At day’s dawning April 22, 1889, Guthrie, Oklahoma, was just a little bit of nothing. Literally. There was a railway station named Deer Creek, the few railroad workers who operated it, a post office (two weeks old), and a federal land office (its opening day)—and that was just about it.
By sunset the same day it was a city of thousands.
Still a city of thousands (about ten of them), Guthrie remains to this day one of the loveliest Victorian towns in the South. In fact, if you block out the modern vehicles, downtown Guthrie looks pretty much just like it did in its infant days of the late nineteenth century with its stately buildings of Victorian, Romanesque, Italianate, and Neo-Classical styles. What was the magic?
One month earlier, on March 23, President Benjamin Harrison had declared all of the “Unassigned Lands” in the Indian Territory fair game for non-Indian settlement, setting April 22 as the initial date for land claims. That one day alone a dust storm of over fifty thousand would-be settlers swirled through Oklahoma—and Guthrie, along with a number of other towns, suddenly found its existence on the no-longer-so-lonesome prairie.
It was one of the largest tent cities you ever did see. It didn’t take long, however, for the tents to turn into wooden buildings and then not long after that into the red-brick-and-native-sandstone edifices that adorn the town today. Only four months into it, there were fifteen hotels, forty restaurants, six banks, and twenty-two lumber companies to keep up with it all! When Oklahoma became an official Territory of the United States the following year, the burgeoning little pop-up town of Guthrie was named the territorial capital and was at once the center of all things important to the new settlement.
It was the Golden Age, the Industrial Age, the Victorian Age, and the Age of Progress. Within months the new town of Guthrie had its own water works system—running water and indoor plumbing!—and electric lights were standard in every building in town. More railroads came through, schools were founded, libraries started, and by the end of its first year there were eight newspapers and nine churches for the town of 5300. Talk about progress. The town was so instantaneously prosperous, it was home to eighty-one lawyers its first year of existence, and they all had something to do.
But Guthrie wasn’t the only town growing in OK territory. Oklahoma City, just a few miles to the south, had outstripped the capital’s population six-to-one by the time President Theodore Roosevelt declared Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907. And when the governor called for a vote in 1910, the beautiful up-and-coming town of Guthrie became frozen in time, as it were, when the new state chose Oklahoma City as its new capital and the runaway progress came slowed to a dribble for Guthrie. Too bad for Guthrie.
Or maybe not. If you agree with the ancients that a town of a few thousand is the true ideal for a community, then you can be happy for Guthrie’s fate. A lot of Guthrie’s citizens work in nearby OKC, but they sleep, eat, play, and live in the blissful backyards and downtown sidewalks of beautiful back-in-time Guthrie.
And why not? Over two thousand of Guthrie’s buildings occupy its nationally-registered Historic District, many of them marvelously restored and housing shops, restaurants, and other businesses, as well as majestic residences. The town is covered up with museums—the Territorial Museum and Historic Carnegie Library, the State Capitol Publishing Museum, the Oklahoma Frontier Drugstore Museum and Apothecary Garden, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame Guthrie Annex, and the Owens Art Place Museum—not to mention all the art galleries, antique stores, and antiquated hotels and inns.
And then they have some sort of pull-out-the-stops festival every time a body turns around. Thousands of annual visitors turn out for the two Guthrie Art Walks, in April and November; the ’89er Celebration (“best parade in Oklahoma”); the Guthrie Road Show; the International Bluegrass Festival the first weekend in October; the Guthrie Escape, also in October, with the best of fine art, food, wine, and music; and a month full of Guthrie’s Territorial Christmas Celebration, complete with Victorian carolers, candlelight trolley tours, and the whole Historic District done up in holiday lights. It’s a quiet little town with a big history, but it is also a blowin’-and-goin’ kind of place when it wants to be.
After all, it has roots in the Land Run of ’89. They may not be the state’s capital any longer, but Oklahoma’s stunningly gorgeous little Guthrie doesn’t want anyone to forget they can grow a town by the thousands overnight.