Woods County, Oklahoma

PIONEER and Pioneering

On the 16th of September, 1893, I rode into Alva on the train. My companion was a tall, slim fellow by the name of A. H. Burtis , from Garden City, Kansas. When I got off the train, everybody started to run for town lots, and I observed my slim friend running neck and neck with a tall woman and a long, one-legged shoemaker from Kiowa. The woman had drawn her skirts up about her knees so she could run easier and the shoemaker was lunging and plunging with his one leg, and the three of them were making the best time they could to the town lot section. The spectacle was too much for my risibles , and in laughing at them I fell down and failed entirely to get a lot. On the next day, however, in skirmishing around I found a lot at the outer section of the town near the depot. It was a lot that manifestly nobody else wanted. But it sprang to my mind that perhaps it might be valuable on account of its proximity to the box car which was used for a depot. I set my stake upon it and thereby initiated my claim. J. D. Scott, who was later affectionately known as "Uncle Jim," loaned M. G. L. Miller and myself, who were law partners, his tent, in which on the corner of the square we opened our law office. Every lawyer about the town was busily engaged in making out filing papers and were all earning from $5.00 to $15.00 a day at that and filing contests. This was more money than I had ever expected to earn as long as I lived, and I was most assiduous in my attention to it. In the meantime I lost no opportunity in explaining and bragging to everybody about the valuable piece of real property I had been successful in securing. It was the first I had ever owned.

Four or five days later, Dr. H. M. Clark, a lovable character who has since died, drifted into my office and said, "Mr. Dunn, I notice you have a lot down about the depot and I am told you can get $50.00 for it if you want to sell it." I said to him, "No, I don't care to sell it. I intend to keep it." In the afternoon of the same day, my friend Burtis and another gentleman whom I did not know then, but who I afterwards learned was George Crowell, came in and offered me $100.00 for the lot. I explained to them that if it was worth $100.00 to them it was worth more than that to me, and I purposed keeping it. From then on at intervals, other men came in, and constantly raised the price on my property until it reached a value of $500.00, which, impressed with my good fortune, I refused. This was a faster rise in the value of real property than had ever taken place since the Hebrews entered the Holy Land, and faster than I ever expected to make money as long as I lived, so I began to feel myself wealthy.

You can imagine my dismay when a day or two later, Mr. Miller, my law partner, and Burtis both came in and said, "Jesse, some fellow has jumped your lot." This was alarming intelligence to me, and as they both volunteered to go with me to see if it could not be recovered, we started. On my way I gathered up a four or five foot piece of scantling, determined to do battle royal for my valuable lot. When we came in sight of it, we saw a man with a team of mules on it. On reaching there, I found that my stake had been thrown down and another one put into its place, which bore the following:

"This lot is the property of John Duncan. Anybody caught trespassing thereon will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

I immediately assumed that the man with the mules was Duncan, and backed by my very much interested friends, approached him and said, "Is your name Duncan?" He said, "No, sir. My name is Prentice." "Well," I said, "Mr. Prentice, what are you doing on this?" "Why," he said, "it had good grass on it, and I just thought I would lariat my mules so that they could eat it." "Well," I said, "this is a valuable piece of property, and it looks as if there might be some litigation over it." He said he made no claim to it and of course readily agreed to move. My efforts to retain my property met with active co-operation and assistance from my two very much interested friends.

I removed Duncan's stake (which, of course, had been put there, by the jokesmiths) and re-established my own, and met with no further trouble, nor did I ever find or see Duncan. In the fall of 1896 1 was elected county attorney of the county, and as the grand jury was about to adjourn during my first term, one of the members said, "Mr. Dunn, what is the statute of limitations upon a prosecution for an assault?" I told him and he then said, "Well, I just wanted to know." He said, "My name is Prentice and a fellow assaulted me with a scantling on the lot down about the depot at the time of the opening of the strip."

It is unnecessary to state that this being at a period prior to the arrival of Reverend Dinwiddie in Oklahoma and of Mr. Volstead in the nation, invitations and acceptances were then the order of the day; and it is also unnecessary to state that the lot which so rapidly grew in value was afterwards sold for taxes. The ice plant is now located on it.


On the south side of the public square, a man by the name of Hepsher, father-in-law of John Wesley Bishop, had a store. One of the young ladies was named Miss Nellie. The family lived in a tent back of the store. Paying attention to Miss Nellie was a tall, rangy cowboy by the name of George Kempta, who always wore his high boots, spurs and shooting irons, and who usually arrived about once a week at the home of his inamora. John Moe, a great big, thick, heavy, fat Swede from Wisconsin, a protege of Senator Vilas, had a place on the town site board, and began buying his cigars at the Hepsher store and paying attentions to the same young lady.

