Chronicles of Oklahoma

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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 2, No. 1
March, 1924
A PIONEER RAILROAD AGENT1

Arthur W. Dunham

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I have lived and labored among you, I love this country and its people. I have shared your hardships and pleasures. They have left within me pleasant memories of the past. I am glad to be here.

If the pronoun "I" should appear quite often in the few remarks I am about to make, I want you to understand that it is not my desire to appear in the limelight, but the Oklahoma Historical Society has asked me to give some reminiscences, and it necessarily follows that I must recite something within the scope of my activities.

That you may visualize the past, I might mention that my father was a soldier in the Civil War, and after that memorable conflict was over, came west from the State of Michigan to settle on one of Uncle Sam’s 160 acre tracts in Kansas, so you see I was an original "boomer." At that time I was about eighteen months old. The Santa Fe had been completed as far West as Emporia from which point we continued overland sixty miles further.

Someone has intimated that I am a railroad man, but my mother used to tell me the earliest evidence of that fact was shown on the way out to Kansas when I took great interest in transportation matters. Every time the engine would whistle I tried to imitate it, and the friendly passengers observed that I was destined some day to engage in railroad service.

There were hard times in Kansas. We survived the grasshopper year. We finally located at Florence where, at the age of five, I was placed in school. Later my spare time was spent as a boot-black, selling news papers, herding cattle, working as a bell-boy and lunch counter attendant in Fred Harvey’s hotel and eating house. I was also a news agent on a Santa Fe train.



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I first gained prominence in local railway circles in this way: we boys had two good swimming holes, one at Doyle Creek, the other at a bend in the Cottonwood River; both close at hand. There was not enough novelty or adventure, and as I had been around the railroad a good deal, I proposed that we climb up into the railroad tank for a swim, which was readily assented to. The tank was high and large. We stripped our clothes at the platform inside, near the top of the tank, and plunged into about fifteen feet of water. Somehow the railroad people got next to this—the tank supplied the Harvey House with water,—they raised quite a disturbance over it. The result was I was placed on my good behavior, but all the same I got acquainted with the minor officials of the road. I was given an opportunity to apply myself to some of the fundamentals of railroad operation. I acquired some knowledge of telegraphy, and clerical work around the station.

The first big money I ever earned was acting as a guide for the famous Doctor Pierce, of Buffalo, New York (Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescriptions, you know). It was on a hunting trip around Florence. He was so well pleased that he gave me a twenty-dollar gold piece.

The next large sum of money I earned was for riding a past horse to the county seat at Marion, ten miles away, to file some legal papers at the court house within a limited time. This netted me ten dollars.

Shortly after this I was made Santa Fe agent at Burns. I had then reached the age of fifteen. I was soon promoted to other Kansas stations. A little later I was asked to go to Oklahoma.

On one cold night, February 20th, 1888, to be exact, and at about 2:00 A. M., as near as I can remember, I got off the south-bound Santa Fe train at Oklahoma station, where this beautiful city now stands. I was accompanied by the traveling auditor of the railway, and the route agent for Wells Fargo & Company’s Express. We made our way to a shack just across from the depot. This was then the pretentious abode of one George Gibson, where he fed and housed what we used to term "Mule skinners" and "Tender-feet" occasionally.

This building was made from rough lumber, a story and a

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half high, and had two or three sleeping rooms upstairs. The cracks were not closely battened, and the cold wind found its way through in unstinted measure. We knocked at the door, and soon made it understood who we were and what we wanted. George Gibson came down the steps holding a coal-oil lamp, to which was attached a tin reflector.

The light momentarily dazzled us, but we soon discerned a number of Indians on the floor, rolled up in their bright colored blankets. We had to step over one or two of them to get to the stairway, much to their disgust—and ours. They grunted and we passed on. Indians were no novelty to me at this early stage, as I had many times seen them in Kansas, and knew something of their habits. I was wondering whether there were still more Indians upstairs.

We were each given one blanket, and the bed had a thin cover, but it was so cold I kept my clothes on, and used my overcoat as well, my other companions did the same.

When we came down to breakfast we were seated on benches at a long pine table, and our bill-of-fare consisted of the usual sow-belly, black coffee, soggy biscuits, and molasses.

