Step Out Of Your Car And Into The Past

Author: C.L. Harmon
Date Published: May 25, 2018


Step Out Of Your Car And Into The Past

C. L. Harmon

May 25, 2016

When the wind came sweep­ing down the plains of Okla­homa in the 1870’s and 80’s, it brought Native Amer­i­cans from all cor­ners of what would become the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States. In addi­tion, it brought set­tlers look­ing for a piece of earth to call their own and ulti­mate­ly an end of the west­ward expan­sion.  It was a melt­ing pot of chal­lenges and changes that would even­tu­al­ly lead to a boil­ing point that his­to­ry would remem­ber as the Land Run of 1889. Thou­sands would stake claims of 160-acre plots for them­selves while Native Amer­i­cans were set­tled onto reser­va­tions and indoc­tri­nat­ed into “white man’s” cul­ture. Whether one may argue as to what hap­pened dur­ing that peri­od was right or wrong, what can­not be argued is the incred­i­ble dynam­ic that poured out of that melt­ing pot.

Var­i­ous peo­ples from all types of dif­fer­ent back­grounds found them­selves in a ter­ri­to­r­i­al wilder­ness where they would cre­ate a soci­ety like no oth­er. Each day these peo­ple were mak­ing his­to­ry in their efforts to not only sur­vive but thrive. One room school hous­es and com­mu­ni­ty church­es would sprout up, leg­ends would be born, and cus­toms would begin los­ing their ori­gins only to be replaced by new ones under one name…Oklahomans.  In such a whirl­wind, these peo­ple would become one; they would form a state and an iden­ti­ty as the years passed. One Okla­homa town would rec­og­nize this amaz­ing accom­plish­ment and show­case it to those of who were not there to expe­ri­ence it.

Pis­tol Pete Stat­ue at the Okla­homa Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Plaza in Perkins, Ok.

C. L. Har­mon Photo

In all, there were sev­en land runs begin­ning with the famous ini­tial run of April 22, 1889. The town of Perkins near Still­wa­ter was opened up short­ly after one of those runs in 1891. It was the “gate­way to the Ioway and Sac and Fox reser­va­tions and the sym­bol­ic join­ing of white man and Indi­an lands. Fast for­ward over a cen­tu­ry lat­er, and one can find a memo­r­i­al of sorts to that time in state his­to­ry when the build­ing blocks of diverse cul­tures became a com­mon peo­ple. It began in 2005 when the city man­ag­er of Perkins want­ed to acquire con­gres­sion­al fund­ing for a stat­ue of its most famous cit­i­zen, Frank “Pis­tol Pete” Eaton who is most known today as the mas­cot for Okla­homa State University.

“Ini­tial­ly, I thought this is a waste of time. There is no way Con­gress is going to give us $200,000 for a cou­ple of stat­ues. But lo and behold, they did give us the mon­ey,” David Sass­er said. He was the one who the city man­ag­er asked to write the pro­pos­al for the project dubbed the Okla­homa Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Plaza. How­ev­er, Sass­er explined that at first, it was only going to be two stat­ues; one of Pis­tol Pete and the oth­er of Ioway Chief  Nacheninga or “No Heart”. The idea was to high­light the two cul­tures who worked togeth­er to form a soci­ety of uni­ty and work­ing togeth­er for the greater good.

“It has been real­ly inter­est­ing how so many things came togeth­er to cre­ate the plaza from the beginning.”

It was an idea that would quick­ly gain momen­tum. As the word spread about this small project, oth­er ideas would be sug­gest­ed to cre­ate an entire vision. The first of these was to move an old church which the city-owned to the site. Next to be added was a log cab­in built in 1901 and restored by the grand­son of its orig­i­nal own­ers. The one-room school was moved to the site a short time lat­er. With so many ideas for exhibits, space would quick­ly become an issue. For­tu­nate­ly, a local devel­op­er stepped up and offered to donate three acres to the project if the orga­niz­ers agreed to buy one across the street from the orig­i­nal loca­tion.  They did! Short­ly, after that move, anoth­er donor offered up more land allow­ing the park to be six acres.

