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November 7, 1997

Photograph of George A. Foster

George A. Foster, shortly before his death in 1928.

When George A. Foster was a young man in 1892, living in Lincoln Center, Kansas, he kept track of the federal government’s plans for opening the Cherokee Strip in neighboring Oklahoma Territory. The date for the opening had not been set, but George had it in mind that he would try to stake a claim there when the time came. Something told him that a fast horse would be a definite asset – if not an absolute necessity – and so he began looking around for a mount. Finally he found an Arabian that was part race horse and then set about training it for the great race to come. He had been working with the steed about a year when, on August 19, 1893, President Grover Cleveland designated the following September 16 as the date for the greatest land lottery ever held. George Foster believed he was ready.

In a few days Foster boarded a Santa Fe train with his horse, Spike, and headed south for Orlando, O.T., where he was going to start the run. He had been in the Strip earlier and knew where he wanted to go. When a soldier’s gun sounded the opening signal at high noon on September 16th, Spike sped off to the north with Foster urging him on, and within a few minutes the panting horse and his rider arrived on the north side of Red Rock Creek, 13 miles north and four miles west of Perry, or about a mile and a half west of the present Interstate Highway 35. There Foster staked his claim and set about building a dugout to serve as a home until he could build a proper house for his family.

In short order, a neighbor disputed Foster’s claim and a federal judge in Perry gave them a unique way to settle the controversy: The first one to plow up a given number of acres would win the claim. Foster jumped on Spike and on the way to the claim asked nearby people to bring their horses and plows. With their help, he easily won the claim.

In the meantime, George’s wife, Sarah, waited patiently in Lincoln Center with her two sons, Ralph and Faye, until her husband could send for them. It was an agonizing time, wondering what had happened in the great Cherokee Strip opening, and she was anxious to have the family reunited. Hard news was in short supply for weeks after the run, except for newspaper accounts.

Before leaving Kansas for the race, George had sold his farm near Lincoln Center and prepared a “mover wagon” for his wife and the two young sons. It was loaded with plows and other farming equipment. Sarah grew nervous while waiting and finally, in December, three months after the run, she bought passage on a Santa Fe train headed for Oklahoma Territory, still not knowing exactly where her husband had settled. She had no way of letting Mr. Foster know she was coming.

Cash proceeds from the Kansas farm sale were hidden in her clothing during the train ride. With her two sons in tow, she left the train at Red Rock and found someone who had heard of George Foster and knew that his claim was located west of there. Sarah hired the man to take them to the spot, following Red Rock Creek, and so they set out, with no clear idea about the distance to George’s claim. After a short while, young Ralph and his mother spotted Spike, the horse, and they knew they had arrived at the right place.

According to Ralph Foster Jr., who now lives in Stillwater, “Grandpa (George Foster) was livid when he saw them. He knew they would have to live in the dugout, and Grandma (Sarah) was pregnant with my Aunt Mabel. But, he shut down his other work to concentrate on building a house, and with the help of neighbors, he got it finished barely in time for Aunt Mabel’s arrival.”

Continuing the account, Ralph Jr. says: “Grandpa proved up his claim, sold it, and moved to town. As I understand it, he was the first appointed sheriff of Noble county, then after statehood (in 1907), he ran for the office and was elected for one or two terms, then became a deputy U.S. marshal. My dad (Ralph Sr.) bought back the farm in 1941 and now my sons and I own the place.” George Foster died about 1928.

Perry was a tumultuous place for a time after the opening. The so-called “Hell’s Half-Acre” just east of the courthouse square was the home of saloons and some disreputable businesses, and the rough and tumble frontier atmosphere did not easily go away. Law and order was difficult to maintain, but Foster, his deputies and other lawmen managed to keep a lid on things tolerably well. Ralph Jr. has at least one more story about his grandfather that he delights in telling.

“As a U.S. deputy marshal and a detective, Grandpa solved some type of crime, involving horse stealing, I think. The suspect in this case somehow had written down a date with the year ‘19003.’ Later, when he was tracked down and arrested , Grandpa had him write down the date, and he put down ‘19003.’ That was considered hard evidence for the trial, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a three-column story telling about Grandpa’s work in solving the case.” Ralph Jr. says his niece still has that clipping.

In time, one of George and Sarah Foster’s sons, Ralph Sr., became a pharmacist and opened the Foster Corner Drug Store on the east side of the Perry square. It later was passed on to one of Ralph Sr.’s sons, Woody. The business, still operating with the Foster name, is now owned by Janet and Mike Shannon, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary here. The store is one of the oldest Noble county businesses in continuous operation with the same name, although under different ownership. It is part of the legacy of George Foster and his family.