BY CAROLYN THOMAS FOREMAN
Mrs. Laura E. Harsha, an outstanding citizen of Oklahoma for many years, was the daughter of the Rev. Luther Newcomb and Elizabeth Kelsey Newcomb. She was born August 25, 1858 at Napoli, New York and attended school at Pomona, Kansas, where her father was pastor of a church. Miss Newcomb began teaching in a rural school at Valley Brook, Kansas, the spring before she was sixteen and in July, 1878, she became a teacher in the Indian Public School at Okmulgee, Creek Nation, under the superintendent, the Rev. William McCombs.1
Though Okmulgee was only a hamlet thirty-five pupils attended Miss Newcomb's classes. In addition to her work in the day school she organized and conducted a Sunday school; she trained the children to sing hymns and when a circuit rider preached in the town once a month her pupils formed the choir. At that period Okmulgee was distinctly an Indian town with few white citizens. Stores were kept by the late Clarence W. Turner and Jonathan Parkinson. There were two doctors but no churches. "Uncle Jack" Porter was the proprietor of a small hotel while another was run by a Negro man.2
In Okmulgee Miss Newcomb became engaged to William S. Harsha and they were married in Kansas by her father. William S. Harsha was born at Albia, Monroe County, Iowa, February 8, 1857. His parents moved to a farm south of Ottawa, Kansas, where their son spent the first nineteen years of his life. He went to Muskogee, Indian Territory in 1876, and drove a mail hack between that town and Okmulgee until he secured a position in the store of Turner and Harvison in the Creek capital. Mr. Harsha learned to speak the Creek language which was a great advantage to him in business.3
For a year after their marriage Mr. and Mrs. Harsha lived in Wetumpka where there were only two white families and two general merchandise stores. Game was plentiful and they lived on prairie chickens, wild turkeys and venison hams which could be bought for twenty-five cents each. When they moved to Okmulgee Mr. Harsha was a partner in a store and once when he was away from home buying cattle a rumor was circulated that the store was to be robbed by a band of thieves. There was a large sum of money in the till and Roscoe Cutler, who roomed in
1Miss Newcomb "was the high-light of the Okmulgee Institute. She was a brilliant teacher. Our superintendent put her in charge of the mathematic drill, so I know he considered her one of his best teachers. I lived at the Smith Hotel in Okmulgee and she boarded there and that is how I came to know her" (Mrs. Edith Hicks Walker, Fort Gibson, March 24, 1933).
the store, carried the money to Mrs. Harsha who sewed the bills in the hem of her long full skirt where it remained until all danger was past.
Mrs. Harsha saw a white boy given fifty lashes in the council grounds at Okmulgee, for stealing, and the punishment almost killed him. Under Creek law one hundred lashes were administered for a second offense and death for a third.
Mr. and Mrs. Harsha had two children born in Okmulgee after which they moved to Muskogee in August, 1881, and made their home on South Second Street. Mr. Harsha became a member of the first grand jury after the Federal Court was established in the Indian Territory and he was a member of the first city council when a municipal government was organized in Muskogee. The Harshas lost much property in the fire of 1886 which practically destroyed the town. At the time of the fire in 1899 they were living at 321 North Sixth Street.
Mrs. Harsha was one of the first members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Muskogee and the first convention of the organization in the Territory appears to have been held there in July, 1888.4
In the early days in Muskogee, Harrell Institute, a girls' school, was maintained by the Methodist Church and boys up to twelve years of age were allowed to attend. Bacone College took boys of all ages but it was a long distance from town and there was no school in the place for older boys who were running wild on the streets. The W. C. T. U. decided to remedy this deplorable situation and Robert L. Owen gave the society a lot on which to build a school. Mrs. Harsha secured a loan of $1,000 from Professor Bacone of the college and Clarence W. Turner allowed the organization to get lumber from his yard with the privilege of paying for it as money was available. Mrs. Harsha stood security for the sums.
By the autumn of 1890 the building was completed, two teachers were employed and the school was opened for boys and girls. Tuition was paid by parents who could afford to do so but no child was refused the chance to study because of poverty by the devoted women of the W. C. T. U. Salaries for the teachers were donated by liberal citizens of the town while the W. C. T. U. members gave entertainments, medal contests, dinners and even sold ice cream on the streets to raise the monthly sum due on the debts. As much as $100 was raised at some of the entertainments and that was clear gain as the buildings in which the affairs were held were used without cost. Fifty dollars were sent cyclone sufferers in McAlester as a result of "The Old Maids Convention."
Indian Agent Leo E. Bennett, in his report to the commissioner of Indian affairs in 1890, wrote: "As a movement calculated to
educate the people, I mention the efforts now being made by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of the Indian Territory to establish a free public school at Muskogee, with branches spoken of elsewhere. This is directly educational and should receive all possible encouragement." The loan and debts were almost repaid when the public school was started in Muskogee in September, 1898.
Mrs. Harsha related that in 1898, Miss Frances E. Willard,5 Anne Adams Gordon and Mary Powderly (Miss Willard's secretary) made a tour of the southern states and Mrs. Harsha prevailed upon them to visit Muskogee, although it was not on their itinerary, in order to help cancel the debt still owed by the society. While in Muskogee Miss Willard was a guest in Mrs. Harsha's home. Miss Gordon held an afternoon meeting for women and children while Miss Willard spoke at a general meeting in the evening.
The Indian Territory W. C. T. U. aided the Orphan's Home at Pryor. Through the efforts of this society the merchants and other people of Muskogee sent a car load of furniture, clothing and other supplies to the school soon after it was opened; the costs of transportation were donated by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad.
In February, 1898, the firm of J. E. Turner & Company, of which Mr. Harsha had been a member for many years, was dissolved by mutual consent. Mr. Turner retired and the firm, thereafter Harsha & Spaulding, became one of the prominent establishments in the Creek Nation.
Mr. and Mrs. Harsha were the parents of nine children; Izora, Roscoe, Hoy, Rex, William, Edith, Frances Willard, Anna Cordon and Truman. Between the years 1891 and 1905, Mrs. Harsha attended almost all of the annual W. C. T. U. national conventions and two worlds' conventions in the United States.
Mrs. Harsha was a Presbyterian when she first came to the Indian Territory but later joined the Christian Church. Mr. Marsha died February 5, 1939 and Mrs. Harsha passed away at the home of her daughter, Mrs. W. V. Ryan, in Seattle, Washington, Friday, January 19, 1940. She is survived by three sons, Hoy of Haskell, Oklahoma; Truman of Miami, Oklahoma; William M. of Rosemead, California, and two daughters, Mrs. Ryan of Seattle and Mrs. Joe Brandon of Para, Brazil; twenty grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Funeral services for Mrs. Harsha were conducted in Muskogee, January 24, 1940 and burial was in Greenhill Cemetery.6
5Miss Willard joined the temperance crusade which swept the United States in 1874; she became president of the Chicago W. C. T. U. and in 1879 was elected president of the national society; in 1891 she became head of the World's W. C. T. U. (Dictionary of American Biography).