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Battle Cry for History: The First 125 Years of the Oklahoma Historical Society

By Bob L. Blackburn*

It began on Saturday morning, May 27, 1893, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory—an appropriate time in an appropriate place. The town, founded only minutes after the Land Run of 1889, still had the rough edges of its frontier birth, with wood framed buildings filling most of the lots on one block of Main Street and a scattering of homes that created an image town boosters called promise.

Off to the west was the old Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation, opened to non-Indian settlement only the previous year. To the south, beyond the Canadian, was the Chickasaw Nation, where an ancient Indian culture was fighting a losing battle against intruders, allotment, and assault on tribal sovereignty. To the east, on either side of the Santa Fe tracks and a few frontier boomtowns were several thousand farm families scratching a living from their 160-acre homesteads. To the north was the Cherokee Outlet, a vast ranch land soon to be opened by the largest of the land runs.

On the streets of Kingfisher that Saturday morning, nineteen members of the Territorial Press Association walked toward the courthouse where they were to conduct their third annual business meeting. Inside, the editors discussed legal rates, trade territories, and an excursion to the Chicago World’s Fair. Then their attention turned to William P. Campbell, editor of the Kingfisher newspaper. Campbell referred to a successful program to save newspapers in Kansas and asked his fellow editors to sponsor a similar historical society to collect and preserve newspapers as they were being published in the young territory. After all, they were living in historic times, and who better to document and preserve the story than newspapermen. The assembled editors agreed. With a show of hands, they began the first 125 years of the Oklahoma Historical Society.1

Little did the editors realize that 125 years later their offspring would be a statewide educational institution with a budget of $21.7 million, 150 employees, the Oklahoma History Center, staffed historic sites and museums scattered across the state, and nationally recognized research, publication, and preservation programs. That century and a quarter of growth was slow at times, explosive at others, but it was much more consistent, much more organic than most people realize. From roots planted in 1893, the society would grow at a pace dictated by challenges, opportunities, and the battle cry of “preserving and perpetuating the history of Oklahoma and its people.”

In 1893 the battle cry was more like a whisper. The society had no bylaws, no operating budget, and no staff. There was, however, William P. Campbell, “Historical Custodian.” Although he received no salary or office, Campbell quickly issued a call for donations and stated his objectives—“the collection of newspapers, books and periodicals, productions of art, science and literature, matters of historic interest, etc.” Within four months, using his fellow editors and their newspapers as a marketing arm, Campbell accepted into the collections complete sets of nine daily and forty-seven weekly newspapers, several books, and contemporary documents such as the “Reports of Oklahoma Territorial Governor, 1891–1893,” “Common School Laws of Oklahoma, 1893,” and “Township Laws, 1893.”2

The efforts of Campbell and the press association earned the support of territorial governor William C. Renfrow, who, in his address to the legislature in 1895, forcefully if not eloquently said, “The importance of collecting and preserving inviolate this great source from which the future history of Oklahoma may be read and written, is a subject which ought to demand the attention of the legislature to secure the permanency of such a bureau.” One month later, when the press association attempted to capitalize on that support, they found they already had a partner, the University of Oklahoma.3

Caretakers of the OHS’s growing collections in 1910 included, left to right: Edith Knean, file clerk; Lon Wharton, secretary; Jasper Sipes, president; and W. P. Campbell, historical custodian (20058, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS).

In December of 1894, French S. E. Amos, a university instructor of history and civics, had organized a historical society as a class project and filed incorporation papers with the secretary of state, a step that had not been taken by the press association. With legal status, Amos enlisted the support of university president David Ross Boyd, who used his considerable political skills to get a bill submitted to the territorial legislature making the new historical society the trustee for territorial records and appropriating $2,000 for its operations.4

Modeled after the Kansas Historical Society, the new society vowed to “collect, embody, arrange, and preserve books, pamphlets, maps, charts, manuscripts, papers, paintings, photographs, stationery, and other materials illustrative of the history of Oklahoma.” The articles of incorporation also provided for a board of directors with twenty-five members, who would be appointed for one-year terms, and the offices of president, two vice presidents, secretary, and treasurer. After a compromise was reached with Campbell guaranteeing a controlling membership of editors on the board of directors, the bill was passed and the collections were moved to the single building on the campus in Norman.5

The next seven years in Norman were largely uneventful for the society other than the addition of a few collections, most notably the records of the aborted Cimarron Territory in the Oklahoma Panhandle. In 1901, probably responding to a combination of apathy in Norman and the increasing political clout of a booming Oklahoma City, the territorial legislature passed an act allowing the board of directors to transfer the collections of the society “whenever in their judgment a more suitable place is found for the safekeeping of the property of the Society.” Also included was a provision that the society would eventually move into a State Capitol Building when constructed. The following year, when an invitation of free rent was offered by the directors of the newly constructed, fireproof Carnegie Library in Oklahoma City, the directors voted to move the society.6

With additional space, two staff members, and a budget that averaged $3,000 a year, the society continued its steady course of “collecting.” By 1907 the inventory included 3,034 bound volumes of newspapers, 1,027 books, 1,884 documents and official reports, 208 speeches and papers, 656 manuscripts, and 426 legislative records. This was soon supplemented when the first state legislature instructed territorial agencies to turn all surplus documents and records to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Campbell, who had been reinstated as custodian in 1904, also sought collections through a new publication, Historia, and active correspondence.7

In 1917 the State Capitol was completed and the society moved into yet another temporary home. The move was accompanied by several changes, most significantly increased appropriations—from $3,600 in 1916 to $18,525 in 1918—and a larger staff. In the ten years from 1916 to 1926, the staff grew from two to eight, including a secretary, director of research, librarian, cataloguer, bookkeeper, field collector, file clerk, and caretaker. The investment of resources paid handsome dividends.8

A simple museum in the State Capitol was organized from the mass of collections, roughly divided into display cases on archaeology, ethnology, Oklahoma history, United States history, and “miscellaneous.” True to the eclectic nature of the collections, Spiro artifacts were paired with bricks from the ruins of Babylon; Caddoan artifacts were placed with silver vases from the Incan empire of Peru; and crude pioneer tableware was contrasted with a cup and saucer owned by Martha Washington and a copper kettle used by Abraham Lincoln. There were photographs and portraits of pioneers such as Sam Houston and David L. Payne; the bugle that sounded the Run of ’89; the original land warrant granting lands to the Choctaw in 1840; numerous swords, sabers, sashes, and sidearms; and hundreds of Indian artifacts ranging from tipis to homespun Cherokee hunting shirts.9

Increased space and appropriations also improved the research collections. By 1926 the newspaper files included more than 10,000 bound and unbound volumes, including issues of the oldest continuously published newspaper in the state, the Indian Journal. The library, flush with an annual acquisitions budget of $1,300, grew to 4,500 volumes by 1926 and included unique books such as McKinney and Hall’s three-volume set of Indian Tribes in American History (1836–44), a complete set of the Missionary Herald (1822–62), Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1832), and a rare copy of Istutsi in naktsokv, or The Child’s Book (1835).10

