s pointed essays provoked sharp responses, both from the Sledge Hammer and from Socialist Party headquarters in Oklahoma City. Near the end of the year, he began a series of debates with a Socialist spokesman who made the mistake of directly challenging Charley: “While charging free love on the socialists, do you deny you are a practical free lover?” According to Charley’s younger half-brother Jeff, a furious Guthrie knocked his opponent through a bank window on Broadway. (As half- brother Claude remembered a similar incident, Charley “once hit a guy who hit his head on a cornerstone and Charley was in a tough scrape for a while.”)
In March 1912, Charley gathered his articles into an eighty-nine-page booklet entitled “Kumrids.” He asserted in an introduction to the reprint that for more than seven years he had “been an earnest, patient and faithful student of socialism…” While he conceded there were “existing, evil conditions” upon the land, socialism was not the answer. His “little book,” the distillation of many dollars’ worth of socialist writings, was intended to alert the reader to “the poisonous and dangerous fangs of the tempting serpent which is lurking behind the advance claims of socialism.”
Six months later, Charley compiled a second anthology, “Procrastination Is the Thief of Time,” in which he argued that earlier socialistic communities inevitably had to fail. “The less industrious had sought incessantly to exploit the more industrious, with the natural result that the industrious found themselves working, not only for their own support, but also those who were work-shy....”
If Charley the pamphleteer thought his battle against the Socialists would be rewarded by the Democratic Party, he was to be disappointed. When the incumbent state representative, J. J. Roland, hinted he might not run again, Charley allowed as how he was interested in the seat. The Ledger promptly offered its endorsement, assuring readers, “He wants the rate of taxation as low as possible.”
Roland, however, reversed himself and promptly received the party’s endorsement. A chastened Charley Guthrie quietly withdrew, to run instead for county assessor, a post where his taxation policy would have more immediate affect.
Charley campaigned for the assessor’s office through the spring of 1912 and the last months of Nora’s third pregnancy. In the end he would be unrewarded for his party loyalty. The election returns sent him home a loser to the incumbent, Tom Hall.
On July 2, 1912, after forty-six ballots, the Democrats nominated the governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, to be their presidential nominee. When, twelve days later, Nora delivered her third child and second son, Charley insisted the eight-pound boy be named after the Democratic candidate.
Charley was overjoyed, “as happy as a lobster.” He announced his son’s birth in the Ledger with a fulsome notice asserting he had found the best definition of a baby after searching “many volumes of the latest and most up to date works… ‘A baby—a tiny feather from the wing of love dropped into the sacred lap of motherhood; an inhabitant of lapland; a padlock on the chains of life… the morning caller, noonday crawler, midnight bawler; the latest edition of humanity of which every couple think they possess the finest copy.’ ”
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was, by all accounts, a happy child, with blue eyes and brown hair, “bubbly and bouncy,” his younger sister recalled. From his earliest days, music captivated the boy they called Woody.
Virtually the child’s first memory was the sight and sound of a “Negro minstrel jazzy band blowing and tooting and pounding drums up and down our street.” As the boy grown to manhood remembered it, that medicine show jazz band inspired him to march back and forth across the front porch of his home, “and sing out the first song I ever made up by my own self”:
Nora favored the moralistic parlor ballads so popular in the last decades of the nineteenth century, “The Dream of a Miner’s Child,” “A Picture from Life’s Other Side,” and “A Story I Know Too Well”:
To Clara, almost eight years old when her youngest brother was born, fell much of the burden of looking out for the energetic Woody. Mother Nora seemed distracted at times, as if preoccupied. Woody’s older brother Roy recalled going off to school in the morning, leaving his mother at the steaming washtub, only to return in the afternoon and find the forgotten clothes still soakng in cold water.
From the Bewley place, the Guthries moved to one house then another, finally settling in the fall of 1913 in the old London house on South First Street. Built over a stone foundation against a hillside, the six-room house looked down on the dirt track leading toward brick-paved Broadway.
