Guthrie, OK : A Preservation Story
Guthrie, Oklahoma was originally a coaling and watering station for the railroad that would eventually connect the Kansas rail-heads to the Texas cattlemen. This was one of several reasons why the Unassigned Lands were opened to settlement in the 1889 Land Run. Guthrie was chosen as the location of one of the land offices where runners would register their claim.
Estimates of the number of people who made the run vary wildly but shooting for the middle, it puts the number at around 50,000. One person of every three was successful in getting a claim. Guthrie was centrally located and seemed like an easy fit for the capital of Oklahoma Territory. So, runners, businesses, companies, and economic opportunists alike set their sights on Guthrie. Before noon on April 22, 1889 there was a single building in town, the land office, but just down the hill waited 20 trainloads worth of lumber and construction materials that had been shipped from Arkansas City, KS two weeks before.
Before the sun set on Guthrie that evening about 3,000 people had set up their tents breathing fresh life into whatever dreams for the future they carried. The very next day construction began in earnest building shops, restaurants, hotels, dentist offices, blacksmith shops, newspapers and anything else you could think of. Everybody worked out of tents until they could get a solid roof over their heads (which was needed being spring time in Oklahoma, the season of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes).
Within the month the storefronts lining the street are evident in photos.
Guthrie continued to grow in population. A census taken in 1890 showed 5,333 residents. The town was originally four different town-sites (Guthrie Proper, Capital Hill, East Guthrie & West Guthrie) but after three years they coalesced into one.
Fast Forward to 1907. Guthrie’s population stood at 11,652.
Guthrie was the bustling Territorial Capital and was going to be the Capital of the 46th state to join the Union. Entrepreneurs and business leaders were eager for Guthrie to make an impression on the world and spared no expense in designing their fresh facades in town. Everything was looking up for Guthrie…until partisan politics got in there an mucked it all up. It’s the same story as we here today. It’s all those evil republicans against those dreadful democrats. Sigh, what else is new?
On either side on the fence was Oklahoma City, supported by the newly elected Governor and his party, and Guthrie on the other side. Charles Haskell, our first Governor of Oklahoma offered a referendum, or a vote to the people, for the state to choose the location of their state capital. The voters overwhelmingly chose Oklahoma City. Overnight in Guthrie, property values plummeted. It didn’t take long for businesses, companies, and workers to find it more convenient to be located close to the new center of commerce in the state.
Guthrie’s population dwindled over the years falling to 9500 people. Guthrie’s promising financial future dried up. The town relied on cotton gins and agriculture until the dust bowl and the economic depression. As with every other town in the era, Guthrie struggled financially. And just like every other town, after World War II the economy was flush again. Money was infused into Guthrie economy but only at a trickle. The money that flooded into the larger cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City prompted updating and giving the city a fresh look. Urban renewal tore down old brick facades that had served for more than 50 years in favor of a new slick modern aesthetic. Only a few buildings in Guthrie suffered from the urban renewal fever but those were beautiful treasures that people in town still regret losing.
Guthrie citizens and business tried to keep up with the times. Many building owners purchased slick metal siding to the front of the buildings in the downtown area covering the beautiful brick ornaments and character. The vibrant personality and historic charm was washed and varnished to look sleek. In the 1980s oil crisis and the economic recessions that followed in Oklahoma, Guthrie began to look a little ragged around the edges. Decades of not having the financial resources devoted to keeping the town and its buildings standing tall had taken their toll. Several buildings were lost.
Enter new characters to town. Fred Olds, Ralph McCalmont, Jay Hannah, and many more. Two of these men were from out of town; bankers, in fact. They were greeted with a squint of suspicion from many of the people of Guthrie, that is until Fred Olds got his hooks into them. Ralph was said, “That man got me in to so much trouble. He could sell ice to Eskimo and have them asking for more.” Fred Olds was a local art teacher among other things. He was a staunch advocate for Guthrie and convinced everyone around him of all the potential Guthrie held.
Fred supplied the enthusiasm and the local banks helped supply the funding for business owners to restore their buildings to the original facades and show off their beautiful brick to every newcomer, every antique shopper, every Bed & Breakfast guest that ventured this way.
The population has hovered around 10,000 people (9500 at its lowest to 11,200 at its highest). People move in and people move out. As the Oklahoma City metro continues to grow Guthrie has become more of a suburb to the metropolis. The town has it quirks as most do. You have the the people in town who fall in love with the historic facades and homes around town. You also have the people who couldn’t care less about what the building looks like as long as it turns a profit when they sell it.
Guthrie is a neat little town living in it’s own time warp. Nothing happens fast and nobody is in a hurry. When you go to the grocery store you will be waved at and stopped in the aisles when someone recognizes that you weren't church last Sunday and asking if the kids are well.
There is room for progress and renewal but Guthrians learned a long time ago that it shouldn't come at the expense of the towns identity and the treasures we will regret when they are long gone. For example, the old City Hall was torn down in 1947 because it was outdated a “falling apart”. It took wrecking crew 4 days to tear it down. The wrecking ball bounced off the side of the tower several times leaving little damage. Crews finally had to wench cables up around the parapets and pull in opposite directions before the thing would fall.