Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tecumseh, Oklahoma

Sometimes the smallness of the world can just slap you upside the head. My wife was born and raised in San Diego, California  and lived most of her young life in a suburb called Linda Vista until she graduated from Kearny High School and, much to her chagrin, married me. She lived in a home on Atlas Street and one of her long time girlfriends she grew up with, Melanie Fortson, lived next door. The Fortson’s became an integral part of her life and helped her through some tough times after the untimely death of her mother.

During our 31 years together in San Diego, friends came and went. The shiny new neighborhoods and schools of the 60’s we lived and played in morphed into old neighborhoods we hardly recognized. Many of us have lost contact with those we knew then and only fleetingly come to mind when driving through an old haunt or a High School reunion. So went our relationship with the Fortson’s.

Vaughn and Gerry Fortson brought up their five children in that Linda Vista neighborhood. Vaughn worked at General Dynamics where they built Atlas missiles and later Atlas boosters for satellites and Mercury spacecraft (now redeveloped into the New Century Center) in Kearny Mesa and Gerry was a full time mom and worked part time at the Bank of America branch in Serra Mesa. They had a long and happy marriage and were very active in their community. Dianna spent lots of time there and the Fortson kids spent lots of Summers in Dianna’s pool.

Melanie got married the same year we did (1975) and Gerry sponsored Dianna’s bridal shower and our wedding reception in her home. Melanie had three kids in rapid succession and she and her husband moved to New Mexico so he could work at a little known computer chip start-up called Intel. I began my career as a cop and Dianna went into the world of mortgage banking.

Although we lived just a few miles away, we only caught occasional glimpses of Gerry and her younger kids at the FedMart (a Wal-Mart style self-serve department store) or like passing ships on the road to somewhere. At one point, we heard Vaughn and Gerry had retired and moved with the boys to Oklahoma. Our kids grew up and when I retired, we made the move to Texas so Dianna could continue in her career path in the mortgage banking business with Countrywide.

By now, Dianna had gotten quite techno savvy and began a crusade to put her life on Facebook. She had gotten the bug locating old high school and neighborhood friends from days of yore. It seemed like every day she’d make a new “find” and relate tales of the life path a friend had taken over the ensuing years.

One day Dianna came to me gleefully reporting that she had received a Christmas card from Melanie and that Melanie was helping to organize a surprise birthday/family reunion for her 80 year old mother, Gerry. Unbeknownst to us, Gerry and Vaughn had moved to their childhood hometown of Tecumseh, Oklahoma  a mere three hours up the I-35 from our place in North Texas. We signed on and were rewarded with the look of disbelief and joy on Gerry’s face when we walked into the Tecumseh Housing Authority Community Center. We got to reacquaint ourselves with family, friends and grandkids we hadn’t seen in a bunch of years.

A year later, Melanie contacted Dianna and asked if we could come up to Oklahoma to coincide with a visit she was making to her mom’s house in Tecumseh. Melanie lives around Lincoln, Nebraska and makes the drive often. We made the time and made our way across the Red River up the mighty I-35 Purple Heart Trail to Sooner Country.

Tecumseh is a small town set aside from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Once an up and coming agricultural and transportation center in the new Oklahoma Territory, Tecumseh, not for the want of trying, became a quiet backwater berg in what is still an underutilized portion of the State.

Tecumseh is the product of the great land run (or "rush") of the 1890s. While many of us may recall the land rushes for individual land ownership, Tecumseh was born from the little known town site rushes. This requires a discussion of Sooners, Boomers, and Moonshiners.

Sooners is the name given to settlers in the midwest of the United States who entered the Unassigned Lands (like the Native Americans had never been there) before President Grover Cleveland officially proclaimed them open. Boomers were members of the "Boomer Movement," white settlers who believed the Oklahoma Territories were public property and open to anyone for settlement, not just Indian tribes. Moonshiners were Sooners who crossed into the territory illegally at night, and called "moonshiners" because they entered "by the light of the moon." Some of these folks were lawmen and surveyors who had been on the land prior to the rush and had knowledge of the best spots to claim. Moonshiners would hide in ditches at night and suddenly appear to stake their claim after the land run started, hours ahead of legal settlers. It’s always been about who you know.