The man I had come to relieve had been hobnobbing freely with John Barley-Corn, but I was finally checked in as railroad agent, express agent, manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and stage agent. My duties immediately commenced. My force consisted of one night operator. He was my only subordinate. I arranged my bunk in the depot, because I had to get up at 4:30 every morning to let the stage out and look after passengers, baggage and express. This took about one hour. I would then go back to bed and sleep a while longer.

There was considerable business transacted thru this office, even before the country opened up, as Oklahoma was the only reporting or agency station between Arkansas City and Purcell, a distance of one hundred fifty-four miles. It is true there were some telegraph offices like Ponca City, Wharton (now Perry), Guthrie, Norman, but they were established primarily to take care of train service. Freight could be sent to these places if fully prepaid and put off at the risk of the owners, but there were no regularly authorized agents to handle it.

After I was there a short time I moved the family down to

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Oklahoma, which consisted of my mother, two sisters and a brother. We occupied the cottage built by the railway company to accommodate the agent. It had four rooms, and while not a thing of beauty, it was at least comfortable.

Business was increasing rapidly, and I was permitted to employ my brother Van, as a helper. He was not an operator, and at that time had not been trained in railroad work, but we got along pretty well when we were not scrapping with each other. He was a year and a half younger than I.

The stage ran regularly between Oklahoma and Ft. Reno, the fare was $3.00 one way, or $5.00 for a round trip. Forty pounds of baggage were allowed free, anything over that took express rates. The old Concord style of stage was used,—a boot in front and one behind, and as I recollect, it was drawn by six horses.

We carried quite a few notables over the line, most of whom, however, were in Government service. Sometimes it taxed our capacity to take care of the express. The government used Oklahoma as a distributing station in supplying a number of Indian Agencies, which included the Sac and Fox, Kickapoos, Mississippi Choctaws, Kiowas, and Comanches, Cheyenne and Arapahos, and some others. It was also the Government supply station for the soldiers quartered at Fort Reno. There was a Quartermaster Agent stationed at Oklahoma in the person of one Captain C. F. Somers, and the Government furnished him his quarters, which consisted of a quite respectable frame building, located near the slope toward Maywood, not far from the railway. The Indian freight alone amounted to about one million pounds each month. It was not unusual for freighters to haul supplies a distance of one hundred twenty-five miles.

Previous to my coming to the Indian Territory there had been an attempt made by the Government to suppress the cattle men, but there were still numerous herds left. During my first year we shipped out of Oklahoma station over a thousand cars of cattle. We also shipped a car or two of buffalo horns, and a number of cars of bones which had been gathered by enterprising nesters.

There were but few buildings in Oklahoma at this time. They were: the depot, the railway agent’s cottage, section house,

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postoffice, with S. H. Radebaugh as postmaster, the Quartermasters agent’s house, a boarding house run by George Gibson, later occupied by J. H. McGranahan, who succeeded Radebaugh as postmaster, and a stockade, belonging to C. B. Bickford, a contract Government freighter.

There was quite an abundance of game in the vicinity, we frequently had venison and quail; at times prairie chickens and wild turkey were brought in. I had little time for hunting but did kill wild turkey along the North Canadian river, and had sighted deer not far away.

Frequent bands of friendly blanket Indians passed thru. Occasionally they camped several days. We could not converse with them freely but had a mutual understanding on some things. They gave us no trouble whatever, but we kept our eyes open to see that nothing of value was laying around loose to be carried off. We visited their camps to see them dance, a little of which was enjoyed for the novelty of the thing. I believe I can do some of their steps now.

There must have been a great many "sooners" in the country. We saw new faces all the time. They would come and go. No one knew where they were from or their ultimate destination.

Detachments of Cavalry from Fort Reno scoured the country to round up and deport the "sooners." We at the station generally knew about when a detachment was expected. We could tell by the scramble in getting to the depot. As many as a hundred tickets to Purcell for one train was sold. Purcell was the closest place of exit from the forbidden districts. When the raid was over they filtered back.