As the boy grown to a man remembered the London place, Mama and Clara thought this “mean ol’ house” frightening. Roy disliked telling people he lived in the once-abandoned home with the rock-walled cellar full of cobwebs and empty snuff tins. But young Woody was unconcerned. From the back porch, he could watch the loaded wagons creaking to Okemah’s cotton gins and hear the engine whistles from the Fort Smith and Western depot. The parade a hundred feet below his dangling legs fascinated him, especially later, after oil was discovered at Spring Hill, just nine miles east of town. Then came the boomers, turning quiet Okemah into the “drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest… bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club, and razor carryingest of our ranch and farm towns…”
Charley Guthrie fit right in. “Papa was a man of brimstone and hot fire in his mind and in his fists, and was known all over that section of the state,” Woody said later. Despite their reputation and feisty nature, Charley and Nora would sing hymns and spirituals together as they rode the seven miles to and from Grandmother Tanner’s farm out toward the Deep Fork.
For his mother, Woody held a “deep devotion,” a former neighbor recalled. Out of devotion the boy sought to protect her, especially as she began to sing “the hurt songs in a wilder way” and “our singing got the saddest.” Nora was particularly anxious about Charley; she wanted him to find a new line of work.
No longer the court clerk, Charley Guthrie had plunged into the real estate business, shrewdly trading properties, keeping some as rentals and selling others. It was a good time for an ambitious man.
First there was Oklahoma’s oil boom, begun in 1910, bringing spasms of prosperity and a tide of boomchasers who drifted from company town to company town. Sand Springs, Slick City, Garrison, wherever the boomers migrated, local merchants and real estate operators made money. In 1918, the boom reached Okfuskee County; and Charley Guthrie began to share in the bounty.
Prices were high—for food and housing, for drugs, for prostitutes, for alcohol. The boomtowns ran wide open. Local law enforcement authorities either owned the whorehouses and saloons or, amply bribed, looked the other way. Money the boomers earned in Sand Springs or Seminole or Healdton stayed in Sand Springs, Seminole, and Healdton.
By World War I, Oklahoma was the nation’s largest oil-producing state. The huge Midcontinent field—with Okfuskee County sucking up its share— sprouted thirty thousand wooden derricks pumping easily refined “sweet” crude. The Midcontinent by 1916 was annually siphoning $139 million into the coffers of the Standard, Royal Dutch Shell, Sun, and Gulf Oil companies.
The state’s small farmers were not so fortunate.
By the beginning of the Great War, Oklahoma’s tenant farmers had their backs to the wall. Annually they shifted from tenant farm to tenant farm, hoping always for a little better land, better weather, and better crops. Their first moves were short, usually within the county; soon enough these “boll weevils” were abandoning their worn farms entirely to look for work on the bigger wheat, corn, or cotton ranges, in the oil fields, or in the boom-towns of eastern Oklahoma.
Wherever they went, the work was hard, the summer heat exhausting. “Fat men were few in the fields,” wrote historian Nigel Anthony Sellars.
Food was poor, a steady diet of “the four B’s” of beans, bacon, biscuits, and bullgravy. They slept wherever they could find a flophouse, a farmer’s barn, or a toolshed; if none was available, they slept on the ground.
The work was dangerous for onetime farmers unfamiliar with oil rigs or railroads or with the great harvesting combines that did a day’s work in an hour. A reaper could take a hand or a foot. An oil field fire or a burst boiler would leave an oil rigger or a hay binder scalded or dead.
The states had few safety laws and those went largely unenforced. Travel from town to town was often hazardous. Riding the rods was risky; if a bindle stiff was not injured trying to clamber aboard, he might be thrown off a moving freight by callous railroad guards.
And always there were too many men for too few jobs. The skilled hands—riggers, drillers, tool-dressers, and pipefitters—quickly found work. Until the wells were brought in and the pipelines laid. Meanwhile, the increasingly desperate boll weevils, the displaced farmers and the unskilled farm workers, scratched for what little work was left.
They labored twelve-hour days, seven days a week, then they moved on, unwanted. “In most towns all over the country,” the young Woody was to learn, “it’s a jailhouse offense to be unemployed.” If the migrants were not arrested on vagrancy charges, they were often run out of town by deputies or roving bands of vigilantes.
Mounting anger and the frustration of the state’s small farmers erupted in the wartime summer of 1917. Members of a small, radical tenant farmers’ organization, the Working Class Union, began an implausible, even absurd march to Washington. Once there, they intended to protest “Big Slick” Woodrow Wilson’s war and the newly adopted draft act. This was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” and they wanted none of it.