The new visibility also generated increased donations for the archives. In 1917 Alice Robertson and her sisters donated the journals, letters, and diaries of their grandparents, the Worcesters, who were pioneer missionaries among the Cherokees. Other personal papers added to the collections included part of the diary of Dan Jones, who recorded, day by day, the passage of herds on the Chisholm Trail; the journal of Josiah Butler, a Quaker teacher at Fort Sill from 1870 to 1871; and the letters of Cassandra Sawyer Lockwood, who described the adventures of a trip from Boston to Dwight Mission in 1838. Caught in the enthusiasm for primary documents, the board of directors even paid $200 for the three-hundred-page journal of the Union Mission to the Osages, dating from 1820 to 1826.11

Although impressive, the collecting activities were not new to the society, just expanded and improved. An entirely new program that would have a major impact on the society for years to come was the initiation of The Chronicles of Oklahoma. The editorship was assigned to James Buchanan and Edward Everett Dale, both history professors at the University of Oklahoma. Volume one, number one was released in January of 1921, with five articles ranging from “Some Letters of General Stand Watie” to “The History of No-Man’s Land, or Old Beaver County.” The second issue was released in October of 1921, again under the editorship of Buchanan and Dale. The third issue, delayed by a 40 percent cut in state appropriations, did not appear until June of 1923, and then under the editorial supervision of the society’s Publication Committee. For the next thirty-one years, with both content and production assigned to the society’s staff, the editor and executive director would be one and the same.12

New programs, new staff, and growing collections led to greater demands for a permanent historical building. As early as 1909, an organization in Oklahoma City called the Women of ’89 had campaigned for a new building, adopting the motto “Our Work: A State Historical Building.” Board members and staff joined the chorus, but little happened until 1919 when patriotic groups suggested a $500,000 memorial arch for the veterans of World War I. Why not, reasoned outgoing governor and OHS board member Robert L. Williams, take that same amount of money and construct a historical building that would also be a memorial to Oklahoma’s veterans. Williams and other political forces halted plans for the arch, but without the substitute building.

Funding was not the problem, thanks in large part to a provision added by Congress to the bill opening the Cherokee Outlet. In that authorization, Congress had set aside two additional sections in every township for the support of public buildings. The land was transferred to the state in 1907 and could be leased or sold to raise money for construction. Throughout the 1920s the board of directors regularly called for a new building using this source of funding.

On February 25, 1929, the legislature responded with a bill authorizing a building for the society. It was to be a war memorial building, with offices and galleries set aside for veteran groups and patriotic associations, constructed at a cost of $500,000 and located southeast of the State Capitol, the first such addition to the grounds since 1917. Wasting no time, a board committee conducted a whirlwind tour of other society buildings across the country and found what it wanted in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The resulting design—from massive Ionic columns to marble floors—was a mirror image of the Minnesota Historical Building, only 20 percent larger.13

While the “Temple of History” did not prompt an increase in staff or appropriations, it did allow for new initiatives and the expansion of collections, most notably American Indian records. Since 1908 the society had sought the records of the Union Agency in Muskogee, where, stacked like the treasure it represented to historians, were several million documents dealing with agency business as well as records on the governments, courts, and tribal officers of the individual Indian nations.

The Oklahoma Historical Society Building under construction, April 1, 1930 (6429, Robert L. Williams Collection, OHS).

The society’s campaign to acquire the Union Agency records gained momentum in the 1920s. In 1927 the OHS Board of Directors optimistically voted to take all Indian files as they became available, followed two years later by a bold decision to hire a clerk to work with Grant Foreman to catalog the collections. Still, the documents remained the property of the federal government.14 In 1933 the society broadened its ambitions to agency and tribal records in the western part of the state, where agents to the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shawnee, and Sac and Fox anticipated the closing of their offices. Oklahoma’s congressional delegation responded and in March of 1934 Congress passed a bill transferring all tribal records in the state to the Oklahoma Historical Society, which would in effect serve as a repository agent for the federal government. By April a room on the southeast corner of the second floor had been set aside for the Indian Archives and the transfer began.15

Despite that monumental achievement, the society had little hope of avoiding cuts in appropriations and staff due to the Great Depression. The leadership fell back on the three “R’s”: room, records, and resourcefulness. The new building provided adequate space for new projects, and the results of more than forty years of collecting offered countless opportunities for arranging, processing, and utilizing historical materials. In the best tradition of resourcefulness, the leadership coupled those assets with new federal programs designed to “make work” for victims of the Great Depression.

The first results were the Indian murals painted by the Kiowa Five on the third floor of the museum, funded in 1934 through the Civilian Works Administration. The following winter, with a $24,000 grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the society started a project that employed fifty people—ten typists, thirty “classifiers,” and ten librarians. As if to disprove the common reference to the WPA as “We Piddle Around,” the workers over a two-year period indexed 15,000 volumes of the newspaper collection, arranged and classified 350,000 archival documents, and assembled a biographical index to the book and periodical collections. The project would continue until 1941.16

In 1936, ready for field work, the society teamed with the history department at the University of Oklahoma to get a WPA Federal Writers’ Project grant for an interview program. The project employed more than one hundred writers scattered across the state, with headquarters in Muskogee, where Grant Foreman served as project director. Asked to “call upon early settlers and [record] the story of the migration to Oklahoma and their early life here,” the writers conducted more than 11,000 interviews, edited the accounts into written form, and sent them to the project director who completed the editorial process and had them typed into more than 45,000 pages. When assembled, the Indian-Pioneer Papers consisted of 112 volumes, with one set at the university, the other at the society.17

The public works projects conducted by and for the society signaled a change in attitude that had been building slowly for the past decade. The change was from an introverted, “collecting” institution to one that also stressed outreach and activism. Part of the explanation was the new, more aggressive role of government, going beyond passive service to becoming an agent of change. Added to this was a new regionalism, a sense that the people of Oklahoma and the Southwest shared a common heritage that should be celebrated in music, theater, literature, and history. The Chronicles, first published in 1921, was an early sign of this new spirit; the Indian-Pioneer Papers was another. Whatever the reasons, from the 1930s forward, the society would increasingly look beyond its walls in Oklahoma City to build a statewide base of support through outreach.