I believe the soldiers did their full duty on these raids but they had too much territory to cover. Some hardy persons defied the Cavalry but gained nothing by this. Those that did not take the railway were escorted out by the soldiers, if caught. I saw an old man (I’ll not mention his name for obvious reasons) chopping wood near the postoffice as a blind. A Sergeant with a detail came after him. He tried to strike one of the soldiers with the axe, and was promptly knocked down by the Sergeant who used his fist only. He was carried away bodily and deport-

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ed, but like the preverbial cat, he came back. As far as I could see no more force was used than was necessary.

Occasionally some timid fellow the boys called a "tenderfoot" would put up at one of our leading hotels, Radebaugh’s or McGranahan’s. The "mule-skinners" who happened to be in would start a "phoney" fight, or pretend to be shooting at each other to throw a scare into the new comer. They would adroitly engage the stranger in some trivial conversation. This would start a controversy and all would take sides, resulting in a make-believe riot.

I remember one such occasion when several of the boys came to me and outlined a little fun they intended to stage. The person they were after was the "runt," later christened "Insect"—I don’t care to mention his real name as afterward he figured in Oklahoma matters, and became a citizen of the community. The plan was to run the victim over to the depot where I was to offer asylum, grab a gun and pretend to protect him—The play was carried out as scheduled, but it was a long time before the victim could be made to realize it was a put up job.

We had no banking facilities and the medium of exchange was good old United States currency. The Express Company was used freely for money-orders and in transporting money and valuables. Frequent transfers of money were necessary to supply a vast extent of country tributary to us. It was necessary to pay off the soldiers at Fort Reno, and money was needed for the Indian Agencies, and Post Traders. When Government money was handled it was usually met with an escort of Cavalry, but we received a good deal without such protection.

On one occasion at least the Government failed with their escort. Evidently the cipher message was not received at the right time, or someone overlooked the matter. We had to hold thirty-five or forty thousand dollars for about a week, awaiting the escort. I knew the little safe we had offered no real protection, so I concealed the money in old rubber boots and rubbish underneath the counter, near where I slept. Not even the night operator knew we had it. All I can say is we were fortunate. The trains had been held up and robbed at other places, and it was known there were many bad men in the country.

Once we had a scare and prepared for trouble—our trains

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were guarded and Captain Somers and myself took some measures locally to give the suspected gang a warm reception, but happily after tying their horses at about the present location of Grand Avenue and Broadway, and reconnoitering the place, the gang rode away before the train arrived. We thought they must in some way have learned of our preparations.

The people for the most part were law-abiding and friendly, but there is no denying the fact that the Indian Territory then was a rendezvous for a vast number of criminals of every description. Some of them used to get supplies at Oklahoma, their names, of course, disguised. We received express addressed to Belle Star, and many such characters not locally known. (I have forgotten the names). Once an unknown person, well equipped with guns, inquired for certain packages, and after such identification as was necessary to prove ownership, signed up, then wrote across the express book in bold letters "Texas Jack," saying "How are tricks Kid!" We greeted each other cordially and he disappeared never to be seen again by me. I always thought he was one of the desperadoes that infested the territory at that time.

Dealers in liquor from Kansas City and Texas did quite a business; they camouflaged the packages and shipped by express. Deputy marshals would raid us once in a while, and occasionally take some fellow before the United States Court at Wichita, but not often.

We bought most of our groceries at Arkansas City—but by reason of Purcell being close by, we would sometimes get supplies from that place. One day, I think it was in February, 1889, I went to Purcell on the afternoon train to make some small purchases, and expected to return on a freight train leaving about 8:00 P. M. I had forgotten something. The conductor told me I had plenty of time to go back for it. After I was gone he received orders to get out of town immediately.

I reached the depot as the tail lights of the train were fading away in the distance. I was certainly in a dilemma, there were no other trains until sometime next day. There were two or three trains of cattle to load at Oklahoma, and I had to be there. I tried to find someone who would take me back. It was very cold, and the ground covered in spots with fine sifting snow.

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I finally secured the service of a man by the name of Shepherd. He agreed to make the trip for twenty dollars. We started about nine o’clock. He had a buggy and two good horses. At intervals one of us would drive while the other walked. We had to do this to keep from freezing.

