The Watkins came to Oklahoma in 1901. Great Grandparents Rolandus Aurelian and Ellen Maria Clark Watkins of Lancaster, Wisconsin secured a Federal Land Lottery claim in Comanche County, Oklahoma.
In 2000, our most recent and delightful, visit Cousin Vicky Sheppard Jones brought out a few precious writings by her mother Margaret. Aunt Margaret was our grandfather’s sister. I have the fondest of memories of her, a warm, gracious and delicate woman. It is difficult to imagine her surviving farm life, the Dust Bowl and many more challenges. To our knowledge these two contemporaneous accounts of early life in Oklahoma were written from her own motivation.
Vicky permitted the writings out of her sight long enough for a quick trip to Kinko’s. It is from those copies that the transcriptions are made. The following is through the eyes of 14 year old Margaret as she describes the family’s first visit to the claim. It was some 2 months after the land had been acquired and a month and half after passenger train service to Lawton had begun.
25 October 1901 First visit to the Oklahoma farm –
It was on the twenty fifth of October that we landed in Lawton, Oklahoma, the new city. It was a dreary looking spectacle indeed that confronted us as we left the cars. “We” means the entire family but one, Ralph the next oldest, who remained in the old home town to finish his Senior year in High School. It was a rainy horrid day somewhere in the vicinity of ten o’clock in the morning that we left the train that seemed to be the last link connecting us with the old home and associates.
Everything about us was so new. The depot building itself was new and bedraggled in appearance made one wonder if it were homesick. Inside the windows were being washed by the rain, for the first time in their lives and the floor was taking on a darker muddier complexion. There were no seats as yet but as we glanced hopelessly about we noticed a red framed single spring cot folded up in one corner. Papa soon unfolded it but as Mama settled her weary 150 pounds upon it, it sank slowly but surely toward the floor. We children settled ourselves upon grips and John, the baby of six years, after trying first the lunch basket and then the cot with Mama decided the floor was the best after all. Here Papa and Charley, the oldest, left us while they went in search of accommodations. We spent almost the entire day waiting and watching for their return.
Finally late in the afternoon they came back and led us ankle deep in mud to a church tent where we could find lodgings. This tent was stretched over a frame and had a rough plank floor in it so that it was quite comfortable. Here we washed off a layer or so of dirt but did not get any where to the Wisconsin soil. By this time supper was ready and we hurried to a little shack next door to eat, for you remember it was only for lodgings at this tent. There was at this little shack with the sign “Cottage and Lodging” across the front. Here in one little room stood a table that would just seat six. That was just our number. We completely filled [it. By the time] supper was over the sun was shining. We walked about a little way looking over Lawton. When bedtime came [we discovered] that it had suddenly changed from one room into a number of smaller blue calico rooms with a narrow hall down the middle in which hung a large gasoline lamp. Blue calico curtains were strung on wires dividing the rooms into about six sleeping apartments and in each was a woven wire cot bed. One room across the hall from the one where Mama, Nell and I slept was partitioned off with red calico instead of blue calico. This we discovered belonged to the preacher who also “lodged” here. It was his duty to put out the light every night after questioning all about to know if everyone was ready. For it is needless to say one lamp gave everyone plenty of light and it must be admitted caused many shadow pictures.
The next morning after breakfast at the “Cottage” Papa hunted up a man with a wagon and team to take us out to the “claim” because of course that was our real destination. The man and wagon at last put in an appearance but was rather an uncomfortable conveyance to take a nine mile drive in. The extra top box had been put on and attached to this were the bows to stretch the wagon sheet over. There was one spring seat near the front of the wagon. On this Papa and the driver sat. Just behind this a plank had been placed across the top of the wagon with a comfort folded over it for a cushion. On this Mama, Nell and I sat striving in vain to touch the bottom of the wagon with our toes. The two boys were unsettled, sometimes in the front and sometimes in the back of the wagon but always on the lookout for something with a wild and wooly aspect. I was on the lookout too but what worried me was the long horned Texas steers that were everywhere. About a mile out of Lawton we had to ford Cach[e] Creek. We were hard down the steep bank at a great pace and drove upstream a little ways where Papa and the driver climbed out and [into the ] water.