In 1934 the society accepted title to the Fort Gibson barracks and bake oven, built on top of the hill overlooking the Grand River. After WPA labor was used to stabilize the structures, the society worked with a local “Stockade Commission” to reconstruct the original log fort built in 1824. Downriver, the society purchased title to Sequoyah’s cabin and ten acres, then used a WPA grant to build a stone cover-building. An additional project was the construction of a stone wall around the cemetery at Rose Hill, the homesite of Robert M. Jones, a rich Choctaw planter who had served as a delegate to the Confederate Congress. Although the reconstructed stockade and Sequoyah’s homesite were transferred to the Parks Division of the Planning and Resources Department, the society retained long-term ownership and management of the stone barracks and bake oven at Fort Gibson and the cemetery and homesite at Rose Hill. As late as 1940 the society was still seeking WPA assistance to conduct a survey of historic sites to determine location and condition, but by that time most federal resources were being redirected to preparation for war.18

As had happened before and would happen again, citizen interest and legislative response caught up with the society’s ambitions. In 1949 the legislature appropriated $10,000 for a system of highway markers to note historic sites and events. There were to be one hundred aluminum markers, costing $90 each, with the remaining money for expenses. Over the next two years, the board chose the sites, the staff wrote the text, and the highway department installed and maintained the posts and markers.19

The society’s interest in historic sites did not stop at marking. In 1952, after failing to purchase Dwight Mission, the society purchased ten acres at the Cabin Creek Battlefield for $800 and accepted title to Worcester Cemetery. The enthusiasm for new projects, however, was tempered by the growing realities of long-term responsibility. After repeated reports of major maintenance needs at the Fort Gibson barracks, one board member donated $407 to fix the roof, another donated $45 to replace forty-eight windows, and the board voted to spend $885 out of the private account to rebuild the porch. Obviously, without additional appropriations, the acquisition and maintenance of historic properties was beyond the means of the society.20

A potential answer to the dilemma was the growing state treasury and a new willingness to appropriate funds for history under the banner of “economic development.” As early as 1953, the Division of State Parks received funds for operations at several historic sites such as Fort Washita, Boggy Depot, Robbers Cave, Fort Nichols, and Fort Towson, as well as two museums, Pioneer Woman Museum and the American Indian Hall of Fame. Three years later, the legislature appropriated $100,000 for the Semi-Centennial Celebration of Statehood, which was to be coordinated by a temporary commission. Still, the Oklahoma Historical Society received only its traditional funding for the thirteen employees in the building and $1,500 for the “purchase of relics and artifacts to enhance the value of the Oklahoma Historical Society as a tourist attraction.” What the society had accomplished across the state had been done largely without appropriated funds.21

Fort Gibson was one of the first historic sites owned by the OHS.

That changed abruptly in 1957 when the legislature authorized the society to “survey, evaluate, acquire, restore, and operate historic sites and buildings.” With the authority came $5,000 for survey and development, and the responsibility to report back to the legislature the results of the survey. The society moved quickly, unleashing more than two decades of pent-up frustration. The board formed a Historic Sites Committee, then hired a chief curator of field service to conduct the survey and begin work on properties already owned by the society. By April of 1958 the $5,000 had been spent on “reconditioning, cleaning, and improving historic sites owned by the OHS,” twelve markers on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and a list of more than five hundred sites to be “marked, repaired, and some acquired.”22

With annual appropriations for survey and development, the society expanded its ownership of historic sites. In 1959, acting on a recommendation from the Historic Sites Committee, the board voted to help restore a log cabin near Swink known as the Choctaw Chief’s Home. The following year the society took title to the property. Attention then turned to Fort Washita, where an archaeologist reported that he had mapped eighty-six structures, fifty foundations, and two structures that were still standing. In 1962 the site was purchased with donated funds. Turning to the west, the society set its sights on the sod house near Aline, which was purchased in 1963. Other sites were considered, but resources prevented more rapid expansion.23

This limitation was due in part to the fickle nature of legislative support, which had encouraged a similar, parallel program of historic site acquisition at a sister institution, the Division of State Parks. By 1964 Parks was responsible for sites such as Pawnee Bill’s Ranch near Pawnee, the Murrell Home (now known as Hunter’s Home) near Tahlequah, the Stockade at Fort Gibson, the Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City, and the Black Kettle Museum in Cheyenne. The result was a smaller percentage of financial support that was too small to begin with. As late as 1967 the total allocation to the society’s historic sites program was the annual line-item appropriation of $10,000 each for Sequoyah’s Cabin, Fort Washita, and the Choctaw Chief’s Home, and $7,000 for Sod House.24

Hunter’s Home in Park Hill.

As had happened in the 1930s, the turning point in expanding the source of funding was a federal program, this time the implementation of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. In 1967 the governor appointed George Shirk, president of the OHS Board of Directors, as the state historic preservation officer, a position responsible for allocating funds through the new federal program. Not surprisingly, the society became the primary beneficiary of the matching grants.25

The new potential source of funding had a psychological effect that combined with the enthusiasm generated by the Civil War Centennial Commission from 1960 to 1965. In 1967, even before federal funds were available, the society acquired the first plots of land at Honey Springs, the site of the largest battle in Indian Territory during the Civil War. The next year, Fort Towson, another Confederate outpost during the Civil War, was purchased with a $15,000 grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. The society in the meantime accepted title to the Murray-Lindsay Mansion at Erin Springs, the Chickasaw Council House at Tishomingo, the Jim Thorpe Home in Yale, and the Thomas Foreman Home in Muskogee. The psychological shackles of limited resources had been broken, even if it was done with only the promise of federal funding.26

Acquisition with federal funds became a reality in 1970 when the society teamed with the American Institute of Architects to buy and restore the Overholser Mansion in Oklahoma City. Under the deal, the architects, the Heritage Hills neighborhood, and others raised $100,000, which was matched by a Housing and Urban Development grant received by the OHS. The society acquired title to the home, then leased it for one dollar a year to the architects who maintained and operated the Victorian-era mansion. Federal funds also were instrumental in acquiring a lease for Old Central on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and the eventual acquisition of the State Capital Publishing Museum in Guthrie.27

By 1972 some board members and staff were having second thoughts about the long-term commitments of such rapid expansion. One board member suggested that local chambers of commerce be asked to assume partial responsibility for sites in their towns. In another action, the board passed a resolution asking individuals not to seek legislative support for site acquisition until it was brought to the attention of the administration and full board. The board even returned one property, the Federal Building in Purcell, to the city when funds for restoration were not found.28

In 1973 the board directed the staff to develop criteria for historic site acquisition. Although adopted, it did not limit the ambitions of the legislature. In a two-year period from 1973 to 1975, the legislature added another ten properties to the society’s care, including the first museums unassociated with historic sites. The new sites included No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus, Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Frank Phillips Home in Bartlesville, Chisholm Trail Historical Museum in Waurika, Triangle Heritage Museum in Cleveland, and the State Capital Publishing Museum and the Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie. The Division of State Parks even lobbied to transfer some of its historic properties to the society but without success. The frenzy ended only when Governor David Boren line-item vetoed appropriations to local organizations and directed the society to spend funds only on properties already owned by the state.29

The Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie.