Little side story to the whole Sooner, Boomer thing was the nickname given to the Oklahoma University student body and teams. For ten years they tried Boomer and even Rough Riders but in 1908 settled on “Sooners”. The OU Athletics website explains, “As time went on, "Sooner" came to be a synonym of Progressivism. The Sooner was an "energetic individual who travels ahead of the human procession." He was prosperous, ambitious, competent, a "can-do" individual. And Oklahoma was the Sooner State, the land of opportunity, enterprise and economic expansion, very much in the Progressive spirit that engulfed the old South in the 1920s.” Isn’t it great the way an institution of higher learning can ignore the history it teaches and “spin” what was an illegal act into something positive?

Although the US Government had relocated many Native American populations to the “Indian Territories” north of Texas around 1870, with names like Creek, Seminole, the Iowa, Sac and Fox, Absentee Shawnee, Citizen Band Potawatomi, and Kickapoo ( yeah, I thought that had been made up by Al Capp too). The Dawes Act of 1887 changed all that and prepared the land for the rushes of 1890 by pushing the Native Americans farther west into, in most cases, desert land unsuitable for farming or ranching. This opened up vast swaths of land for populating and extending America’s control from sea to shining sea.

When the rush came, townships competed for the opportunity to be the County Seat for a particular region, which would bring the railroads and prosperity. The two big contenders of the time were Tecumseh and  Shawnee, OK both vying for control of Pottawatomie County. Although back then government was having a hard time keeping up with all the land claims and all the town sites weren’t immediately named but were referred to by numbers. The Counties by letters.Though incorporated in 1891, it wasn’t until 1896 the town was officially named Tecumseh.

Tecumseh muscled right in and completed a County Courthouse in 1897 figuring they’d get the jump on Shawnee but a series of missteps by the town fathers and the railroads ultimately got Shawnee the County Seat. It saddens me to report that it was an extension of our very own Frisco Railroad Line (and maybe a bribe or two by Shawnee town fathers) that cut Tecumseh out of a spur to the Santa Fe, which it needed. It wasn’t until 1930 when Shawnee became County Seat.

Shawnee had their share of grief when they tried to get the jump on being the State Capitol. The original capitol had been given to Guthrie, Oklahoma  in 1889, which was also the starting point of the great Oklahoma Land Rush. Soon after, town sites all over Oklahoma began politicking to be the capitol. Shawnee even built a Governor’s Mansion in the hopes of getting the nod but lost out to Oklahoma City in 1910. Though the Oklahoma Legislature approved funds for a State Capitol building, it wasn’t until 2002 (yep, that was 2002) the final cast had been added completing the Capitol Dome. Nothing in Oklahoma moves quickly. Well there was a depression, dust bowl, two major wars and the oil bust which kind of held things up for awhile.

The town was named in honor of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. I know most of you figured it was named for Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman but you’d be wrong. A figure of note, Astronaut Gordon Cooper was born in nearby Shawnee, Oklahoma and piloted both the Mercury spacecraft Faith 7 and later in Gemini 5. I learned this when we arrived in Tecumseh for our visit. We had a little time before meeting Gerry and Melanie and took the time to visit downtown. The very utilitarian 1897 Courthouse is no longer standing and has been replaced by the modern City Hall and Library complex. However, the graceful 1905 Opera House still resides across the street from the Tecumseh Historical Society Museum.

