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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 19, No. 2
June, 1941
EARLY HISTORY OF THE GRAIN BUSINESS IN OKLAHOMA.

By E.H. Linzee

Page 166

The writer arrived in Oklahoma in June 1899 just before a wheat crop was ready for harvest, looking for something to get into in the new country. In Hennessey a partnership was formed with Mr. W. L. Farquharson who had been in the grain business for several years and had six buying stations on the Rock Island Railroad north and south of Hennessey.

There were very few grain elevators so that most of the grain was scooped from wagons into cars. A buying station consisted of office and scales, a grain tester and scoop shovels which was about all that was needed to start buying grain except a little money to put up with the bank for margin. When a car of grain was loaded it was sold and billed out, the bill of lading attached to a draft on the buyer and deposited with the bank and immediate credit given for the amount. A small amount of margin was left to provide for possible discrepancies in weights and grades. Most of the wheat was sold to exporters for shipment through Galveston.

Railroads were new and used very light equipment compared with present day equipment. Box cars were of 40,000 pounds capacity, about 700 bushels, and there were still quite a few 30,000 capacity cars being used, all equipped with hand brakes and link and pin couplers. Most of the cars today will carry 100,000 pounds. Two reservations had been opened west and north of Hennessey since the original Oklahoma opening, the Cheyenne and Arapaho on the west and the Cherokee Strip on the north. There was no railroad in the Territory west of the Rock Island so that all grain and live stock must be marketed at stations along this line from as far west as they were raised. The settlers lived mostly in sod houses and dugouts and would break out a little more sod ground each year. In some sections a war between the cattlemen and settlers, called "nesters," was carried on for several years until the nesters came in so fast the cattlemen gave up the fight to hold their range. During this time the nesters would often carry their rifles along as they plowed. Cattlemen would try to discourage and run them out of the country by running herds of cattle over their fields of grain and destroying them before harvest. One of our early Governors (Ferguson) helped to stop this fight by threatening to call out the National Guards and run all of the cattle out of that country if it did not stop. There were no roads across the Cheyenne and Arapaho country, only trails followed by the settlers bringing their products to the railroad, so that those from a distance would form parties when coming to market so they could double up their teams and help each other over bad roads and across rivers and canyons. Trips of this kind would often require

Page 167

a week or more, camping along the way. When cars were scarce they might have to wait over a day or two before selling their wheat.

Threshing the wheat was a problem in those early days. Fields were small and it was difficult to get from one claim to another, often requiring a long detour with the thresher. The settlers in a neighborhood all exchanged work and the women helped one another in the cooking and providing for the threshing crew. They don't have to bother with that any more for as the country was settled up and the fields became larger the threshers began to carry along their own cook shacks on wheels. For a year or two before any railroads were built farther west, Kingfisher was declared to be the largest primary wheat market in the world. The course of the Cimarron River to the north forced a great deal of trade to Kingfisher that otherwise would have gone to Dover and Hennessey. Of course there were no bridges in those days. There were from ten to twelve grain buyers in each town and as empty cars were received the Agent would portion them out to the buyers in rotation so that some buyers would usually be out of the market waiting their turn for a car to load.

The prices for wheat ranged from thirty-five cents to fifty cents a bushel and a load coming from a distance usually consisted of about twenty-five bushels, for, like the railroads, the equipment was very light, however, the money received at the time would buy more than much higher priced grain would now. The wants of the settlers were simple and they were not bothered with burdensome taxes so that they gradually improved their claims and homes.

In later years a farmer living near Custer City told me of being one of a string of wheat wagons hauling their grain to El Reno. While crossing the military reservation at Ft. Reno they were met by a man on horseback who offered them $1.00 a bushel for their wheat. They drove on thinking the man was crazy or else he was trying to "spoof" them in some way but when they got to town they sold for $1.10 a bushel. It was the year of the "Leiter Deal" when an attempt to corner the Chicago wheat market had sent prices skyrocketing and they had heard nothing of it. Their wagons were not large enough to carry home all they could buy on that trip.

