Alva, Oklahoma

July 17, 2006
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They talk as if nothing happened around here before 1893 — the year of “the run.” Seemingly, everything fell into place overnight. Historians, I am sure, have a different perspective on that. Still, the point made is a good one: American pioneers didn’t move into Oklahoma before 1893 — at least legally. And when they did, it was a stampede that kick-started the pendulum of their history clock. In 1819, all the land south of Kansas and north of Texas was proclaimed Indian Territory, essentially off-limits to white settlers. The United States government was removing whole tribes from their homes in the South and moving them here.

Indeed, the word oklahoma is derived by combining the Choctaw words for “red” and “people.” By the end of the Civil War, poverty and lawlessness were rampant. The territory was ripe for change. Cattle drives began crossing it, partially along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to trailheads in Kansas. Trail riders brought back reports of the fine grazing on Indian land, information that was not lost on ranchers in Texas and elsewhere. After the first railroad was built across Oklahoma in 1872, white settlers began showing up here, in spite of the treaties made with the Indians. Cattle ranches appeared out of nowhere, ostensibly owned by Indians.

In 1889, agitating farmers, known as “boomers,” persuaded the government to open strips of land for settlement, principally in the western part of the territory. Settlement was to be by “runs,” essentially bronco and burro races, in which the victors were to take the spoils. “Boomers” queued up along boundary lines by the thousands. At the firing of a starting gun, they charged across and claimed whatever land struck their fancy. There were those, of course, who entered the territory ahead of time — illegally. They were called “Sooners,” a name now proudly taken on by everyone in the state, especially the University of Oklahoma football team.

In the little border town of Kiowa, one of five entry points in Kansas for the coveted Cherokee Strip, people started lining up early in the morning of September 16. An Army contingent was on hand to start the race exactly at noon. Three minutes before noon, someone in the crowd fired off a pistol. That’s all they needed: Men and women on horseback, in buggies, in wagons, in carts and on foot took off over the prairie like the wind. There was even a train in “the run.” By 3 p.m. that afternoon, the Cherokee Strip — an area totalling more than 1 million acres — was inhabited by 200,000 people. In Kiowa today, there is a bronze statue that depicts a settler couple named Polson — he is on horseback; she is handing him two marker stakes. It was not just ranch or farm land that the “boomers” were after; some wanted town lots for commercial buildings and residences. Thus was the birth of Alva, a town 20 miles south of Kiowa. It was surveyed ahead of time and designated a town site, as the railroad already had some workers living there.

According to a newspaper writer covering the events of that day: “Alva was a wild and roaring Western city before sunset. A fair estimate places the population at 5,000, every inch of the town is taken. Men and women scream out, ‘This is mine. Keep off the grass.’ And other foolish things.” The people of Alva have quieted down some since then, but their numbers haven’t changed. A telling fact is that more people are buried in the cemetery than live here — to me, it’s a measure of how folks feel about their hometown. I met a number of people in Alva who grew up here and left during their working years — only to return in retirement. Alva is surrounded by farm and some ranch land — where wheat isn’t raised, it is populated with cattle. In town, the high-profile business is education: Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

Twenty miles south is Little Sahara State Park, offering 1,500 acres of drivable sand dunes. With 100 RV sites in three state campgrounds, and more in a private RV park, it’s the Oklahoma destination for the off-road vehicle crowd. Winds cause the dunes to constantly reshape and move. They “walk” about a foot northeast every year. Little Sahara and two other state parks draw thousands of tourists to the area annually, but I expect few people take time to explore Alva. Alva is not touristy — it’s just another all-American town. Friendly and unpretentious, Alva is where kids wave at friends and strangers alike, where people leave their fishing tackle in the back of their pickups parked on the street. And in the yard
behind a stately brick house, you are as likely to find an old International Harvester tractor as a four-door Buick.

But those who do visit Alva will discover a city of magnificent murals — the history of Woods County, told through fine art on everything from the water tower to the lumber yard and 14 other buildings around town. The project began 10
years ago, motivated by civic pride and paid for with donated money. Trains don’t stop here anymore and the depot is gone, but a mural acts as a reminder. Steam-driven thrashers that harvested the wheat here a couple generations back are in a mural now. The Alva speedway is gone, but a mural depicts it. And doctors no longer make house calls on snowy nights, except, of course, in a mural.

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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