While the society did experience a brief lull in acquisition activity, there was no retreat from active outreach programs that had begun in the 1940s and accelerated in the 1950s. One of the most successful such programs was the annual tour, begun in 1952 by board member R. G. Miller, who not only hosted the three-day tours, but also promoted participation through his newspaper column in the Daily Oklahoman. Usually scheduled for late May or early June, the tours attracted up to 175 enthusiasts who visited historic sites all the way from the Santa Fe Trail in Cimarron County to Wheelock Mission in McCurtain County. The last annual tour was conducted in 1969.30

A more regular and even more effective tool for outreach was an expanded publications program. In 1949 the legislature authorized a revolving fund and appropriated $3,000 as seed money to publish “sheets, folders, booklets, etc., containing historical data.” The money was used to print postcards, a postcard folio, and a twenty-four-page booklet on the history of Oklahoma. Within a year the investment was returned through sales, making possible the release of other publications such as a four-color portfolio of historical portraits, a booklet on historical markers, and numerous brochures dealing with museum exhibits. The society even experimented with a monthly newsletter to the membership in 1949, but it survived only a few years. As in the campaign to preserve historic sites, the problem was not lack of interest—it was a lack of resources.31

While the new enthusiasm for outreach programs grew progressively strong during the three decades after World War II, the primary focus of the board, the staff, and even the public still remained on the programs within the walls of the historical building in Oklahoma City: the library, the archives, The Chronicles of Oklahoma, and the museum. The result was a gradual increase in the size and complexity of traditional programs, a growth based not so much on increased appropriations, which remained relatively flat until 1970, but rather on the tried and true strategy of resourcefulness.

One of the most significant changes was the new technology of microfilming. As early as 1946, citing the brittle nature of the oldest newspapers, the board voted to send two hundred volumes to Eastman-Kodak in Dallas, where each page would be microfilmed. That same year, the board paid to film the 1890 Census of Oklahoma Territory, a safeguard against losing the only extant copy of that important document. The price was $11.91 for five copies. Although the price seems slight today, a comprehensive microfilming project was still beyond the means of the society if not beyond its ambitions.32

The efforts paid off in 1957, when, with the support of the Oklahoma Press Association, the society received an appropriation of $15,000 to establish an in-house project to film the entire newspaper collection. The society quickly purchased a camera, hired an operator, and found an outside vendor to process the film and store the negatives. Within a year, after spending $25,000 on equipment and filming 4,000 pages a day, the board optimistically set a goal of 1977 for completing all 8 million pages in the back files and the 350,000 new pages accumulating each year.33

The microfilm revolution also affected the library, where the compact size and relatively low cost of film overcame the limitations of space and budget. It also made possible the acquisition of statistical collections such as United States census data, which in turn attracted a distinct and growing group of researchers and genealogists. There always had been an element of genealogical interest in the book and periodical collections, but it was limited largely to mug books, biographies, the 1890 Census of Oklahoma Territory, the Dawes Rolls, and the biographical indexes prepared by WPA workers in the 1930s. Although these were appealing to family historians, most of the data dealt with the time period after 1890.

In 1945 the Oklahoma Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) nudged the OHS deeper into genealogical research when the ancestral organization placed its collections in the library. The DAR also bought a microfilm reader in 1946, then added a second machine in 1958. A year later the society purchased the 1850 Census of Illinois, probably with the financial support of the DAR. By that time, the staff referred to the “Genealogical Section” of the library with good reason; in the first quarter of 1959, 628 genealogists used the collections, compared to only 70 historical researchers. This trend would continue, pushed forward by legislative support—$16,500 appropriated for US Census microfilm in 1969—and a growing enthusiasm for genealogical research after the release of the book and movie Roots by Alex Haley.34

Technology also had an impact on the archives. In 1951 the board allocated $500 to purchase historical collections on microfilm. Five years later the staff added a camera and a tape recorder to its set of tools for collecting. The big leap forward, however, came in 1976 with a $90,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that allowed the society to begin microfilming the Indian records. With that start, other frequently used or fragile materials were put on microfilm, such as the Indian-Pioneer Papers, the Whipple Papers, and The Chronicles of Oklahoma.35

Care of the collections, both in the research departments and the museum, became increasingly important after World War II as materials aged and new techniques and standards of conservation were developed. In the museum there also was a subtle shift from quantity—“if the future doesn’t want it, let the future throw it away”— to quality. To improve the integrity of the collection, the board in 1942 voted to no longer accept loans, then sent letters to people who had objects on loan and offered to return them. If loaned objects were not claimed, they became the property of the OHS.36

That self-confident attitude was made possible in large part by the rich diversity of the museum’s holdings. After a half-century of collecting, there was a large volume of American Indian artifacts, from moccasins and wedding clothes to cradleboards and war shields. There were political buttons, farm implements, desks from the Constitutional Convention, toys, quilts, Wild West Show posters, inaugural gowns, a hammer used to kill the first cow at the Oklahoma City Stockyards, glassware, guns, a flag carried by the Choctaws into a Civil War battle, stained glass, cameras, the Seminole execution tree, lace, photographs, postcards, and an impressive art collection that included Cavalcade, a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller.

During the 1940s and 1950s the fastest growing segment of the museum collection was in portraits, a trend that could be traced to 1928 when Anna B. Korn, an OHS board member, organized the Oklahoma Hall of Fame to recognize outstanding Oklahomans. As a program sponsored and supported by the society, the associated portrait collection came to the museum, where they were displayed in the Portrait Gallery. Initially, virtually any portrait offered to the museum was accepted, and the board even extended special invitations to families and individuals to have portraits done and donated. By the 1960s the portrait collection had outgrown the one gallery and was expanding down the hallways. The space problem was finally solved when the Oklahoma Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors organized the Oklahoma Heritage Association and borrowed many of the portraits for display in the old Robert A. Hefner home in Oklahoma City.37

The portrait gallery was typical of the early exhibit halls in the museum, where the prime objective since 1930 had been the display of as many artifacts as possible for a curious public. Arranged by subjects such as prehistoric American Indians, the Five Civilized Tribes, Southern Plains Indians, the land runs, and pioneer life, the displays offered little interpretation, but instead attempted to invoke a nostalgic response through emotional impact. Not only was this a pattern found in most museums at that time, but it also was a matter of necessity due to the museum’s limited staff of two people and a minimal operations budget.38

In the late 1950s the staff made the most of the diverse collection with a series of temporary exhibits on subjects from governors and coins to the Battle of the Washita and Indian musical instruments. Museum staff also took advantage of outreach potential with public programs, tours for school groups, and appearances on television, especially the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, which sponsored Oklahoma history lessons originating in the museum. Meanwhile, the collections continued to grow, both in quantity and quality.39

The museum staff finally started growing by the late 1960s, pushed forward by a combination of an expanding state tax base and the rapid growth of the entire OHS. With a staff of five, however, came higher expectations and new ambitions. In 1972 the State Museum (now the Oklahoma History Center) first applied for accreditation from the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums), which had recently set minimum standards in collections care, outreach, and exhibits. The society applied for a federal grant to conserve Indian artifacts, adopted acquisition and deaccession policies, expanded educational programs, and updated exhibits with more interpretive focus. In 1975 the efforts were recognized; the State Museum became one of only 320 out of 5,000 museums in the country to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.40

