April 20, 2018

Pages 3619-2621
Whole Number 150

JOHN M. SPARKS (1865-1930)
ANDTHE OPENING OF THE CHEROKEE STRIP IN 1893

by Ada Bernice (Sparks) Salz



[Editor's Note: See pages 3614-16 of the previous article for information regarding John M. Sparks and his family.]

On Sep 16, 1893, more than 50,000 persons staked claims in the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma. One of the 50,000 was my father, John Sparks, and he was one of the many who had been waiting in Caldwell, Kansas, for the shot to be fired which would allow that huge mob to be in the mad rush and race for land. Oklahoma is often called "The Sooner State" because so many of the first home steaders were so eager to claim the rich land that they entered the "territory" SOONER than it was opened up for settlement.

In this mad race, my father, John Sparks, rode horseback, but people were in buggies and wagons as well as on horses. My father's horse, "Daisey" was given special love and attention for as long as she lived following this race. My father rode and rode until he found country that looked like the soil was good for farming. He then stopped and drove his marker-stake into the ground. He was just in time, because two other claim-seekers wanted the same land and tried to beat him to Enid to the land office so they could file first, but faithful Daisy made it first, and our new home-to-be was saved.

This land was Section 6, Township 26, Range 5, near where Pond Creek now is located. Our little settlement was later named Jefferson. The claim, at that time, was on land called "L" County, and it was named thus as they at first used the letters of the alphabet for county names. Later "L" County was changed to Grant County in memory of President Grant.

Because one of my older sisters was the first white child born in Grant County after the opening of the Strip, she was named Viola Lahoma, "Okla" meaning people and "homa" meaning "red" in the Indian language, and that was the way Oklahoma got its name. The name means "land of the red people." It is a fitting name for the state because for many years it was a huge Indian reservation.

As I understand it, between 1825 and 1842, the Five Civilized Tribes had arrived and, for having given up their own land farther east, the government gave them the territory of Oklahoma. (It was called Indian Territory.)

John and Minnie May Sparks, my parents, had two children, Deana [Idena Fay] and Waldo, when they filed on the claim in 1893, and after the births of three more daughters and having "proved up" on their claim, they sold it and moved to Wichita, Kansas.

You have all read various books and stories written about the early pioneer days in Oklahoma Territory, but this story I am going to tell you really happened, and these facts are true.

I was just a babe in my mother's arms (having been born in Wichita on December 2, 1899, and named Ada), so I remember nothing myself, but my older sisters can remember how we made the journey from Wichita and have talked to me about it.

In 1889, when the federal government opened Indian Territory, which was admitted to the Union as the 46th state in 1907 under the name Oklahoma, more than two million acres had been staked out. As the years passed, other areas were opened for settlement, as had been the Cherokee Strip, noted earlier. The far western portion of the Cherokee Strip still remained open for homesteading at the turn of the century, and my father wanted to pioneer again. Living in Wichita, my mother had wished for more space for her growing children, and it was for this reason that she consented to pioneer a second time. Again, they would have to live on the land six months out of a year and live on the claim for five years before they could "prove up" on it.

Because two other families wanted to join us, one being my mother's brother, Ben Seevers, with his wife and two daughters, while the other family consisted of just a husband and wife, we pooled our resources, rented a boxcar from Santa Fe, and shipped our furniture and livestock to Alva (located in Woods County, Oklahoma). This was late in the winter of 1899-1900. Family members traveled on a passenger train a little later. I suppose we had to buy our covered wagons in Alva, but, anyway, a few days later we all started out in three covered wagons. We were taking our cattle with us. That was before the days of roads, bridges, or fences; I think we followed a trail that had been made by the Indians.

When we got to the North Cimmaron River and started to ford it, one of the lead horses balked, and we all got stuck in the quicksand. It was in early March, in the year of 1900, and still cold weather; nevertheless, the men took their shoes off, rolled up their pant legs, and carried the women and children on across the river. After unloading as much as they could, they got the wagons loose and on across. I think that it took us several days to make the trip, which is now about 50 or 60 miles and is made in our modern cars in an hour.

Our mother had an older brother who had been helping many settlers to locate and file on claims, and he had already filed and established himself on a claim near where Haskew was later located, north of Mooreland in Woodward County. We finally arrived at his claim, pulled our wagons together, put up tents, and lived there for several weeks or until our men could go on about six miles farther west where we had all filed on adjoining land. Later, when we did get our own places, all that we could see was the virgin prairies--just a sea of tall grass. There were some rocky hills, many, many rattlesnakes, no water, no fences, no nothing--just prairies.

Cattle men had located before the land was opened up for settlement and had been using open range for grazing their cattle. They were very unhappy to have us come in, and they tried to run us out by burning us out. We would look up and see a strip of burning grass and flames roaring toward us. Then everyone, children and all, would grab sacks and buckets of water and fight the fire to save our homes and everything we had.

Speaking of water, the Tandy Cattle Ranch was located near us, and it had a running spring. We had to go there, fill up our water barrels and haul them home on our wagons, so water was very precious. We had to use it, however, to fight the fires and save our homes.

Our mother wrote to President McKinley, and he put a stop to the burning, and as fast as they could, our men dug wells and built fences. In the mean time, the older children had to herd our cattle to keep them from straying and getting mixed up with the cattle owned by the cattlemen.

Before so very long, our mother managed to arrange to get a post office, and it was named Ellendale, Oklahoma. She was post-mistress as long as we lived on the claim. We were 25 miles north of Woodward, the seat of justice of Woodward County.

I do not know how long it was before we got our frame schoolhouse, but before that we had a "soddy" part of it built back into a bank, and the men made benches for us to sit on, but we had no desks at this time. They painted boards black for a blackboard for us, and a man teacher rode about six miles on his horse each school day to teach us.

Later we had a one-room frame building for a school, and if you want to know about early churches, the very first thing to resemble a church in Ellendale was this schoolhouse. In fact, it was used for a Sunday School when our mother managed to get supplies and to get it organized. She had brought an organ from Wichita with our furniture, so on Sundays the organ was loaded on the wagon and taken to the schoolhouse; in fact, the organ was just about worn out from moving it back and forth; also from taking it back and forth for square dances.

If you can imagine the hardships, trials, and the many things to combat, you can get an idea of how our beautiful city of Woodward came into being. These courageous men and women hung on through heat and cold, poverty and sick ness, and also had the strength and character to make possible the schools and churches that we have today.

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