By Ella Robinson
The Indian International Fair Association was organized in Muskogee, Indian Territory, in 1875. Mr. John A. Foreman, one of the town's first citizens, was the first president and Mr. Joshua Ross, a prominent Indian merchant, was the first secretary. These men felt that an enterprise of that kind would be of interest and great benefit to the people of the town and also to those of the surrounding country.
The first fair was held that year under a large tent at the corner of what is now Cherokee and Cincinnati streets. The exhibits consisted of all varieties of farm produce and livestock. In the woman's department could be found an exhibit of preserves, jellies, pickles, cakes, and bread. Needlework of all kinds with a department for children was included.
At the time the association was organized the intentions of the officials was to make it an enterprise for the eastern part of the territory only, but encouraged by the interest manifested in the new venture they decided to make it an international affair and include the western tribes or "Plains Indians." It was then that the location was moved farther east to where the Muskogee General Hospital now stands. A long barn like plank building was erected and the entire grounds, including the race track, was enclosed with a high board fence.
As horse racing had always been a popular amusement among all Indians, that was one of the chief attractions. Race horses were brought from adjoining states and competed with the race horses owned by the Indians. The mile race track located where Spaulding Park now is was always put in perfect condition for the occasion.
The Western or "wild" tribes of Indians came bringing their herds of ponies with them. The tribes represented were: the Sac and Fox, Comanches, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Shawnees, Osages, and the Delawares. The first year they camped on the outside of the enclosure but one night almost all of their ponies were stolen and had to be paid for by the association and that almost bankrupted the treasury.
The Indians brought their own tents and tepees and set them up inside the enclosure as they refused to camp on the outside again. They were a picturesque group with their gaily colored blankets they had woven and their imposing head-dress. The head-dress of the chiefs was made of eagle feathers, but no one
else could wear eagle feathers. Several beeves were always prepared for them, furnished by the association. One beef was slaughtered each morning and divided among them and cooked over their own camp fire. As they all seemed to like their meat rare they never waited until it was well cooked but would eat it with the blood still running out.
The Indians always welcomed visitors to their tepees and it was my delight as a small child in company with my little cousins, the Ross children, to wander among their camps.
After a year or so, a larger, more convenient building was erected on the same location. It was a round two-story structure with four entrances and was called the Dinner Bucket. Large posts supported the upper floor throughout the building. They were always twined with cedar and the entire interior was decorated with red, white and blue bunting and evergreens.
The exhibits were tastefully arranged, the women's department occupying one-quarter of the space. Salesmen from all adjoining states came and displayed their wares. A leading jewelry firm of Fort Smith always had an exhibit with a fine stock to select from.
I think my first great disappointment in life came when at the age of six on my first visit to the fair when I proudly went on a purchasing tour with a whole "quarter" to squander. I selected a ladies' gold watch and went to ask my mother's approval. On learning that the price was fifty dollars and it could not be bought for a quarter, my disappointment knew no bounds and my pleasure for the day was ruined.
Along with the race horses came their trainers and riders and also the crowd that followed the racing. The men always slept near their horses to guard them for fear something would be done to injure them. Often a faithful watch dog was tied in the stall with the horse. The riders were a colorful group when they came out on the track with their brilliant satin shirts with their number on the back in a contrasting color. Betting ran high and thousands of dollars changed hands. A prize was always given to the best woman horseback rider. You could take your choice between the money and a fine side-saddle. Mr. Ross' two daughters, Rosalie and Susie, each were awarded the prize. Mrs. Will Robinson, now living in Muskogee, and I were also winners. I rode my own saddle horse that I had been carefully grooming for weeks past. As I was under the required age and do not know how I came to be accepted in the contest, I tried to look as dignified and sedate as possible. The women of the wild tribes were in a class by themselves as they rode barebacked and astride. On one occasion when a woman was awarded
the prize she refused to accept a woman's saddle but took a man's saddle.