The new standards drew special attention to the care of collections, which had long suffered from inconsistent registrar records, inadequate storage facilities, and the inevitable effect of aging on organic materials. In 1978 the museum applied for a grant to reorganize and catalog the collections. First came a catalog on baskets, then another on the quilt collections. The pace continued. A grant was written and received to restore Cavalcade; the Chenhall nomenclature of museum cataloging was adopted and computers were ordered for a database; and a new shop was built to consolidate exhibits design, construction, and conservation.41

Fortunately, this foundation of progress was in place when funding for the Diamond Jubilee of Statehood was appropriated to the OHS from 1980 to 1982. With additional resources, the State Museum installed a new security system, designed and constructed a new Indian gallery, and created a new exhibit called Seventy-Five Years of Statehood, the museum’s first effective attempt to interpret the post-World War II history of Oklahoma. Even after the Diamond Jubilee ended, the pace of development quickened. Exhibit rotation found its stride, with interpretive displays ranging from aviation and black history to television and the role of women in Indian culture. New storage facilities were designed, with the society’s first off-site warehouse leased for the still-growing collection. Just as importantly, the process of cataloging existing collections was partially completed in 1991, with records of accession numbers and location cards.42

The quest for higher standards affected other programs as well. The annual meetings, which had been limited to one-day business meetings in Oklahoma City since the 1950s, were expanded to three-day conventions located in a different quadrant of the state each year. Beginning with the convention in Tulsa in 1986, when 125 people attended, the annual meeting developed into a major event with tours, exhibits, awards, paper sessions, and attendance exceeding 400. The results were a growing presence in host towns such as Woodward, McAlester, Lawton, Guthrie, Wagoner, and Elk City, as well as a growing awareness of the diverse history to be found in each area.43

Coupled with the annual meetings was a new emphasis on a growing membership. Although staff and board members had mounted concerted membership campaigns as early as 1949, membership rarely exceeded two thousand in any one year before the 1980s. In 1986 the board created a membership committee and assigned recruitment to the Publications Division, which quickly revised renewal and application procedures, initiated regular direct-mail campaigns, and began tracking losses and gains. Three years later, with membership approaching five thousand, a membership coordinator was hired.44

The responsibilities of the Publications Division had grown gradually over the years, beginning with The Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1921 and expanding in the 1940s with the production of brochures, booklets, and historical markers. In 1949 the executive director published an OHS newsletter for a short time, but like its predecessors Historia and the original Mistletoe Leaves, it was not sustained.

In 1971 the publications program took a new direction when the board suggested that select articles from The Chronicles of Oklahoma be pulled together and issued as books in an “Oklahoma Series.” From 1975, when Oklahoma’s Governors, 1890–1907: The Territorial Years was released, to 1986, twenty-two volumes in the series were published on topics ranging from railroads and military posts to architecture and Indian leaders. In the process of making the publications program financially self-supporting, the staff reduced expenses by bringing prepress production in-house, which in turn allowed the society to release a succession of books outside the series format in the fields of anthropology, biography, reference, teachers’ guides, children’s historical fiction, narrative history, and photography. By 1978 the society had twenty-eight titles in print, including several in second and third editions.45

More efficient in-house design and production of publications created new opportunities for other programs as well. The Mistletoe Leaves, resurrected in 1973 with a contract writer, was brought in-house and expanded in 1979 to serve as a format for publicizing the society, keeping the membership informed, and following the world of state and local history in Oklahoma. Museum brochures, which had previously been printed in large quantities, were brought in-house and released in smaller, more flexible runs as interpretive programs developed. And through the combination of cost-efficient production and expanding, aggressive programs, staff members generated an increasing flow of catalogs, invitations, programs, curriculum materials, and library bibliographies.46

Much of the production came out of the society’s newest division, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Congress authorized the first functions of the SHPO in 1966, but for the first nine years, the society tried to absorb the duties through contract personnel and assignment to the Historic Sites Division. At first, the strategy worked, with the federal allocation of funds starting at $5,000 a year in 1968 and growing to $35,000 in 1972. With no staff, those funds were used for writing a few nominations to the National Register of Historic Places and the reconstruction and rehabilitation of historic sites owned by the OHS.47

Federal involvement in historic preservation continued growing, however, and with it came increased resources, new regulatory duties, and higher standards for state participation. In 1975 the National Park Service set new conditions for the state’s share of the program. A professional staff had to be hired and the number of properties listed in the National Register had to be increased. Over the next five years the OHS added a staff of historians, an archaeologist, and an architect. Since that time, the division has administered a wide variety of programs in the field of documentation, such as the State Landmarks Inventory and the National Register, the expanding field of federal review, such as environmental impact and tax act certification, and educational outreach, such as publications, workshops, and a statewide preservation conference.48

Even with these new duties, the preservation office continued to play an important role in the expansion and development of the society’s historic sites program, especially in the 1970s when “bricks and mortar” money flowed freely out of Washington. Large grants were invested in Old Central, Fort Washita, the State Capital Publishing Museum, Parris Mound, and the Drummond Home, a site accepted by the society in 1980 with a private gift of $100,000. But the pace of site and museum acquisition had slowed, affected first by Governor Boren’s veto of 1975, then by the Congressional decision to eliminate “bricks and mortar” money from the SHPO program. The final blow to the long period of expansion was the state budget crisis after the crash of the oil boom in 1982.

The changing dynamics of state and federal funding led to a crisis in the long-term development of sites and museums under the society’s umbrella. Typically, when the properties had been accepted, recurring base appropriations were never enough to cover more than utilities and only one, or in a few cases, two staff members and no support staff at headquarters. Restoration projects and even simple repairs depended on federal grants or line-item appropriations, two sources that diminished in the late 1970s and virtually disappeared in the early 1980s.

The crisis was delayed by the Diamond Jubilee Celebration from 1980 to 1982, when almost $1 million of the $1.7 million raised for the project was earmarked for renovation and development of museums and historic sites owned by the society. During that flurry of activity, new staff members were added for research, design, and exhibit construction, public programs such as the Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian and the Diamond Jubilee Gala were organized, and major repair and renovation projects were initiated at thirty-seven sites and museums owned by the society. There was even an endowment of $50,000 established for acquisition of Oklahoma materials in the library and archives.49

As significant as this one-time funding was, there remained a fundamental financial crisis facing the entire society, caught between rising expectations and static resources. Then came the state budget crisis from 1984 to 1986, when the society’s already spartan operations were trimmed by 20 percent as sites and museums were closed, staff members were laid off, and programs such as brochures and public information were eliminated. Clearly, there was an endless list of historical conquests to be made; even more clearly, there were too few resources to do it all.50

Once again, the boom and bust cycle of Oklahoma’s commodity-driven economy, combined with the political realities of relying on the state legislature for all funding, threatened the society’s ability to sustain dynamic, long-range plans that might take years if not decades to mature. Clearly, it would take more than overachieving individuals and occasional spikes in funding to turn the corner to a new chapter in the evolution of the OHS. It would take organizational stability, a higher level of self-determination, and a new business plan.