We got along pretty well until just after we crossed the Santa Fe tracks, about where Norman now stands, we lost the road. Some one sang out sharply "Who are you, where you going—don’t come this way or I will shoot." We said we were on our way to Oklahoma. We were directed how to find the road, which was not very distant. Sometimes we would get down on our hands and knees to be sure we were on the road. When we got to the North Canadian we had trouble in finding a suitable ford where we could get across. We arrived at daylight. I thawed out, drank some coffee, and went to work—The Superintendent who came in with first train to take stock, never knew I had been out all night.

Just before the country opened for settlement, there were many news writers gathering material for the press, some of which was highly colored. We hadn’t many wires, and it taxed our capacity at times to handle these stories. The night operator and myself were kept busy sending copy—many times I worked way into the night helping the night operator clear this "trash" as we called it.

Shortly before the opening of Oklahoma there were four companies of Infantry stationed on the military reservation, in command of Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, and while the town was not placed strictly under martial law, Captain D. V. Stiles, at the opening of Oklahoma, acted as a sort of provost marshal. It was a wise provision of the Government to afford us some military protection, as it served to restrain the lawless element and prevent riots and shedding of blood.

We were at the time without adequate laws for the proper control of the situation, and while in my opinion, there is hardly a parallel in the world’s history for the restraint and self-control exercised by these early settlers as a whole, there was at times great excitement and the people were under a constant strain. Sporadic instances of disorder did occasionally occur, and it was necessary for some arbitrary power to intervene.

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With the permission of the War Department Mr. G. A. Biedler, commenced the erection of a small building near the railroad, about where Main Street now is, a day or two before the opening. He used this structure for the postoffice, which he took over at that time.

Immediately after President Harrison’s message was issued, March 23d, 1889, providing for the opening of the country on April 22d, everything commenced to take on a different aspect. There was plenty of excitement, and preparations were hurriedly made by the railroads to meet the expected abnormal conditions, and provide adequate facilities for handling the increased business. A new freight house was provided, and additional forces were being arranged. The bridges were guarded, watchmen were put on, and trains were policed. Mr. George L. Sands was general superintendent, and Mr. Avery Turner, division superintendent. On Sunday, the day before the opening, Mr. Sands was at Oklahoma a short time. We discussed the situation. He found that his suggestions had already been carried out and many other arrangements made of my own volition. Everyone was on his toes for the Grand Rush.

The day before the opening the Santa Fe Railway had just completed a well at the agent’s cottage; also, arrangements were made with the drillers to put down a well at the intersection of Main and Broadway and one on Grand Avenue, to supply the needs of the people. These were the first wells established after the opening.

On that memorable day, April 22d, in order to get a better view, I stood on a box car along side the depot at the zero hour of 12 o’clock noon. My astonishment was complete—people seemed to spring up as if by magic as far as the eye could reach. I could see them racing in every direction, some on horses, some in vehicles, and a greater number on foot. They were carrying all sorts of impedimentia—some had spades, some stakes, some clothing, some had hand-bags, some had pots and pans, or other cooking utensils. My words are not adequate to describe the scene. I then commenced to realize that history was in the making.

About 2:10 P. M. the first train arrived from the South. It was loaded down—people were on the platforms—on top—and

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seemed to be everywhere. I believe there were two thousand persons on that train. The big rush was on in full. Other trains came and deposited their loads of human freight. A city was made in a day—tents sprang up everywhere, and that night as the stars were shining and some weary souls were going to rest, the sound of a distant voice rang out on the still air "Oh Joe, here’s your mule." Another would take it up, and then another, until the whole world seemed to know that Joe’s mule had been found.

Charles Chamberlain, with a corps of surveyors, was on the ground and at 12:00 o’clock noon commenced laying off the town-site. Such a scramble for town lots can hardly be imagined.

As a single townsite entry was restricted by law to three hundred twenty acres, there were not enough lots for all. This coupled with the fact that several townsite companies made surveys which had to be reconciled with each other, accounts for jogs and offsets in some of Oklahoma City’s streets. Here was paved the way for disputes and almost endless litigation. In some cases there were several claimants for the same lot. Others ultimately found themselves in the street. There was all manners of trouble. I can’t begin to describe the situation.

Although I had not reached the age of manhood, my work was strenuous. My force had been greatly increased. I had no legal rights to land, so why should I worry. I will leave to others the telling of the early struggles between the "Kickapoos," "Seminoles" and other factions. I was, however, acquainted with the principal actors in that drama.