On August 3, a ragtag band of these armed tenant farmers and farm-workers gathered some thirty-five miles south of Okemah. They provisioned themselves with green corn stolen from the fields and set off through the sandhills bound for the faraway capital. Marching along the dirt track, they randomly burned bridges and farm buildings until challenged by a heavily armed posse. A handful of shots sailed harmlessly past the two groups, and the marchers fled. With that, organized protest ended.
The “Green Corn Rebellion” was a last spasm of prairie radicalism. Eventually, 150 of the hapless marchers were convicted of riotous crimes; half would serve prison terms, most a year and a day, some for as long as six years.
Meanwhile, World War I doomed the Socialist Party. As patriotic fervor rose, buoyed by higher farm prices, the Socialist vote fell. From a peak in 1914 when some rural areas in Oklahoma delivered half of the vote to the Socialists, the party’s tally steadily dropped. Okfuskee County; which had given 31 percent of the vote to the Socialists in 1912, mustered a scant 3 percent six years later.
With higher farm prices, business picked up in Charley Guthrie’s real estate office above Citizen’s National Bank. His family’s complaints—the schoolmates had taken to teasing the Guthrie children for living in such a spooky place—prompted Charley to move them to a small three-room house on South Twelfth Street.
They would live there only a short time. A tornado swooped down on Okemah, taking with it the roof of their wood-frame home. Charley was able to move Nora and the three children crosstown to a house on the even more fashionable North Ninth Street.
Fire seemed to dog them. On October 5, 1916, the Ledger reported the Guthrie residence “had been set on fire by an oil stove.” Only prompt work by neighbors and the volunteer fire department put out the fire before it seriously damaged the house. “Of course,” the Ledger continued, “Charley had insurance, being an agent himself.”
Real estate and insurance agent, Charley Guthrie was counted a successful businessman, holding as many as thirty pieces of rental property. On Saturdays Charley would load the children into “our big new black buggy in behind our fast pacer team, old Red Bess and Big White Tom, for the ride to Grandma Tanny’s house.” There older brother Roy and five-year-old Woody mounted attacks against imaginary Huns on the sweeping front lawn.
Golden-haired Clara meanwhile would be off tending to her dolls. At fourteen she was just at “that ripe and tender time in a young girl’s life when she loves to walk around with her eyes about half shut and sing some song about the moon coming up and the moon going down.”
Nora, pregnant with her fourth child, would sit at the upright piano in her mother’s parlor, accompanying her old ballads of children lost in the wood, and ships that never returned, while son Woodrow stood behind her, brushing her waist-length hair. When Nora’s bumptious half-brothers hooted and yelped from the rose bushes outside the open windows, the three Guthrie children chased them away. Mama’s music was special.
It was an idyllic summer and fall for young Woodrow, that year of the Great War, 1917. “Papa went to town,” the boy grown to man recalled,
At least some of the neighbors thought the Guthries were too generous. Charley was easy with a dollar while Nora was sometimes so lost in her own thoughts she did not pay attention to the children. “The children always had expensive toys,” one sniffed, “but necessities were scarce.”
Nora Guthrie’s ever more curious behavior attracted the neighbors’ attention. She often seemed distracted. Or monumentally angry. “One day, when she was mad at Charley, she took all the furniture out of their house and piled it up in the front yard,” one neighbor recalled.
Madison Jones, who lived across Ninth Street, suggested Charley have Nora looked at, or maybe committed to the state asylum—like her older brother Jess. Charley refused. The asylum had not helped Tess, who had died there in 1912. Furthermore, Nora was the one who kept the family together, Charley insisted.
In February 1918, Nora delivered her fourth child and third son in the house on Ninth Street. At his sister’s insistence, he was named George Gwynn; “Woodblock,” as Nora called Woodrow, now would have to share his sister’s time with the baby.
Charley, a man of great pride, hired a part-time maid to keep the house clean. He himself would be too busy running for state representative to do a proper job of managing the house.
Once more Charley Guthrie was directly challenging the local Democratic Party machine. Defeated in 1912 for county assessor, Charley had bounced back three years later to be elected justice of the peace. If the post was of little importance, it offered stature enough to run for the legislature.