As with any organization, whether in the private or public sectors, the stability for sustainable growth had to start with a balance of structure and personal leadership. Although many people did not recognize the significance at the time, the turning point was reached in 1981 when the society adopted a new constitution and bylaws that honored some traditions but added needed reforms to the way the society was governed.

The changes started with the OHS Board of Directors, which had long been a self-appointing band of history enthusiasts with little diversity and minimal turnover. Under the new constitution, the number of board members would remain at twenty-five, but twelve of the members would be appointed by the governor to three-year terms. OHS members would elect the other thirteen members, again with three-year terms, and all would come from across the state representing six geographical districts. An important qualification was added at the last minute. Any board member, whether appointed or elected, had to have been a member of the OHS for at least two years. And to encourage more diversity in the ranks of leadership, the president could not succeed her or himself.51

The next step in securing a solid footing for future success was a set of planning tools that would set goals, both short-term and long-term, and provide the necessary templates to evaluate success or failure. Too often in the past, that determination had been left to individuals and groups with narrow interests. With planning documents, reviewed periodically and used as the starting point for new policies and programs, the stage would be set for unified action and an internal decision-making process that would start with the board of directors and expand to the executive team, the staff, the volunteers, the membership, and potential partners.

The cornerstone of that planning structure had a boring title but an exciting new approach to planning and evaluation. It was called the “Historic Context Review,” and incorporated three distinct criteria: geographic coverage, chronological time periods, and historical themes. Originated at the staff level, reviewed by outside constituent groups, and approved by the OHS Board of Directors, the Historic Context Review created a blueprint for any and every program that was or might be undertaken by the society. Most importantly, it broke the shackles of the past as precedent and opened new doors to diversity, inclusion, and service to all Oklahomans. As of 2018 that report is still reviewed every year and used as the root stock of new programs.52

By the early 1990s, still buffeted by the winds of the state’s economic meltdown following a bust in the oil patch, the society’s leadership realized that the stable foundation of governance would support a new business model in terms of how the OHS served the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the state. Although not articulated this clearly in the beginning, the new business plan emerged from the rolling five-year strategic planning process with two parts. One was a mission statement that simplified and unified everything under the society’s umbrella. The new mantra was to “collect, preserve, and share Oklahoma history.” The flip side evolved into three key practices: higher standards, greater efficiencies, and partnerships. The two parts of the business plan would become touchstones for the next twenty-five years.

The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton.

From 1992 to 1995 the society had a chance to experiment with this emerging combination of improved governance, better planning tools, and new business plan. Typically, it started with a challenge. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, after several stalled efforts in the past, finally succeeded in transferring ten museums and historic sites to the society, but with only two-thirds of the funding necessary to operate them. The deal included no support staff, no repair and maintenance funds, and field staff members who had been largely selected by senators. Adding to the crisis was a severe budget cut in 1992.53

The result was a plan to close or reduce hours of operation at fourteen museums and sites, including an underperforming little museum in Clinton that had neither collections nor exhibits. What it did have was a good location on old Route 66 and a community ready for change. After closing the facility and meeting with local legislators, city and chamber leaders, and key donors, a plan emerged to resurrect the museum using the new business plan that emphasized higher standards, greater efficiencies, and partnerships.54

A federal grant was secured with the 40 percent match raised by the community. Then, using the Historic Context Review to fill a gap in the society’s museum themes, the decision was made to wrap the museum around the history of highway transportation with a focus on Route 66. A cutting-edge architect, Rand Elliott, was hired to double the size of the museum and add the glitz, while the staff and volunteers gathered artifacts and worked on an exhibit design plan. When completed at a cost of $1.7 million in 1995, the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum was an instant success, lauded by historian Michael Wallis as the best museum on the Mother Road from Chicago to Los Angeles. By 2018 the museum was generating more than $400,000 in revenue annually to support operations, marketing, and expansion of collections.55

The marching cadence of higher standards, greater efficiencies, and partnerships pumped energy into other parts of the society’s operations. At every OHS museum and historic site, local support groups created 501(c)(3) foundations to raise money, share operational duties, and undertake investments that could be done more efficiently and quickly outside the limits of state processes. With partners at their sides, the society board and staff raised their expectations and sponsored big events such as annual Civil War reenactments, Pawnee Bill’s Original Wild West Show, and the Fur Trade Rendezvous. Living history, which depended on volunteers, elevated the brand of the society and generated a steady stream of press coverage.

Pawnee Bill’s Original Wild West Show is one of the OHS’s premier living history events each year.

The Research Division, slowly assembled into an integrated operation from the old silos of archives, newspapers, and genealogical library, attracted staff members and partners who saw opportunities where others had seen fiefdoms. The OHS Board of Directors adopted a new and comprehensive collections policy. The photograph collection, which had stagnated in the 1980s at about forty thousand images, expanded exponentially until it reached more than 10 million images by 2018. Turning once again to the Historic Context Review, a new moving images program was started with film and video that would eventually lead down the path to saving the last surviving print of The Daughter of Dawn, a silent film made with an all-Indian cast in the Wichita Mountains in 1920.56

A still from the film The Daughter of Dawn, restored through the efforts of the OHS and now a part of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Even the Publications Division flexed new muscles with a series of books that raised money, secured collections, or supported exhibits. The most notable achievement, one which will continue to do more than any other single program to promote a greater understanding of state and local history in the future, was The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. With three grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a talented editorial team of staff members and volunteer authors, the project took more than six years and 2,455 entries to span the range of Oklahoma history as described in the Historic Context Review. The two-volume work, released in 2009, was adapted to a digital format and posted online as a free source of historical information available to anyone with access to the internet.57 During the 1990s, as the society climbed out of its old comfort zone of acceptable mediocrity, it became painfully clear that the stately Wiley Post Historical Building completed in 1930 no longer matched the ambitions of the organization. The problems included no room for expanding collections, small gallery spaces that limited creative exhibit plans, and environmental conditions that were antiquated by modern museum and archival standards. When the society agreed to be the Smithsonian Institution’s concluding destination for an exhibit about Woody Guthrie, two dozen humidifiers and dehumidifiers could not get the air quality of even one room up to Smithsonian standards.