One night about nine o'clock, while visiting at her home, George Kemp arrived unexpectedly upon the scene. Moe made the best of the opportunity to get away, and down the south side of the public square to the west he ran with all the fervor and ardor that a man seeking safety ever manifested. Like the scared coon, he said, "Feet help the body," and the patter patter of his feet were clearly audible across the public square, while right behind him ran Kemp with his six shooter in active operation. Bang, bang, bang, its reports lent speed to Moe's flight. He ran clear to the home of Percy Smith, who was county clerk, and who since died), before stopping, and there found a place of refuge and of relief. On being asked a few days later why he ran, he said, "By Yiminy! because I couldn't fly."


A justice of the peace of the name of Ravenscroft, near Lahoma, was victimized by an outraged husband and wife arresting and having brought before him another outraged husband and wife, charging them with slander, which was not a criminal offense. I was county attorney at the time and was summoned to appear and prosecute, but of course declined and recommended the dismissal of the action; whereupon both parties secured counsel from Enid, the defendants in the person of J. Buell Ferguson, one of its good lawyers. At the time of the trial, Ferguson filed a motion to dismiss because the complaint did not state an offense. The story is told that Ravenscroft, taking up the motion, rapped on the table, and looking around over the crowd, which extended from the house clear out to the front gate, announced the motion, and stated that if he could get order he would put it; whereupon Ferguson asked the judge for a delay long enough until he could get his friends in the house if he was going to decide it that way.


Bill Sholtz was a butcher who had a shop near Snyder's dry goods store. One day Bill, having done all of the butchering for the community that he deemed necessary, concluded he would try it on himself, and back of a big, tall ice box reaching to the ceiling in the middle of the room, he rigged up a rope and putting it about his neck swung himself off. His swinging body was discovered and he was cut down, but too late to save his life.

We just had one negro about the town whose name was Bill Franklin. He was the porter, janitor, scrubber and man-of-all-work for everybody. A few days later, the owner of the Sholtz meat shop building hired Bill to scrub it out. Claud McCrory, who has since died, Clark Hudson, Roy Stafford, Frank Shelley, who likewise has passed on, and a number of others, gained access to the rear entrance of the building, fixed up a dummy and hung it up by a rope in the same place where poor Sholtz had hung.

The next morning Bill came in with his bucket of water and scrubbing outfit and was busily engaged about his work until he came in back of the ice box and was confronted by the swaying figure. He gave two wild whoops and started for the front door. The sidewalk was covered with sleet and ice and the street was full of mud and water, and when Bill struck the sleet and ice he didn't stop until he reached the mud and water into which he rolled, to the intense merriment of the sacrilegious onlookers. Somebody else scrubbed the shop.


W. H. Henderson ran the most notorious saloon in Alva. He called his place "Bill's 444." When prohibition first struck Oklahoma, I passed his place and saw that the door was draped with crepe. A cartoon was in the window showing the inside of a church with a lot of saloon keepers in the pews and a big, red-faced beer-and-whiskey dispenser in the pulpit. He was just saying, "Brethren, we will now all rise and sing No. 23, `Shall we gather at the river?' "


F. M. Cowgill is one of the best men and the best lawyers and one of the best fathers and the best citizens and one of the most congenial, and at the same time one of the most indifferent and uncongenial men that ever lived in Oklahoma or anywhere else. He and I loved each other like David and Jonathan, and yet two men in many particulars could scarcely differ temperamentally to a greater extent in some particulars than did Cowgill and myself. After I was elected to the bench, he concluded to quit practicing law and went into the general store goods business, opening his stock at Alva. He had for one of his clerks long, lean, lanky, sarcastic Tom Adams. Business did not flourish. Tom ascribed it to his employer's lack of congeniality and lack of ability to mix with the trade in a proper way. One day Cowgill came into the store and said, "Tom, I don't want your advice, but I want to know what you think about it. I've got a notion to move this stock to Dakota. What do you think about it? Tom looked him over in a quizzical way, and in his halting speech said, "W-w-w-ell, M-mr. C-c-cowgill, y-y-y-you m-might t-t-try it a wh-wh-while; it w-would be a y-y-year be-be-before th-the p-p-people g-get ac-ac-acquainted w-wi-with y-you, and th-then y-you c-c-could m-mo-move ag-ggain."