I (to the consternation of my wife) cannot pass up a museum of any kind. Leaving her in the air conditioned comfort of her Nissan Rogue; I entered the little storefront to find one of its senior members, Ruth Hulin, on duty. She directed me to several items from Tecumseh’s past including a poster for a city festival a couple of years back. That’s Ruth on the left and our friend Gerry Fortson on the right standing in front of the town movie theater circa 1946. Turns out they were both raised in Tecumseh, went to school together and are card carrying members of the Historical Society. As we talked, Gerry’s son, John came in to check on Ruth. John is the current President of the Society. Most of the region’s history is laid out in "Pott Country and What Has Come of It: A History of Pottawatomie County" by John Fortson, Gerry’s brother-in-law. Didn’t see that coming.
During that first day with Gerry, I mentioned our meeting with Ruth and John at the museum. This set Gerry off on a walk down memory lane relating tales of early Tecumseh and the surrounding lands. Gerry's neighborhood was originally the site of a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp. The original owner told her he had dug up a septic tank used at the camp when landscaping the front yard. After a long afternoon of history and talk of family we made our way to Shawnee and our hotel on the I-40.

The following morning we took some time to wander around Shawnee. Shawnee too has fallen on hard times. It is still the County Seat but has long ago lost its importance as a commercial hub. Like so many towns we have visited, the railroads determined their viability but as industries changed and technology took over, towns had to diversify or die. The real death knell was the building of a huge mall on the I-40 at the north end of town. All the mom and pop businesses on Main Street practically collapsed overnight and the once vibrant business district became a boarded up ghost town.

At the east end of the business district still lies the Santa Fe Depot built of Bedford limestone blocks next to the tattered tracks. The design is Romanesque Revival with a touch of European Castle thrown in. Built in 1902 and used until the last train came through in 1956. It sat dormant until made into a museum in 1982.
I, of course, cannot pass up a cemetery either. We made our way to the City’s main cemetery, Fairview Cemetery that has graves dating back to the time Oklahoma was still “Indian Territory” prior to the land rushes. We came upon the grave of Dr. Brewster Higley. Dr. Higley was from Kansas and is credited with coming up with the original words and music to the famous western ballad “Home on the Range”. Problem was that, unbeknownst to the good doctor, somebody else published it in 1910 and Dr. Higley never saw a dime of the royalties for his widely popular song.
 The cemetery is also the final resting place of Mrs. George Fluke, the designer of the current Oklahoma State Flag. A native of Shawnee, Oklahoma she won the flag design contest in 1924.

Cool story about the Oklahoma State flag. The first Oklahoma State Flag was adopted in 1911. The 1911 flag displayed a white star, edged in blue, centered on a field of red. Inside the star, the number "46" was shown; reference to Oklahoma as the 46th state to enter the union in 1907. It is said that the flag began to fall into disfavor after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Red flag and single white star began to be too closely associated with symbols of Communism (well we can’t have that, can we).

So in 1925 they changed it to Mrs. Fluke’s winning design of an Osage warrior's shield made from buffalo hide and decorated with seven eagle feathers hanging from the lower edge on a field of blue borrowed from the blue flag that Choctaw soldiers carried during the Civil War. The flag design was revisited in 1941 and the state name "OKLAHOMA" was added to the 1925 design.

The other cool thing which seems very popular in Oklahoma is the prolific use of painted horse (and Buffalo)statues. We first saw this during our visit to Oklahoma City (specifically the Oklahoma Bombing/Murrah Building Memorial). Businesses and government buildings acquire this art and place them outside of restaurants, Courthouses and City Halls. They usually have some historical significance and honor people, places and ideas. This one was outside the Shawnee City Hall and Safety Center.
Shawnee no longer has its original Courthouse and has substituted it for a very sanitary WPA (Works Project Administration) building with hints of Art Deco in the late 30s. Next to it is a real 1920s Carnegie Library which now houses the District Attorney’s Office. Right next to that is the newly constructed veteran’s memorial park.
Our visit with the Fortson’s behind us, we wended our way back home but not before stopping at the Original Fried Pie Shop  (I call it a shrine) at exit 51 on the I-35 at Davis, Oklahoma  . Here you can acquire handmade fried pies of every flavor imaginable. My favorite is the Pecan Pie. Loaded up with great memories and a dozen fried pies, we left the Indian Casino world of Oklahoma (Texas doesn’t have Indian Gaming yet), crossed back over the Red River and returned home.

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