Several options were considered for expansion. One was to separate the museum from the headquarters and research facility and build an annex somewhere else in Oklahoma City. OHS leaders considered sites next to the baseball field in Bricktown, next to the Science Museum and Oklahoma City Zoo, and near the Civic Center Music Hall in the Arts District, but nothing came of the efforts other than public recognition that something had to be done. Meanwhile, as the state economy improved in the late 1990s, the brand of the society was improving both within the historical community and outside of that circle with a growing network of friends in the State Capitol, the press, and the business community. In 1997, when state officials started planning a general improvement of the State Capitol Complex, the OHS was included.58

With planning money provided by the legislature, OHS leaders launched an intensive study to determine space needs, functional adjacencies, and potential locations for what was soon being called the Oklahoma History Center. Good ideas were borrowed from successful museums, especially the Minnesota History Center and the Atlanta History Center, and lessons were learned at research facilities such as the Virginia Historical Society and the National Archives. In January of 1998 the results of the study were released. The OHS needed $46 million in public money and another $10 million in privately raised funds to build a 215,000-square-foot museum and research center.59

That spring, with strong editorial support from newspapers across the state, the legislature and governor approved a $32 million bond issue to start construction. The OHS Board unanimously chose a site on the northeast corner of Twenty-Third Street and Lincoln Boulevard, across the street from both the State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, and conducted a design competition that brought Beck Associates and HOK onto the team. The winning design was four buildings connected by skylights and public spaces. One three-story wing was for research with environmental standards set by the National Archives. Another three-story wing was for people, with offices, classrooms, conference space, and workshops. The other two wings, each two stories tall, were for museum galleries designed to Smithsonian standards. Also included in the design were outdoor exhibits, public art, a grand hall off the entryway, and a basement with more than 80,000 square feet of space for collections storage.60

The Oklahoma History Center under construction, 2003.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were conducted on Statehood Day, November 16, 1999, with $32 million in the bank for a building that would cost $56 million, including exhibits. For the next three years, as construction started and progressed, a supplemental bond issue was requested with no success year after year. Finally, in May of 2003, again with broad-based support from across the state, and in spite of a budget shortfall that had forced a furlough for all teachers, the legislature approved a second bond issue for $18 million to finish construction. The rest of the budget, which grew to $12 million, was raised from other sources. By the opening ceremonies on November 16, 2005, more than four thousand foundations, businesses, and families had agreed to invest in Oklahoma history.61

The Oklahoma History Center was transformative for the OHS. On one level, it reflected what was possible with good governance, good planning, and good people, all with a united goal that adhered to the mantra of higher standards, greater efficiencies, and partnerships. On another level, the History Center created a new brand for the entire organization that brought in even more collections, attracted dedicated young staff members and volunteers, and opened doors to new friends and opportunities. On the professional level, the Oklahoma History Center became the only institution in the world to earn formal affiliation status with both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives and accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums.62

The opportunity to create large and elaborate museum exhibits helped convert the OHS from a passive receptor of donations to a proactive collector seeking objects with stories. Some efforts filled traditional deficiencies recognized in the Historic Context Review, including exhibits about the African American experience, Latinos in Oklahoma, and the Asian community. Another gap filled by looking ahead was the John Dunning Political Collection of more than three thousand priceless items that populated one entire exhibit on the way political campaigns have reflected public attitudes since the 1890s.

To celebrate the centennial of statehood in 2007, the Oklahoma History Center mounted an exhibit describing the early lives and influences of the governors of Oklahoma entitled Inspired to Lead: The Governors and First Families of Oklahoma. For the opening reception, the seven governors who were living at the time gathered to be honored. Left to right: David Walters, David Boren, George Nigh, Brad Henry, David Hall, Henry Bellmon, and Frank Keating.

Surprisingly, two deficiencies in the collections exposed by the lofty possibilities of the History Center were both associated with free enterprise and economic development. By launching the Devon Energy Oil and Gas Park outdoors, the OHS started an ongoing collection process that now includes four derricks, hundreds of exploration and drilling tools, trucks, seismograph equipment, service station pumps, and a driller’s cabin simulator to illustrate the importance of oil and gas to Oklahoma history. Filling other gaps in business history came with the eight-thousand-square-foot exhibit Crossroads of Commerce: A History of Free Enterprise in Oklahoma . Other examples of using exhibits to build collections were Another Hot Oklahoma Night: A Rock and Roll Exhibit and Oklahoma at the Movies, which started a conversation about the need for a museum dedicated to popular culture.

For the Research Division, the Oklahoma History Center opened a door to the world of digital technology. With a grant from the Chickasaw Nation, the OHS purchased a high-speed digital reader that could scan more than one thousand pages of newspaper microfilm in less than fifteen minutes. That started an effort that will convert more than a million photographs and 10 million pages of the OHS newspaper collection to digital access and keyword search by 2020. With better space, new partners, and innovative staff members and volunteers, the digital program exploded into The Gateway to Oklahoma History, an online archival database populated by a growing number of documents, maps, newspapers, and photographs. OHS film and video collections are being made available to the public online through several YouTube channels. For decades the OHS had been great at collecting history but only fair at preserving and sharing that history. The digital revolution, in tandem with the museum exhibits at the Oklahoma History Center, empowered the organization to better serve its three-part mission.63

The Research Center inside the Oklahoma History Center maintains partnerships with organizations like Ancestry.com to provide research services to patrons.

In some ways, the Oklahoma History Center was a beachhead on the urban frontier of political and financial support. Not only did the building make an impact on collecting and sharing history, but it also filled a gap as a community center in the State Capitol Complex. For public and business associations involved with government, the History Center became a popular spot for receptions and banquets. For schools and social organizations, it became a place to learn and celebrate shared heritage. For brides and grooms, it became a place to commit a lifetime of devotion to one another. In 2017 the Oklahoma History Center hosted more than four hundred outside groups and families, generating both goodwill and a stream of revenue to blunt the impact of budget cuts. When combined with more than five hundred events and programs offered by the OHS every year, the History Center became a community center open to everyone.

That success in one urban community reinforced a long-held opinion among society leaders that the people in and around Tulsa were not being served as they should be. When it was just the old Historical Building, which looked more like a tired public institution in a landscape of gray buildings, few people cared. With the quality and success of the History Center, the contrast was clear to all. Something had to be done to solve the inequities in the way the public was served.

From 1865 to 1920 African Americans created more than fifty All-Black towns in Oklahoma. This is a panel from the Oklahoma History Center’s traveling exhibit All-Black Towns of Oklahoma.

OHS leaders had long reached out to Tulsa but with little sustainable success. In the 1980s, when the OHS resurrected its annual conference, the first site was Tulsa. In the 1990s, as Tulsa approached its centennial, the OHS stepped up to help upgrade the Tulsa Historical Society. When the legislature allocated resources to create a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, the OHS became the lead agency gathering evidence, holding hearings, and encouraging dialogue and reconciliation.64 At one point during the state centennial, OHS leaders explored the idea of buying Cain’s Ballroom as a site for a folklife center and museum. Without a physical and permanent presence in town, none of those efforts could be sustained. Something more had to be done.

In 2007, as the Oklahoma History Center staff started working on the exhibit about rock and roll in Oklahoma, the president of a Tulsa-based foundation approached the OHS for help in bringing the Woody Guthrie Archives to Tulsa. Although that help was limited, it started a conversation about a long-lasting partnership that might tap the educational and inspirational power of music to create a new museum in Tulsa. OHS leaders quickly recognized that opportunity as another urban beachhead, a way to serve the people in the greater Tulsa area. The concept evolved into a more broad-based museum that would collect, preserve, and share the history of Oklahomans’ creative expressions, whether it was through music and dance or movies and illustration. As the conversation expanded to a widening circle, collections were dedicated, funds were pledged, and a name was embraced. It would be called the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, OKPOP for short.65

OKPOP, which currently is under development, will be located across the street from historic Cain’s Ballroom in the Tulsa Arts District.