In new countries it has always been the case that a large part of the claims were mortgaged as soon as they were proved up and a title received, and a great many were never paid out by the original settler who would become discouraged and abandon it after a year or two of drought or crop failures and go farther west, or back to his wife's folks. During a slack time one day three buyers were sitting on a wheat wagon idly sifting the grain through their fingers. There were quite a few yellow grains in the wheat and they began commenting on whether they had been caused by weather or soil conditions. The young farmer thought we were criticising his wheat and promptly begun telling us how little we town "fel-

Page 168

lers" knew about wheat, dwelling on the fact that he ought to know something about raising wheat as his father and grandfather before him had been wheat raisers. One of the buyers happened to have known the grandfather in Kansas and by questioning brought out the fact that he had been given a free farm in Kansas, that the father had secured a claim in the opening of old Oklahoma, and that the son we were talking to had secured a good claim in the opening of the Cherokee Strip. The father and grandfather had both mortgaged and lost their claims and were living with the son who lost his claim later. Three generations had been given free farms by the Government and none could hold them. Some succeed where others fail. There are many homesteads in Oklahoma on which the title has not been transferred since the Government grant to the original settler. Pioneering in a new country was a hard life and required plenty of stamina for both husband and wife if they stuck it out. It had not been demonstrated that the country could "come back" after a year or two of drought and crop failures, many would get discouraged and say the "durned" country would never amount to anything anyway. There was no paternal government to help over the rough places as we have now.

When the early settlers came to town the social centers were around the wagon yards. They were starved for companionship so that when they did get together they would do lots of visiting. When people would meet the usual question was, what wagon yard you stopping at. At home visitors and strangers were always welcome and the latch string was always on the outside whether the family was at home or not. It was the custom of the country of wide spaces for the wayfarer to stop at any time and place and take what he needed to eat, but to clean up afterwards. This custom was never abused even by outlaws and cattle rustlers.

The town of Hennessey was named after Pat Hennessey, a freighter who hauled freight from the end of the railroad (at that time Wichita) to Ft. Reno. A few years before the country was opened he was travelling down the Chisholm Trail with a prairie schooner of freight when attacked and killed by Indians where the town now stands.1 After the town was established a monument was erected to his memory on the spot where killed. He had been tied to a wagon wheel and burned with the outfit. It was said he had fought till his rifle barrel became so hot it jammed with a bullet.

In 1899 Hennessey received a lot of notoriety through a fake story that received wide publicity throughout the east. The story was started that a cyclone approaching the town had been broken up and made harmless by shooting through it with a cannon and



Page 169

the eastern papers made a big play with the story, many carrying pictures of Oklahoma cyclones being shot at with cannon.

After the opening of the Cherokee Strip there was a long and bitter fight between Enid and North Enid. The Rock Island Railroad wanted the town established at North Enid. But that's another story. There was a long stretch between Waukomis and Hennessey so that the town of Bison was platted and made a station between the two. There were many complaints and accusations of short weights on the part of some buyers, but the settlers had a few favorite tricks also. One was to shovel a bushel or two of sand into their load of wheat before reaching town. Another was to weigh their load with their camp outfit and feed on, then leave them at the wagonyard before weighing back. In selling hogs it would sometimes happen that some fence posts and the top of the wagon box would be left at the stock yards before weighing back, to be picked up later. There was keen competition in buying hogs and a favorite gamble was to "dollar them off," or offer so many dollars for the lot instead of buying them by the pound. The loss or profit depended on which was the best guesser.

At one time the writer stayed all night with a settler and it happened to be the regular weekly "gathering night" for the community. After supper the team was hitched to the wagon, the lantern lighted and we drove across the prairie to where the meeting was to be held in a dugout about 14 x 18 feet, in size lighted by a kerosene lamp and the lanterns of the visitors. Some had come horseback and the men sat on their heels around the walls or on the outside where they discussed cattle and crops. The meetings consisted mostly of singing and conversation but there was usually someone who could deliver a prayer.

The present Oklahoma then consisted of Oklahoma Territory, Indian Territory, and several Indian reservations that had not yet been opened for settlement. An epidemic of railroad building had begun in the western part of Oklahoma Territory that settled the country up rapidly and caused more towns and railroads to be built than were needed and many of them are now ghost towns. Many grain elevators were built all of which were operated by individual buyers, causing keen competition between the buyers and between some towns that would try to draw trade from others.

The Oklahoma Grain Dealers Association had been organized in 1898 for the purpose of creating a more friendly feeling among the grain buyers and to assist in settling disputes and price fights that would frequently break out. This Association was a great help at that time and has been kept up ever since. The first President of the Association was Mr. Binkley and the First Secretary J. L. (Jim) Robb, both of Kingfisher. Colonel Prouty was next elected Secretary and served until his death by accident, when his son Frank Prouty was elected to the office and is still holding it at this time (1941).

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