October 14, 1995
A description that is both poignant and pungent about life in the early days of the Cherokee Strip comes to us from Wayne Allen of Route One, Billings. Rummaging through some family papers, Wayne came upon a letter written in October 1934 by George Rainey of Enid, author, historian and former Garfield county school superintendent, to Leland Allen, Wayne's brother. At the time, Leland was a student at West Lawn school, near Billings. His teacher, Mrs. Mildred Bingham, had suggested that her students dig up some information about pioneer days here, and this letter is a result of that pursuit. Following is Mr. Rainey's letter to young Leland:
"I will tell you about a man who settled in what is called 'Old Oklahoma' in 1889, but who made his living in the Cherokee Strip. Now, you are saying to yourselves: 'How could a man make a living in the Cherokee Strip then?' Here's how he did it:
"He was poor, of course, and as he told me, he had but one lonesome silver dollar left after paying the filing fee of $14 on his claim. But he had a team of mules, a wagon, a spade, an ax and a shepherd dog. Oh yes, he also had a wife and two little girls, about one and three years old. These he left in a dugout with enough food to last a couple of weeks and with his mules, spade, ax, wagon and dog, drove away into the Strip.
"Now for the rest of this true story, I suggest that you hold your noses tight and violate an essential rule of health, and for a little while breathe through your mouths, for this man with his outfit was after skunks. The dog would find the skunks in their holes on the prairie. The man used his spade and ax to dig them out and he and the dog together would dispatch them as they attempted to escape.
"Now, if you never attacked a skunk with a good bit of stored-up skunk aroma and want to know the result of it, don't attack him. Just let somebody tell you about it, as I am doing. This man would continue to clean out skunk dens until he had a good supply of their pelts and then he would drive to a cattle-loading chute or station in the Strip and ship the pelts to a fur house in Wichita with instructions that his pay be sent to Hennessey, which was the first town in Old Oklahoma, and by the time he would drive to that point there would be his pay in the post office.
"He would then lay in a supply of provisions sufficient for his little family's subsistence for another two or three weeks and drive out to his claim and greet his wife and little girls at the dugout door.
"You may imagine how those little girls and their mother held their noses tighter than you are now holding yours when their breadwinner entered. But, though he smelled terrible, he had flour, bacon, sugar and other life necessities, and of course all were most glad to see him.
"He usually remained at home three or four days, then he would be away again to the lonesome prairies of the Strip, there to again roam and camp with his mules and faithful dog. This was kept up for several months until enough was earned to build a comfortable little cabin on the claim and the little family moved from the dugout. He also bought a cow to help support the family.
"But then something terrible happened. Somebody, with little or no thought or care for human comfort or for the life of a faithful dumb animal, poisoned the dog and left the man helpless in finding more skunks. His dog had been his sole dependence. He talked to me about this and said he could better have afforded to lose one of his mules. But this stopped his skunk hunting.
"He bought a Jack-Rabbit plow and plowed land for his neighbors to earn money. Then he planted a small crop and his life continued on the claim. He proved up this claim and it is now a valuable farm, but the man did not live to enjoy the fruit of his hard labor in the early days.
"The little girls were sent to school and one of them became a teacher and as county superintendent, I visited her school. She later studied at the state university and became a registered pharmacist, and now lives in Chicago. She is a fine, healthy woman with intelligence and character, a living monument to the results of early-day struggles in the Strip by a hard-working father and a faithful mother.
"Let us never frown at humble and worthwhile efforts. Hard work, honesty and a firm purpose to do the right thing always wins. There is no short cut to happiness. Remember that. This comes only from work and right living."
I found this to be a fascinating story, a little different from the kind we're used to hearing. A question remains, of course: How did the skunk hunter get rid of the skunk aroma? Perhaps there were home remedies known to people on the prairie that have become lost to us in this era. Wayne adds a personal footnote, as follows:
"I can relate to this story. In 1940 I married Mary Louise Shoop, now deceased, granddaughter of the late L. G. Shoop, one of Perry's founders and a former postmaster. We started our married life together on a farm with no more than $5 after we paid a minister to come to her folks' house to 'tie the knot.' We had some cows, chickens and a lot of love, but no money.
"Now, in winter, a male skunk will hole up with 10 to 14 females for the cold months. Wages for common labor at that time were $1 to $1.50 per day. Top oil field wages were 50 cents per hour. To get some spending money for the holidays we would take our border collie dog, a .22 revolver and a 10' or 12' length of barbed wire.
"We would run wire into the skunk den and wait until the wire set itself into the skunk's fur and hide, then pull him out, disposing of him with a shot to the back of the head. Those pelts brought from $1.50 to $2.50 each, and we would get five, six or a dozen from each hole. If we were lucky, we might get a mink, worth $25 to $28. I did get pretty smelly, but a bath in vinegar water and a rubdown in baking soda would kill most of the stink."
Thanks to Wayne Allen for this insight.