One of the men whose acquaintanceship I prized most highly was that gentlemanly old soldier Will J. French. We had a peculiar acquaintanceship. On the day of the opening, he entered eighty acres adjoining Alva, but at a time when his business kept him entirely, or nearly so, in the southern part of the United States. He remained on his land practically not at all, doing just what he deemed necessary to hold it. He was contested several times and in each instance managed to shake the offenders off. Finding on one occasion when he was gone that he was going to be contested in earnest by another party, I determined to anticipate him and did so, and filed a contest case against the land. The case was bitterly fought. Two trials were had in the local office and against myself. French, who was a brave, high-tempered man, swore dire vengeance and doubtless was in a temper and frame of mind to, carry it out. I kept out of his way to avoid a personal quarrel. Throughout the entire course of litigation, however, I insisted upon nothing in my own behalf except the things which Mr. French testified to or the things which were testified to by others and not denied by him. When the case was finally appealed to the Secretary of the Interior, after he had lost it all the way up and he was endeavoring to get a new hearing, he came into my office one day and asked me to make him an affidavit to help him, and I did so, making him just as strong an affidavit as the facts would warrant, and the secretary in writing his opinion commented upon the fact that "Dunn, the contestant, has made an affidavit in defendant's behalf." When the entry was finally canceled, French had been appointed receiver of the United States Land Office. He and I went out together over the land, appraised all the improvements he had built upon it, and I, paid him for the same, and then went into the land office with him and filed on it before him as receiver. This was in 1900.

In 1904 I was elected chairman of the United State Democratic Committee. French at the same time was chairman of the Woods County Republican Committee. We both accidentally met at Cleo on the day of either a race meet, fair or rally. Both, tired and weary with the day's doings, entered the only hotel at practically the same time, and I registered and was assigned the last room in the house. French, standing immediately at my elbow, was refused a room. I said to him, "If you will take chances on it, I will let you sleep with me." He said, "There never was any man too mean for me to sleep with when I am as tired as I am now." I told him that there were others in the same situation, but at the same time opined that the bed would break down with us before morning. It did, in the middle of the night; we both turned over at once, and out went all the slats.

When I came to prove up on the claim, I advertised him as one of my witnesses and he, like the thoroughbred that he was, came in and faithfully testified for me. We became the staunchest and warmest of friends, and, it is with a sad heartache that I have learned that he has answered the last call. He was a good fellow - a good father and a good friend and I loved him for both qualities.


In the fall of 1895, the City of Alva voted $15,000.00 waterworks bonds. Jesse F. Scanlan had a hardware store in the city and made a contract with the City Council, agreeing to put in a system of waterworks for the bonds. Thereupon the entire issue was turned over to him, and he left the city. Immediately on his departure Richards and Conover of Kansas City, Missouri, wholesale hardware merchants, acting through Mr. Womack attached and closed his store for $4,000.00 of indebtedness to it. Thereupon the city dads became exceedingly busy to find Scanlan and the bonds. I was acting as City Clerk, and when telegram after telegram and inquiry after inquiry failed to locate Scanlan and nothing could be heard from him, the city vested in me authority as its agent, and the sheriff appointed me deputy, and armed with a warrant I fared forth in the world to find Scanlan and the bonds. We naturally expected him to go to Kansas City or to St. Louis, so thither I went in November the thousands who jammed the old Union Depot early in the of 1895. Arriving in Kansas City, I crowded my way among morning, to the telegraph office, intending to ascertain from Alva if they had any news of Scanlan. As I pushed my way up to the window, I came up against the very man I was looking for - Jesse Scanlan, who was sending a telegram. I stepped back and when he turned around he saw me and recognized me, and said, "Well, I suppose you are after me." I told him I was, and I said to hires, "Jesse, have you the bonds with you?" He said, "No, they are in a bank in St. Louis." We talked for a few moments, then he said, "I wish you would wait here a little bit. I want to go across to the Blossom House, and I will come back." I was agreeable, and he left me.

Just here, in order to have the story follow the track of all well-regulated anecdotes he ought to have completely disappeared, and I should have been left with my regret for my courtesy. But not so. In a few moments he returned, and asked me to go with him to the Blosom House, which I did. There I met Elmer E. Beach (who, I understand, has since passed away), who was the traveling salesman for the Richards and Conover Hardware Company, and who had sold Scanlan the goods for which he was indebted. Beach evidently knew that I had been informed that the bonds were in St. Louis, and that I had come for them. He said to me, "Dunn, there is no use in going to St. Louis on this morning's train, because yon will not get in there until night, and you will not be able to do any business until tomorrow morning. You had better stay in Kansas City all day today, and then take a sleeper out of here tonight for St. Louis, and you will arrive there in the morning in due time for business. In the meantime, Scanlan and I have some business at the house and will be glad to see you at the Midland Hotel for lunch." This seemed to be fair enough, and I was agreeable.

Just here the story takes its proper course, for I kept the luncheon engagement and, of course, nobody was there to meet me. Then I went to the wholesale house and, of course, they were not there. Then I tramped the streets of Kansas City and hunted for them, but I never saw them. During this time, however, my suspicions had been confirmed that I had been made the victim of too much confidence, and I got on the telegraph wires and sent about a dozen messages, one to every prominent bank in St. Louis, as follows: "The Alva waterworks bonds held by you have been embezzled. Under no circumstances deliver them to anyone as the city will hold you responsible for them." That night a very much disgusted, chagrined and bewildered mortal occupied a sleeping car berth on one of the trans-Missouri trains from Kansas City to St. Louis.

