North Central Oklahoma

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Jeff Armitage

In Choctaw, Oklahoma means 'land of the red people'. The recorded history of the region began when Spanish explorer Coronado traveled through in 1541, searching for Eldorado, the "Lost City of Gold." The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forcibly, and cruelly, relocated many southern Native American tribes to Indian Territory. And in the spring of 1889, all hell broke loose on these plains when the first of seven land runs opened the territory to a hardy bunch of hardscrabble homesteaders.

When Tom Sheets and his two brothers, William and Martin, were forced from their Missouri home at a tender age by their cruel stepmother, Tom had little hope of ever becoming a man of property. He worked odd jobs to support himself until age 18, when he rode a horse west. And he didn't stop until reaching the West Coast. While Tom was working on a ranch near the Snake River in Idaho, the rancher told him of the 1893 Oklahoma land run slated for the Cherokee Strip. The rancher wistfully added that if he were a young man he'd make the run himself. That advice and the fast horse the kindly rancher gave him were all the encouragement young Tom needed.

Riding north from Oklahoma City, Jeff Armitage and I first pass through Edmond. This upscale Oklahoma City suburb started out in 1887 simply as a watering and coaling station for the Santa Fe Railroad. Edmond Burdick, Santa Fe's traveling freight agent, was the town's namesake.

Queen of the Prairie

State Road 33 leads east into historic Guthrie. Born on the prairie in a single day during the first Oklahoma land run on April 22, 1889, Guthrie became one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi River. Over the next few years, the ornate Victorian buildings that masons erected on the prairie earned the city its title as "Queen of the Prairie."
Much of that magnificent architectural legacy has been preserved in Guthrie's historic district. By the time of its transition from Territorial Capital to Capital of the State of Oklahoma in 1907, Guthrie had municipal water service, a mass transit system, electricity and - I kid you not - underground parking for horses. State political forces were conspiring against the Queen of the Prairie, however; and in the middle of the night on June 11, 1910, the Oklahoma state seal was spirited off to Oklahoma City, which became the new state capital. After losing its economic base, Guthrie endured a 70-year period of decline until its restoration and rebirth began in the 1980s.

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