I witnessed several near riots over the city organization and election matters. I saw the infantry troops under Captain Stiles, charge the crowds. A few were clubbed with guns or jabbed with bayonets, but none seriously hurt.

The water supply was a problem. We furnished all the water we could gratis from the railroad tank, but had to place a guard over it to keep the water from being wasted, even then the supply was exhausted. We had to haul water in on cars for a while.

The early days of Oklahoma City were little different from those of other frontier towns, with respect to gambling and its attendant evils. The "sure thing" men and "Knights of the

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Green Cloth" were on the job. They were open for business early and late. Their field of operation was not restricted. They seemed to have preempted all that territory along the railroad from Main Street to Reno Avenue, with a few places on Grand and California.

The soap man, the "chuck-a-luck" game, fan-tan, faro, roulette, three card monte, stud-poker, and even keno were much in evidence.

Dance halls and "honky tonks" were well patronized. The bright lights were burning and joy was unconfined. Bootleggers were there; booze, White Mule and Choctaw beer with a kick could be had, although the troops were active and did suppress a great deal of this traffic.

I don’t know how many people came to Oklahoma City. Many thousands came and moved away in every direction. I believe we had a town of ten thousand when the sun went down that day.

The excitement continued at fever heat. Gradually order was brought out of chaos. People had to have supplies; household goods, furniture, stoves, building material, vehicles, farm implements, live stock, groceries, clothing, etc. Everything had to be brought in by the railroad. There was an urgent demand for freight, as you might well know. While the railroad had fully anticipated this, and did all possible to expedite shipments, the facilities for the time being were inadequate. There was not enough track room to hold the cars. The volume of business was only limited by the number of cars we could release from their lading each day. By the time one lot of cars was unloaded another would take its place. This state of affairs continued quite a while.

One of the principle commodities handled was lumber. If my memory serves me right we released one hundred five cars in one day. The lumber was disposed of as fast as it came from the cars. Dealers did a rushing business and could not supply the immediate demands. Many would buy it by the stick and by the arm full. They retailed lumber from cars.

The regular lumber dealers who early established themselves were fine fellows. We got along splendidly with them,

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but there were several "wild cat" outfits who were taking advantage of the peculiar conditions.

While we had watchmen patroling our yards, some one got away with four cars of lumber. We did not discover it until checking up at night. I had to have the bills of lading and the freight money amounting to several hundred dollars. The case looked hopeless.

I remembered a certain party who had been at the office several days before making inquiry as to his shipments of lumber. Early next morning I got hold of a deputy United States marshal and we started a search of town. After spending several hours, we were about to give the matter up for the time, when in going into one of the tents we found our man. I immediately recognized him. He at first denied all knowledge of the matter; we told him the United States commissioner was a friend of ours and would he mind accompanying us before that official; that the commissioner took a great interest in strangers and would no doubt give him the opportunity to recite some of his life’s history. Well, he produced the bills of lading and peeled from his roll enough bills to satisfy my demands, and the transaction ended. He had enough money to start a bank. I never saw him again.

There were many other trying incidents during this formative period, which if I attempted to describe would take up too much of your time.

The early business men were honest and capable. They wanted only what was right and were willing to co-operate for the best interests of the town. It was a pleasure to know and do business with them.

Pimm & Banks, I believe had the first furniture store. They were also engaged in the undertaking business. One of them came to me and said he was preparing for shipment the body of a person who had been killed near Council Grove. He had no suitable place to keep it, and asked permission to let the casket rest in our freight house until train time the next day. I reluctantly assented and it was placed in one end of the building. It was quite impossible to find suitable lodging, so a few of our force slept on cots and improvised bunks in the freight room. I came along with a lantern just before daylight, and to my sur-

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prise found these fellows had put one end of the bed springs on the box containing the casket, the other end rested on some smaller boxes. Their astonishment and chagrin was complete, when it was found they had been peacefully slumbering with the dead.

I must say something about the first railroad built into Oklahoma City after the opening. It was the Choctaw Oklahoma and Gulf, afterward absorbed and now a part of the Rock Island. It was promoted by E. D. Chadick, who was, I believe, its first president.