C. L. Har­mon Photo

Now, the park need­ed a cen­ter attrac­tion to go along with the stat­ues and oth­er exhibits. Even­tu­al­ly the trust would acquire Pis­tol Pete’s house. It would take some time though. After his death in 1958, the fam­i­ly had used it as a gift shop. But it had fall­en into dis­re­pair over the years, and the fam­i­ly even­tu­al­ly donat­ed it to the plaza. With the help of an Okla­homa His­tor­i­cal grant, the orga­niz­ers were able to restore the house.

“It has been real­ly inter­est­ing how so many things came togeth­er to cre­ate the plaza from the begin­ning,” Sass­er said. He is the chair­man of the trust which oper­ates the plaza and has been on board since the plaza’s incep­tion. Anoth­er exam­ple of how “things came togeth­er” was the Cimar­ron Val­ley Rail­road Muse­um estab­lished by Bob Reed in Cush­ing in 1970. Reed donat­ed an old train depot build­ing and all of the con­tents to the plaza upon his pass­ing. Sass­er explained that Reed’s col­lec­tion is one of the best any­where and makes a great addi­tion to the plaza’s theme of ear­ly Okla­homa ter­ri­to­r­i­al his­to­ry. The exhib­it also includes a 1903 Cana­di­an Pacif­ic car, a caboose and even exec­u­tive coach donat­ed by oth­er fam­i­lies. All of these are open and avail­able for the pub­lic to walk through and expe­ri­ence what trav­el would have been like in those ear­ly days.

The best part about the plaza though is that it’s free. Also, it’s open every day of the year for those who like to walk the grounds and its trails. Although the build­ings and train cars are only open from Memo­r­i­al Day to Labor Day, vis­i­tors are wel­come to peek into the win­dows any­time when they are locked. Dur­ing the sum­mer months, the grounds are oper­at­ed by vol­un­teers who make the build­ings avail­able to vis­i­tors. In addi­tion, the grounds also have a splash pad for chil­dren to enjoy the sum­mer heat and pic­nic pavil­ions for adults

Pho­tos left and mid­dle are the inside of Pis­tol Pete’s home. Pho­to right is inside the train depot build­ing. C. L. Har­mon Photos

As I men­tioned, this is free. As such, it can be con­sid­ered a gift that out of state trav­el­ers and Okla­homans alike can enjoy. Sass­er explained that $1.5 mil­lion had been donat­ed by locals to help bring this his­tor­i­cal gift to life. He added that each year a fundrais­er is held which rais­es mon­ey to sus­tain the plaza which is held as a munic­i­pal trust. As such, the City of Perkins allo­cates some fund­ing for main­te­nance as it would for any city-oper­at­ed park. Anoth­er source of income for the plaza is through rent­ing out the old church and one of the two only mod­ern build­ings on the premis­es, the com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter, for wed­dings, fam­i­ly reunions, and receptions.
Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the plaza has reached its capac­i­ty to bring more exhibits with the com­ple­tion of the oth­er mod­ern build­ing, a small muse­um that hous­es many more arti­facts that were not able to fit into the oth­er exhibits. Sass­er said he hopes it will be open this year.
The plaza is a unique jour­ney through some of the state’s incred­i­ble his­to­ry and life that poured out of that melt­ing pot over the years. While walk­ing about, one can almost feel the days of old…the ones that can­not be expe­ri­enced from the teach­ings in a his­to­ry book. The plaza tru­ly is a gift from the City of Perkins to every­one who wants to see his­to­ry come alive for a few min­utes. It’s a rare find to expe­ri­ence his­to­ry that is not safe­ly pro­tect­ed behind a pane of glass. The ter­ri­to­r­i­al plaza gives one the up close and per­son­al expe­ri­ence; the smells of the old build­ings, the feel of a train seat, the creaks in the floors and the true under­stand­ing of what it must have been like all those years ago in a lit­tle place we like to call home. Let the winds of the plains sweep you into anoth­er time this sum­mer at the Okla­homa Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Plaza.
The plaza is locat­ed at 750 N. Main Street in Perkins, OK. For more infor­ma­tion, call (405) 547‑2777 or vis­it [email protected]

C.L. Harmon

C.L. Harmon

C.L. is an award-winning journalist who spent many years in the newspaper and freelance fields. In addition to holding reporting and editing positions throughout his career, he also owned and operated a newspaper for several years. He was born, raised, and continues to reside in Oklahoma.


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