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September 12, 1997

On September 16, 1893, the U.S. government gave away more than six million acres of prime agricultural land in a dramatic "land run." The prizes went to the homesteaders who eagerly gambled on their tenacity to turn the prairie into lively new communities. The area, now part of the state of Oklahoma in the great U.S. Southwest, was called the Cherokee Strip. More than 100,000 took part in the run, including hundreds of newly arrived immigrants from Western Europe.

One of the small young cities thus created was called Perry, and the European settlers played a major role in its development. The first Federal census taken after the run, in 1900, showed that 212 German-born men and women were building homes and businesses in the Perry community. More than 1,200 were first-generation Americans of German parentage. Perry's total population was 3,351. The German contingent was by far the largest single group in the foreign makeup of this new land.

A blacksmith shop was established in Perry in 1902 by Carl Frederick Malzahn, who had come to the U.S. in 1880 from Strasburgh, Germany. From that modest beginning has evolved the Charles Machine Works, Inc., manufacturer of the internationally marketed line of Ditch Witch underground construction equipment. Ed Malzahn, a grandson of Carl F. Malzahn, is the president of the company today, and the whole world knows about Ditch Witch equipment.

In addition to the "German colony," the 1900 census showed that more than 270 Perry residents were of Austrian heritage and thus closely related to Germans in their history and work ethic. Men and women of that ethnic background are known for their hard work, loyalty, dedication, strength and ingenuity in any endeavor or cause that they adopt. Such motivation undoubtedly helped many of them to succeed in proving up their claims in this rugged and unforgiving land.

The West Europeans were not the only foreign-born run pioneers in this new territory. Others had their origins in East Europe, the Mediterranean basin, Africa, Asia, Scandinavia and elsewhere, but you could argue that none had more impact than the Germans/Austrians. None left more of their national influence as an imprint on the city of Perry, the state of Oklahoma and indeed the entire nation they adopted at the turn of the last century. Our destiny was determined in large part by the admirable characteristics they brought with them to the new land.

As we celebrate the anniversary of that Cherokee Strip saga once again next week, give thanks for the good fortune we enjoy as descendants of hardy people who forged a new civilization on the foundation of their own heritage and bequeathed that to us.