Preliminary surveys were made before the opening of Oklahoma, and Mr. Chadick left sums of money with me to pay the surveyors at intervals. Its first agent at Oklahoma City was Roll H. Dorsey, who had worked under me at the time of the opening.

The townsite board and land office was kept busy, and furnished most of the excitement. After a while a re-action set in and Oklahoma City saw several dull years. Contests and litigation, I believe, was partly responsible for this. It was a big drain on the purse of the people. Large sums for permanent improvements were not available. Titles had to be perfected to get money for large enterprises.

Everyone took an interest in the several capital fights and there were indeed some hot times. I remember once when it was proposed to send a train load of our citizens to Guthrie to protect our legislators, but cooler heads prevailed. It would only have led to trouble and possible bloodshed.

It is surprising how people under adverse circumstances got together for the common good. Churches, schools, societies of all kinds, and organizations for public benefit, were functioning. They soon commenced to make preparations for the first Fourth of July celebration. It was advertised far and near, and the trains brought in good crowds. The citizens attended en masse. A large grand stand was erected on the military reservation, bordering on what was later Maywood. There were horse races, roping contests, Indian dances, and some athletic stunts. Public speakers were provided, in fact, the plans contemplated a first class celebration.

The grand stand was crowded to the limit. As the crowd had just gotten comfortably seated, the whole structure collapsed

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without warning. A good many were hurt. Dr. Ryan’s child was killed. I was sitting near the top with two other companions. All three of us were covered with wreckage. I suffered no injury, but had my coat badly torn, the one next to me wearing a Derby hat, had the top cut off, causing his black bushy hair to show thru the top of the hat. The other was one of the boys from my office. He was injured so badly that we carried him to a dray. I took him to my home where his injuries were examined by the doctor; recovery, however was rapid, as no bones were broken. The next day several of the injured were taken out on the train. One poor fellow occupying a cot, was put in the baggage car. He had both legs broken.

The opening of Oklahoma came so late that the first year afforded little opportunity to prepare the ground and raise crops, and many had come from places where crops were poor. The second year saw a crop failure. This left some of the settlers in a deplorable condition; they had a hard time. They displayed a fortitude, courage and tenacity of purpose, worthy the best traditions of our time.

Appeals were sent out for aid. The Santa Fe and the Rock Island furnished seed wheat to the farmers at actual cost on notes given, requiring payment the following year. I was custodian of these notes in the Oklahoma City district, and looked after their collection. Let it be said that most of the notes were paid. I feel sure the makers of the unpaid notes would have met their obligation had it been at all possible for them to have done so.

Abraham J. Seay succeeded Governor George W. Steele, the first Territorial Governor. I was one of a committee that went to El Reno to meet Governor Seay, to escort him to our city, where a reception was to be given in his honor. Our party took the bus at the Rock Island depot to make the transfer across town to the Choctaw road. Some young man, not of our party, sat next to the Governor and tried to monopolize the conversation. We could see that the Governor was ill at ease. Finally the Governor’s shrill voice sang out "Young man, I see you don’t know a damn thing about the geography of this country." It was sometime before we recovered from the shock.

They used to tell a story of Governor Seay about as follows, but I will not vouch for the truth of it: When he was

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judge at Kingfisher a certain gambler had been found guilty, and was up for sentence. The judge said "I will fine you just fifty dollars," but was interrupted by the defendant with "That’s all right judge, I have that in my back pocket"—"and sixty days in jail—have you got that in your back pocket?"

I lived in Oklahoma City for some years after this, I saw the city grow in size and importance. I saw peace, prosperity and happiness all around. Many of those who bore the hardships and weathered the storm were abundantly rewarded. All honor to the old settlers who blazed the way for the making of this great commonwealth. They had the same love of country, the same ideals, and are worthy decendents of those heroic souls who carried the banner of civilization across the continent to the golden West. In this day and age, when all of Europe and most of the world is in the throes of trouble, when discord and strife is the order of the day, where money is worthless, suffering and starvation on every hand, it is well for us to pause and reflect on our own state of affairs.

I thank God I live in a country like ours, where every man is as good as another, where rank or station is not the only attribute of manhood, where industry is justly rewarded, where every one can enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With such a people and such ideals, this Government will endure forever.

Arthur W. Dunham.

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