One of the most attractive things to me was the silver ornaments the men of the wild tribes wore, particularly the chiefs. Crescents, stars, all kinds of emblems cut from pure silver as thin as a knife blade securely attached to a long cord that fastened to their head-dress of eagle feathers and hung almost to the ground. I do not know where the silver came from, from which their ornaments were made, but the paints they used on their faces and bodies came from the paint rocks in their own reservations.
They adopted the white men's clothes by degrees. I remember of meeting a big six foot Osage Chief after a hard rain one evening. He was clad in a beaded shirt, black broadcloth trousers, a long linen duster, was barefooted, with a gorgeous string of ornaments fastened to his eagle feather head-dress that nearly reached the ground; with his trousers rolled up he splashed through the mud.
Another thing that thrilled me was the big dinner bell that always rang at Buzz Hawkins' eating tent. Buzz Hawkins and his wife were well known prosperous negroes, living four miles west of town. Every year they opened an eating place under large tents. Mrs. Hawkins was a famous cook and you were sure of a splendid turkey dinner every day for twenty-five cents. I always got a good seat as I was a fast runner and wasted no time when the bell began to ring. There were numerous places to eat but none enjoyed the popularity that the Hawkins did.
It was in the early eighties that the first merry-go-round made its appearance at the Fair. It was a funny thing, operated by little mules that went round in a circle. At first the children were afraid to ride but after they found out they would not be killed, it was hard to get them off.
All kinds of skin games and gambling devices were prohibited and the Indian police who were the only officers on duty were constantly on the watch but even then some crept in. No drinking was allowed and the crowd was always peaceable and happy. The gates were opneed at nine o'click in the morning and closed at six p. m. The admission was twenty-five cents for one person and fifty cents for a single rig and one dollar for a double team.
I was always glad when my mother was appointed on the committee to judge an exhibit in the woman's department as we got in free.
The United States flag floated from atop of the main building and could be seen from across the prairie for several miles.
A stomp dance was held each night by the Indians, on the second floor of the main building.
The M. K. & T. Railroad which was the only road through the territory gave reduced rates and visitors from other states were numerous. Distinguished men from Washington, D. C., and officials from the Indian department always came.
There was plenty of music as bands from Denison, Texas; Parsons, Kansas; and several Arkansas towns were there and played all day. The bandstand was near the race track and the horses seemed to be inspired by the music, as well as the people.
The noted Belle Starr and her beautiful young daughter, Pearl Reid, were regular visitors and attracted much attention, partly because of their notoriety and also the way they dressed. Belle always wore a divided skirt, a man's shirt and cartridge belt, and a white felt hat. They were quiet and well behaved and never seemed to make friends with anyone.
As the distance of what is now called five blocks from town to the Fairgrounds was too great to walk, everyone rode. The livery barn operated regular taxi lines to the Fair grounds charging twenty-five cents a trip.
Muskogee had three good hotels: the Mitchell house located where the Katy Station now is; the Strokey Hotel across the street from it; and the Green-house on the corner of Second and Court streets, gave splendid accommodations and were always crowded during Fair week. The Green-house was a large, two-story frame building in a large yard. It was operated by Mrs. Laslie, a shiny black little negro woman whose husband claimed to be part Creek Indian. They took only white guests and no negroes came in sight except the waiters in the dining room.
Everyone living in town expected their relatives to visit them during the Fair and for it and they were never disappointed.
The Fair was held each year the latter part of September, lasting one week. It was the outstanding event of the year and was looked forward to in pleasant anticipation for months. It was in fact, a reunion of friends and relatives that perhaps saw each other at no other time.
As the M. K. & T. was the only railroad, much of the travel was overland driving with buggies and teams.
Mr. Ross gave much of his time and strength to the work of maintaining the association and making the fair a success in every respect. He was deeply interested in every department of it but he particularly wanted the visitors to be pleasantly entertained and given a cordial welcome.
With the passing of the Indian International Fair, one of the most outstanding and colorful features of Indian Territory life disappeared.