Immediately on landing in St. Louis, about 7:30 in the morning, without waiting for more than a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and not delaying for a shave or brush-up, I started from one bank to another about the business streets of the city just as fast as I could go, finding, of course, no one in but the janitors, but to each one of them I said that in that bank there was $15,000.00 of Alva waterworks bonds and that people were going to come to try to get them, and that I wanted him to see the first officers of the bank who arrived and to tell him that the agent of the city was there, and not to deliver them under any circumstances. In the course of these rounds, at about nine o'clock, I came to the Commercial Bank on Pine Street. A clerk had arrived by this time, and when I had sung my lay he said, "The cashier is not in, but Mr. Nichols, the president, has arrived, if you would like to speak to him." I told the clerk I would. I entered the presence of the president, presented my credentials, and told him who I was and what I wanted. He said, "Yes, I got your telegram. The bonds are here all right, but what is the matter?" Just then a page came in and said, "Mr. Nichols, there is a man in your office in a big hurry, and he wants to see you." The president excused himself and shortly came back and said, "There is another fellow here for those bonds, and he has got the receipt with him that we issued when we received them, and also an order from Scanlan, the man who left them here, and demands that I turn them over." I immediately went with him, and there in his private office was my Kansas City acquaintance, Elmer Beach, fully credited with authority to receive the bonds and absolve the bank from all liability. I explained the situation to Mr. Nichols, and he declined to deliver the bonds to either of us. Whereupon, I brought a replevin suit in a Justice of the Peace court, alleging that their value was $250.00. Geo. T. Parry and I went to St. Louis in the spring of 1896, tried the case, and removed the bonds. Napoleon said that he defeated the Austrians in Italy because they did not know the vale of five minutes. The time it took Elmer Beach to get his breakfast, shave, shine and manicure was less than the difference in the time of his arrival and mine at the Commercial Bank which held the bonds.


Alva, like all of the balance of the Strip towns, grew into a city without any preparation for it. Therefore, immediately after the citizens had time to get out of the tents and into houses, they began to prepare to take care of the needs of the municipality. Among the first things considered was the question of water, and among the first meeting held were those devoted to a discussion of how to solve the water problem. Like most of the other towns, Alva also had her full supply of saloons which were generally generously patronized by the men of those early times. In fact, it was something of a rarity to find a member of the "No, thank you club." The first waterworks meeting was largely attended by not only those who were patrons of the bars, but also by those who were purveyors back of the bars, along with all of the balance of the adult population of the city. The question was whether to vote waterworks bonds for a system of waterworks, and one after another of these old, well-known souses and their equally well-known creditors arose and proclaimed in vociferous tones the necessity of waterworks. Along with the balance of the citizenship was F. M. Cowgill, who was one of the few citizens of the community who neither drank nor looked with equanimity upon anyone else who did. He wore wiskers and eyeglasses, and, when the Christian preacher failed in his appointments, usually filled his pulpit. After quite a number of the membership of the bleary-eyed community had been recognized and spoken to or on the subject, the chair called on Cowgill. He looked over the audience, made a mental and cursory review of those who had preceded him and spoken on the subject, and said, "Mr. Chairman, I don't know anything about this water question, but I would like to hear somebody talk on it who uses water," and sat down.

'Nuf sed !


One afternoon, A. C. Towne and the writer drifted into the court of J. J. Hughes, who was judge of they county court, to argue a demurrer. On coming in, we found that Hon. C. H. Mauntel, who was then county attorney, was prosecuting a young fellow, who was charged with having stolen three hogs at Isabella in Woods county and having loaded them into a wagon and taken them to Waukomis to the railroad, where he sold them for $21.50. The defendant, about twenty-one years of age, had no counsel and had entered a plea of guilty. Under the statute, the value of the property being in excess of $20.00, he was guilty of a felony and was headed direct to the penitentiary. If its value could be reduced it would be a misdeameanor, which a jail sentence would cover. Towne and myself, grasping the situation and seeing that the young fellow was without counsel, and being acquainted with his people, asked the court for permission to talk to the boy and see if a defense could not be found for him. This was granted. The trial was proceeded with, and we established by witnesses that it was worth $3.00 to haul the hogs from Isabella to the railroad, secured credit therefore upon the price received, reduced the offense threby to a misdemeanor, and justice in Oklahoma once more triumphed.

I will say again, as I have often said before, Chris Mauntel is one of the best hearted fellows in the world, for he did not much oppose such a flagrant breach of the law, - even though he was county attorney.
Written by Jesse J. Dunn)
(Source: Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 3, No 2. June. 1925)


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