September 14, 1995
I think my favorite Wild West character is Orlando Walkling. It used to be Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Buck Jones, or Hoot Gibson, or whoever happened to be the prevailing Western movie hero of the month. But the more I learn about Mr. Walkling, the more I think of him.
He was a real Perry person, for one thing, and I was lucky enough to know him before he moved to California in 1942. Mr.Walkling made the Cherokee Strip run on Sept. 16, 1893, and he stayed in this area for nearly 50 years. During that time he was a colorful character and a hard worker. After Mr.Walkling had lived in California quite a few years, John Divine, then manager of the Chamber of Commerce, invited him back here to be honorary marshal of the Cherokee Strip parade the year of his 100th birthday, 1968, and the old gentleman gladly accepted. If you have read the chapter about him in my book, "The First Generation," you know that he spurned the guest car that was offered to him and instead walked, briskly and unassisted, around the entire square at the head of the procession. It was a proud moment for him.
Another reason for my high regard of Orlando Walkling is the fact that he took the time to write about his experiences at the opening of the Cherokee Strip. He sent countless letters to this newspaper telling what it was like back there in the early days, and he also spoke freely on the subject to anyone who would listen. He died in 1974 at the ripe old age of 106, and I have to believe he relished every moment of his life.
The other day I came across an account that Mr. Walkling wrote for The Journal back in 1940, describing the Strip opening for the benefit of the young people of that generation. That story, told in his own words, offers us today a rare opportunity to stroll back in time to that fabled age when Perry and the other "queen cities of the Cherokee Strip" were born. As we prepare to celebrate another Sept. 16th this year, it seems appropriate to re-read Mr. Walkling's story. What you read from this point on in today's column is his first-person tale of that event.
"There are many young people in Oklahoma who have little or no idea what we have a celebration for on Sept. 16, and very few of them realize what an enormous affair it really was. All I can tell are some of my own experiences and what I saw at the time when I was one among many thousands who came here at the time in hopes of getting a home or for the fun and enjoyment of it.
"Just imagine if the President of the United States now was to proclaim that a piece of land 200 miles long and 57 miles wide would be opened for settlement on a certain day and all you had to do was to be there on the ground with $14.50 to pay for filing on it. What a mob of humanity would be there. "Well, that was exactly what happened in 1893.
"I told last year (1939) in an article about my fishing trip from a pond where I was working to the Strip opening and now I will try to tell some of my own experiences after I got here.
"I had three horses, a very good small team and a large saddle horse, which was fast and had lots of endurance. I came into the Strip from the north side, near Hunnewell, Kansas, left my team with a farm boy and rode the saddle horse.
"We started off at the shot of a pistol and rode as fast as our horses could go. I kept pretty well up toward the front but still I could see lots of horses and people ahead of me. After about seven or eight miles, I came to a little creek with a good looking bottom. I jumped off my lathering horse and stuck a stake into the ground. I began telling other people to keep away as that was my land, but I had no idea where the boundaries of it were.
"It was several days before I found out where the corners of the place were and what the number of the land was so I could file on it. Meanwhile, I pulled a lot of loose rocks out of the creek bank and tried to make a foundation for a house.
"Then I came to Perry to file on it. I think it was September 19 (1893) when I got here. I had a map of the Strip to go by. When I got in sight of Perry from the northwest, I could see a cloud of dust and a lot of tents and covered wagons. It was very dry weather and there was lots of wind.
"The railroad was blockaded by so many car loads of feed, machinery, household goods, lumber and other things. There were not enough side tracks to hold the cars so they just unloaded cars along the right of way from north of the fairgrounds to three miles south of the depot.
“One day I saw a man driving my team and wagon in the street. I ran up to him and he said they belonged to some fellow who had come here to file on a claim. The man had turned them over to him as he wanted to come down. I told him I was the man who owned them so he turned them over to me. I felt lucky to get them back. I got a number to file, but I had to wait my turn and I did not know how long it would take so I started to work with the team. I got a job of unloading several car loads of roofing iron and hauled lots of lumber.
“The courthouse square was entirely covered on all sides, except where the post office is, with businesses of every kind. There were lots of fights and quarrels over land. The government had drilled four or five wells and put pumps in them at different sections of the townsite but they had drilled them too deep and the water in all of them was strong with salt. There was a spring of good water, in the bottom of a branch near Forney's Dairy (southeast edge of Perry). A man dug it out and walled it up and began hauling water in barrels and selling it by the pail. That got to be quite a business.
“There was a company of soldiers camped near where the library now stands but I never did see them interfere with anything that went on. Nearly every man carried a gun. Lots of people who had shipped merchandise and stock here got dissatisfied and wanted to leave. They would sell their stuff at auction. Many auctioneers were busy selling everything from jack knives to covered wagons, almost all day and night. Men would walk around holding up a watch or leading a mule asking for bids on them. "I saw a bad sight one night, which I can never forget. I was going down the railroad track one night and saw a crowd on the side of the track and heard a man groaning. I looked in to see what was wrong and a man had had an accident, either by the train or a wagon running over his leg, crushing it above the knee. Two other men were holding him and another was cutting his leg off with an old rusty hand saw and a pocket knife. I never did learn whether or not he lived.
“I got a job working on the streets as soon as they had organized the city and helped clear up the prairie dog hills and grade the streets through most all of the business sections. A person looking at our nice city of orderly people, beautiful homes and schools now would hardly think that it started the way it really did."
Thanks, Mr. Walkling, for telling us what it was like back then.