Oklahoma Runs of 1800s Live On in Art and Stories

Times Staff Writer

Fred Olds has been spending weeks painting a 30x15-foot 1889 Land Rush mural at the Territorial Museum here.

Olds is nearing completion of his 60th Oklahoma Run painting and is known throughout the state as the “Oklahoma Run” artist.

“I suppose you might say I’m in a rut,” laughed Olds, 69, a World War II B-26 bombardier who flew several missions over Europe.

His art works depict dramatic episodes during the wild dashes for free land when the Oklahoma Territory was opened for settlement. More than 250,000 men and women came on horseback, bicycles, oxen and in buggies and covered wagons.

“Land-starved masses gathered behind a starting line. At high noon bugles blew, guns fired. The thundering herd of man and beast surged forward. Some flew off their horses and were trampled,” the artist said, explaining the exciting action in his latest mural.


“It was like coming out of a starting gate--50,000 eager would-be homesteaders at the 1889 Run, 100,000 rushing madly out of the shoot at the Cherokee Strip in 1893, tens of thousands at the other runs.”

There were many more in the race than land to be had.

They came from farms, small towns and cities, from all across the United States.

“Most Americans have a vague notion about what happened. They think there was just one run. There were five runs from 1889 through 1895,” Olds said.

Very Much Alive

The runs are very much alive in the minds of the people of Oklahoma. Many still live on farms and in houses on town-lots homesteaded by their grandparents who came here to race several miles for a free piece of land.

Every year on run anniversaries schoolchildren and townspeople reenact the historic event. Local fairs are held on run days. High school, college, community and little theater groups stage plays about the land rush.

At El Reno in Canadian County this summer, Helen Franks Miner, 50, a popular high school music teacher for the past 20 years, wrote and produced the community’s annual land rush play that featured a reenactment of the 1889 Run.

Miner is black. “Blacks, Hispanics and Chinese made the run as well as whites. Descendants of the early settlers are living on the old homesteads,” she explained. “It was low-income people who came to Oklahoma, looking for a better life in the closing chapter of Frontier America.”

Nearly every city and town that sprang up overnight in an Oklahoma run has a land-rush museum or special exhibits commemorating the mad dash.

Oklahoma City has the 1889ers Museum and the Museum of Unassigned Lands and land-rush exhibits in the Oklahoma Historical Society Building across from the Capitol. A huge mural in the state house dome, depicting the 1889 run, includes a giant banner exhorting: “Go Forth and Possess the Promised Land!”

Guthrie, Enid, Alva, Perry, Cherokee, Lawton, Shawnee, Stillwater and Woodward have run museums.

No wonder.

Nothing like it ever happened before or since.

As Minnie Rose Tellaro, 64, pumped away on her backyard well drawing water to do her dishes, the mournful wail of a train could be heard in the distance crossing the bridge over the Cimarron River.

“In ’89 my grandfather, Andrew Tellaro, rode a train on those same tracks. He jumped off the train, ran across the prairie and claimed this land,” Tellaro said.

She was born and has lived her entire life on the quarter section (160 acres) her grandfather homesteaded April 22, 1889, in the first of Oklahoma’s great runs.

“I’m an old stuck-in-the-mud,” said Tellaro, who never married. “It’s because I like the old-fashioned ways of doing things, living the quiet life in the same old house, pumping my water, using the outdoor privy.”

She didn’t have electricity until 1979 and got her first TV last Christmas. She still doesn’t have running water inside the house or indoor plumbing. “I have pretty much left things like it always was until I got the electricity and the TV. What you don’t have, you don’t miss,” she said.

Her grandfather never spoke English. Andrew Tellaro and his wife, Rose, were Italian immigrants. He was working in a coal mine in Missouri when he heard there was free land available in Oklahoma.

Many Oklahoma run homesteaders were immigrants--Germans, Italians, French, Danes, Poles, Scotch-Irish.

The country homesteaders erected a one-room school every three miles. Tellaro gave an acre of his land for a one-room schoolhouse, where children in the Abell Community of Logan County were educated from 1890 to 1947.

Graduated From School

Minnie Rose’s father graduated from the school. So did she and her brother, James, who now lives in Camarillo, Calif.

The original homestead cabin Andrew Tellaro built stood nearby until one recent day when “it just wore out and collapsed. I went outside and there it was crumbled with the roof on the ground covering what was left,” Minnie Rose said.

Three generations of Tellaros raised hogs, cows and chickens for a living on their 160 acres. “If we were poor, we never knew it,” the homesteader’s granddaughter said.