These sharp steep red [banks] did not have such impossible looking bluffs shooting up from the water’s edge not but what we had and beauties too, but someway this was different The very air we breathed out on these glorious plains was different. It gave one such a sense of freedom and wildness that I at least had never expected felt before. As we left the Creek and the many people camping on its banks, we struck out on the old Duncan Trail that was traversed so many many times by the homeseekers in those exciting days before the opening. It was when we got onto the highlands again and were going over the wooly grass* that always reminded me of that old stock phrase “wild and wooly west” that the steers began to put in their appearance. When Papa would get out to read some little red cornerstones and have to walk quite a ways to find them I would worry indeed. In my imagination I could see Papa and his long coattails tossed wildly in the air by some of those long ugly horns exactly like the pictures of this in “The Cow that Tossed the Dog” given in “The House that Jack Built.”
That October seemed very warm indeed before Papa finally found the right cornerstone but I was a little afraid to suggest putting on the wagon sheet. I didn’t know but it might be an all day’s job. But at last the right cornerstone was found and we all looked much interested at the spot of prairie that was our “farm.” We drove on down to the creek that cut across one tiny corner of out place and followed it a little way further until we came to [little] the spring on a neighboring quarter. There we filled our water jug and driving back to our own place we proceeded to eat our lunch under the shade of [branching] trees.
The drive back to Lawton was uneventful. As we entered the city it seemed very different seen by the dim lights showing through canvas and uncleaned windows.
1903 Life on the Claim – Margaret Watkins [Sheppard]
To settle a claim is the lot that has fallen to many people in this new country. A little over two years ago people came from all over the United States to get one hundred sixty acres free.
It certainly seemed a dreary place to the settler who went to live on his claim soon after receiving it. When only two houses can be seen on this level stretch of prairie besides his own home it is little wonder the new settler feels a touch of home sickness as he thinks of the old, comfortable home that is so far away and the dear friends whom he has had to leave behind. Everything is so different. Where he has been used to timbered hills this bare prairie seems very strange. Even the air he breathes seems different.
To the west of his claim is perhaps a doctor from Pennsylvania. A few miles north a cowboy who has spent all of his life in this wild country. Before many settlers come in he witnesses many roundups of the cattle that have been grazing on the plain and that also liked to investigate his new home and incidentally tangle up the clothes lines that his wife had been filling in the morning.
Cowboys are seen driving up stray bunches of cattle from all points of the compass and it is interesting to watch them cutting out the animals that don’t belong to them. Great droves of these cattle pass his house every day.
Later when the claims around him all begin to change as his own has done he visits with people from every state in the Union. But besides his new acquaintances there still comes that longing for his old friend. He is very proud of this claim of his and plans his orchard, his pasture and his fields with great interest and there is never a prouder man than he when he can show his old friends over his place and of the night by the howl of the coyote at his very ears. He peers out into the moonlight and sees a grayish looking creature scampering around the corner of the house. He goes back to his bed and is just beginning to enter slumber land when he is awakened by what seems to be a chorus of a thousand coyotes. He seizes his gun and rushes out just in time to see one gray object disappearing in the distance. He is entertained in this way all of the night and by the next morning is about ready to leave the country.
He has a good opportunity for studying the different expressions of language used by people in all part so the country. He stands talking one day to a stranger who suddenly changes the conversation by saying . “I reckon you alls ah from the North.” The settler immediately “reckons” that he is not a northerner.
Again he asks one of his new friends to come and spend an evening with his family. A few days later he meets his neighbor who feels much abuse because when he went to spend the evening no one was at home. He is assured that everyone was at home on the evening he mentioned and then comes the explanation about afternoon and evening that everyone is familiar with.
And so time passes. The shacks that were first build and then slowly replaced by permanent houses and the prairie begins to look like a settled farming country.
*The fact that Margaret makes particular note of the grass is I think evidence of just how unique that prairie grass must have been. This heavy grass sod that had built for thousands of years extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian tundra. It had been sustaining and preserving prairie life through hundreds of hundreds of cycles of drought.
Doomed by the boomers, boosters and busters it would no longer be there when the next cycle recurred in 1930. The land and its life-forms were to be tortured for the 10 years the drought prevailed. – wlw