It would be a tough campaign. Charley was not only taking on the local Democratic Party, but the incumbent, W. N. Barry, the party’s boss in Okfuskee County. With Clara, Roy, and Woody for company, Charley campaigned across the county, delivering speeches from the back of hay wagons and shaking hands at crossroads. Nora feared her husband would attempt to settle political disputes with fisticuffs, but never objected enough to prevent the children from traveling with their father.
The campaign grew bitter as Charley and W. N. Barry exchanged charges of pilfering from county funds. Return Barry to the state legislature, Charley thundered, and “he will want to amend that certain one of the Ten Commandments which says ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ so as to read ‘Thou shalt not steal on a small scale.’ ”
On election night, August 6, 1918, Charley scored a surprising victory, 529 to 499, with a third candidate gathering 164 votes. Barry challenged the results, and a recount a few days later summarily reversed the outcome—after numbers of ballot boxes had been tampered with in the county courthouse. The new total gave the election to Barry by a scant twenty-two votes. Even the staunchly Democratic Okemah Ledger editorially grumbled this was the “first indication of crooked election work since the organization of the county.”
An appeal to the state election board was fruitless; Barry was a power in the legislature. Charley the two-fisted is said to have gained some measure of satisfaction by soundly thrashing one of Barry’s lieutenants, but that would have been cold comfort.
The election behind him, Charley had other things to worry about, in particular, his wife’s odd behavior. More and more she was acting like her older brother Jess, giving silly orders, behaving strangely or not paying attention, then finally just slipping off into a private world.
Clara came home from school one day to discover her infant brother swaddled in newspapers—and hidden in the oven. Nora began going to the Crystal Theater, taking Woody with her each day, she to watch the flickers, he to admire the silver stars painted on the ceiling. She wandered aimlessly about town, poking through trash in Okemah’s alleys, or made arbitrary demands of the children and Charley.
One day in late May 1919, Nora ordered Clara to stay home from school; she needed help with the ironing. As strong willed as her mother, Clara insisted she had to take a final exam that day. The test would determine if she passed from the seventh to the eighth grade.
Their next-door neighbors heard the arguments, back and forth in the kitchen, mother and daughter each refusing to yield. They were too much alike, each rigid when she thought some principle at stake. Finally the furious Clara spilled kerosene on her dress, struck a match, and set it on fire.
“I put the coal oil on my clothes and was going to burn them a little to scare mother,” Clara apologetically explained later. Instead, her dress burst into flame, the girl racing from the house in terror, Nora haplessly running after. Alarmed by Clara’s screams, neighbors dashed over to smother the flames with a blanket.
The fire whistle’s blasts signaled the ward, summoning Charley from his office over the bank and Woody from Grandma Tanner’s. Clara was severely burned from her neck to her knees, her long, curly hair singed black.
The nerves of her skin literally seared off, the girl felt no pain. “Why are you crying, Daddy? I’m all right,” she bravely assured Charley.
Laid on her bed, Clara remained cheerful, unaware how badly she had been burned. When Woody made his way through the crowd of clucking neighbors to Clara’s bedside, she made him promise “not to cry like old Papa and like Mama setting there by her bed.”
There was no need for tears, the tomboy turned young woman said. “I’m gonna jump out of this bed and start singing and dancing in about two minutes and a half,” Clara assured her younger brother. “You go in there and tell your Papa and your Mama what I said and make your Mama and Roy quit their carrying on.”
She was contrite. “Oh, papa,” Clara worried, “I know I won’t get to take the examination now.”
School friends and teachers visited Clara that night as the fretful girl lay in bed, swathed in bandages. Would she pass? Clara weakly asked her teacher.
“Yes, you passed,” Mrs. Johnston assured her.
Moments later, Clara died.
Mindful of his promise, Woody held back the tears, running desperately around the house, until he fell into his father’s arms. He cried a second time, at Clara’s funeral, where his once-golden sister lay in a coffin under the canvas tent of an itinerant preacher conveniently in town.
Clara, the tomboy who had nicknamed him “Woodblock,” who gave him piggyback rides right into the Deep Fork River, had instructed him not to cry. Not to be like Roy, and Papa, and Mama. “Laugh like me,” she had said. “Be 1likec me. Smile like I smile.”
He was not yet seven years old. And he would not cry again.