“My father was in the run but he got a jail sentence instead of free land,” said Gabrielle Yenzer, 67, of Guthrie. “Three of them were on the same claim. The morning after the run one was dead.

“Daddy and the third man wound up behind bars. I have a belt Daddy won in a wrestling match in jail. Finally the other man confessed. They let Daddy out.”

Tiny Frazier, 40, runs an Oklahoma City limousine service. When he was a boy, his grandfather showed him how he took a wooden stake and hammered it into the ground to claim 160 acres.

“People pulled up other people’s stakes, but they never messed with my granddaddy’s claim,” Frazier said. “We’ll never sell that land. It’s the tradition of it. The prestige of it. In the family all these years.”

Women were entitled to make the runs if they were single, widows or legally separated from their husbands, over 21 and U.S. citizens.

Nanitta A. H. Daisey covered the runs for the Dallas Morning News and she, in turn, was covered by correspondents from newspapers all over the country who spilled a lot of ink about their colleague, some of it apocryphal.

Daisey rode a train cow catcher on the first run, a six-shooter strapped to her waist. She jumped off the slow-moving train, ran across the open country, staked her claim, then with great joy fired her pistol into the air.

The New York Times published a story about her on a later run, reporting that correspondent Daisey and 20 other women filed claims to start an all-women’s pioneering community called Bathsheba. Nothing more was heard from Bathsheba.

Edna Couch, 82, stood alongside Leonard McMurray’s 1889 statue in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City. The statue shows an ‘89er pounding his stake and taking his claim, his wife astride their horse beside him.

A message scrawled on the statue’s plaque reads: “STRONG MEN AND WOMEN CAME UPON A RAW LAND WITH VISION. They spanned rivers and prairies and mountains with determination. They created schools, churches, farms. They lifted great buildings to the skies. . . .”

Couch is president of the 80-year-old, 700-member 1889ers Society, founded by those who made the run and continued today by their descendants. Her grandfather, William L. Couch, was the leader of the Boomers and the first mayor of Oklahoma City.

“Our society perpetuates the pioneer spirit,” she explained. “We have a big banquet every April 22 on the anniversary. We place a wreath at the foot of this statue that day.”

Headquartered in Enid is the 1,000-member Sons and Daughters of the Cherokee Strip, direct descendants of those who made the Sept. 16, 1893 run. Enid supposedly got its name when a homesteader turned a Dine sign upside down.

Edna Couch’s grandfather and David L. Payne were leaders of the Boomers. “Booming Oklahoma” was their cry as they tried for 10 years to get the government to open up the unoccupied, unassigned lands of Oklahoma for settlement.

A year to the day after the Run of 1889, Couch’s grandfather was buried, at the age of 39, dead from a bullet wound by another Boomer in a dispute over a 160-acre claim where the Oklahoma Municipal Auditorium stands today. It is one of the best quarter sections in the capital city.

The granddaughter of Oklahoma City’s first mayor talked about the Sooners, those “that jumped the gun and got into the Territory too soon.”

Sooners Prosecuted

Hundreds of Sooners were prosecuted in the courts when the dust

settled. Instead of joining in the race they were already inside the unclaimed lands, hiding out, waiting to jump out and grab the choice land.

“People get the Sooners and the Boomers mixed up,” Couch said. “Sooners was a derogatory term for years. It has lost its negative connotation. The University of Oklahoma teams are called the Sooners.

“Oklahomans are called Sooners. People have forgotten that part of the history.”

“All that existed in Oklahoma City on April 21, 1889, were a half-dozen railroad buildings. That was it. Overnight the raw prairie became a tent city of 10,000 homesteaders. The day after, trains came through carrying lumber to build houses, to build shops, to build a city,” noted historian Bruce Joseph, 45, of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“The 50,000 land-starved men and women in that first run rushed madly across prairies and plains creating 15 towns, settling farms in six present-day counties, claiming 2 million acres of virgin lands.”

During the first few days troops stationed in Oklahoma City and the other towns tried to keep the peace, settling arguments among the Boomers and Sooners and others fighting over the same claims.

Joseph’s grandfather, a Missouri schoolteacher, was an 89er. He built a school on his quarter section in Oklahoma and taught there the rest of his life.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1889 Run, an eight-month-long major exposition will take place in Oklahoma City in 1989.

Plans are for the completion of the central business district, the dedication of The String of Pearls (a seven-park development along the North Canadian River) and the launching of a light rail system as part of Oklahoma City’s centennial celebration, a tribute to the men and women who made that wild dash for land on April 22, 1889.