In 2009 an effort to seek a state bond issue to match a private fundraising drive was launched. Early efforts came up short, but Tulsa supporters, creative artists, and the OHS Board and staff did not waiver. Six years after the first serious effort to get the funds, the legislature approved a $25 million bond issue for OKPOP.66 As the author writes this history, a donor has dedicated land across the street from Cain’s Ballroom as the site for the museum, the planning staff is gathering collections, ideas, and friends, while the educational, business, creative, and tourism communities of Tulsa are embracing the project. In 2020, after OHS leaders and friends raise $10 million for exhibits and collections, OKPOP will open and fill a gap in serving the people of Oklahoma.

From 2009 to 2018 a new gap emerged that shook the very foundations of the OHS and brought back institutional memories of the Great Depression. The gap was a cumulative 48.6 percent cut in legislative appropriations in nine years.67 If that deep cut had been made in the 1970s or even the 1980s, the OHS would have been transformed into something totally different, a shell of its former self and probably downgraded and divided into departments of other state agencies. It happened in some states, most notably Kansas. Ironically, the will to fight that descent back to acceptable mediocrity was reinforced when a state leader publicly proposed abolishing the OHS Board of Directors, ending its membership structure, and splitting its programs into something like happy history.68

In 2015 the History Center opened an exhibit entitled Crossroads of Commerce: A History of Free Enterprise in Oklahoma.

The ability to not only survive this perfect storm of turbulence, but also to actually move ahead with major initiatives, was linked directly to the achievements of the business plan that had emerged from the 1980s. On the financial side of the storm, the ability to generate a growing stream of revenue, combined with the generosity of support groups and donors who recognized the unwavering commitment to higher standards, backfilled some of the financial gaps and supported a master plan that recognized weaker programs of the OHS might have to be shifted elsewhere while the greater potential of others should be saved and strengthened. As in any business, public or private, painful decisions have to be made from time to time to keep an enterprise viable and vigorous. In government, where resistance to change comes from all directions and the temptation to take cover is strong, troubled times occasionally provide the opportunity for bold action to correct the course of history.

Despite taking the highest percentage of the 48.6 percent cuts from 2009 to 2018, the programs housed at the Oklahoma History Center had greater access to the fruits of the new business plan. Rental income actually grew as community groups recognized a commitment to keep standards high. In previous decades, money might have been taken out of maintenance and housekeeping to keep staff, board members, and legislators happy. During the crisis, sacrificing quality was never considered. And donations and collections continued to grow, stimulated by launching an aggressive schedule of new exhibits and programs supported by foundations, businesses, and individuals willing to share resources.

While higher standards and partnerships kept the History Center’s financial ship afloat, the willingness to adopt greater efficiencies squeezed new value out of shrinking budgets. In the executive director’s office, the traditional duties of the deputy director were filled by the chief financial officer and a shuffling of responsibilities to three survivors. In the Research Division, managers shifted duties to part-time employees and expanded digital services to other state agencies willing to share their collections along with a stream of revenue to pay for the services. In all program areas, a greater emphasis was put on volunteers and support groups who recognized the needs and responded to the call for action.

The dynamics of dealing with the unprecedented budget crisis outside of the History Center were as different as the communities served. In some programs, local support filled the gaps just as it had in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The best example is Enid, where the community had raised more than $9 million to transform the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center into a scaled version of the History Center from 2004 to 2011. When the financial crisis hit, the community stepped up again and pledged to raise $3 million for an endowment to support three staff positions in education, collections, and research. By early 2018, the amount raised had reached $2.3 million.69

The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid.

Other communities and partners responded as well. In Altus the local director convinced OHS leaders that she could invest a little money to attract even more. The results were the addition of a relocated ranch house to the museum grounds, two new exhibit galleries, a reinvigorated volunteer force, and a reputation in the region that the museum could make a difference in the quality of life. Similar stories unfolded at the Murrell Home, where the Cherokee Nation is partnering with local supporters to create an 1850s-era living history farm, and at Honey Springs Battlefield, where the local support group raised and borrowed more than a $1 million to build a new interpretive center. Once again, higher standards, greater efficiencies, and partnerships combined to blunt the brute force of budget cuts.

Ironically, the fruits of those strategic goals helped the OHS deal with the budget crisis by declaring victory in key programs and transferring responsibilities to partners. After years of cultivating friendships with tribal leaders, mutual respect created an opportunity to discuss the fate of two important historic sites. One was Sequoyah’s Cabin, saved by the OHS in the 1930s and continually improved through the decades using state resources. In 2017 OHS and Cherokee leaders agreed the time had come to return that sacred site back to the Cherokee people and the transfer was made.70 A similar story was repeated at Fort Washita, which was deeply embedded in the history of the Chickasaw Nation. Again, OHS and Chickasaw leaders saw an opportunity to improve the site and do the right thing. The land and property were returned to the Chickasaw people.71 In Bartlesville, victory once again was declared when the Phillips Foundation agreed to accept title to the Frank Phillips Home.72 In all three cases, the savings in operational costs were used to support museums and sites where partners did not have the resources to help.

After 125 years of collecting, preserving, and sharing state and local history, the Oklahoma Historical Society is still searching for ways to raise standards, improve efficiencies, and attract partners. As this short history goes to press, a campaign is being launched to create a grants-in-aid program that will empower local historical societies and museums to be even better. OHS leaders are planning new exhibits, looking ahead for new opportunities, and reaching out to new partners. In 1893 a small band of journalists meeting in Kingfisher knew they had a unique opportunity to make a difference in the way one community could understand its shared experiences. Since that time, each generation has had a similar opportunity to take that mission to the next level. This short history of the OHS, with all of its ups and downs, challenges and opportunities, proves that great things can be accomplished when people work together, commit to organizational structure, and never give up when times are tough.

Oklahoma history is too important to do otherwise.


* Bob L. Blackburn was executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society from 1999 to January 2021. A native of Oklahoma, he completed his PhD in history at Oklahoma State University in 1979. He is the author of numerous books, scholarly articles, and several screenplays. He also regularly gives presentations for scholarly audiences, local historical groups, television, and radio.

1 Fred Smith Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society, 1893–1943,” (master’s thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1986), 25–32. Standley’s master’s thesis is the best source for information on the society during the early stages of development. He skillfully weaves into his narrative history strong themes of biography, social and political history, and descriptive analysis of trends and concepts. The author acknowledges his gratitude to Mr. Standley for sharing his work and research assistance for this project.

2 William P. Campbell, “Circular One: Office of Historical Custodian, Oklahoma Press Association,” Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory, May 29, 1893; Mistletoe Leaves (Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory), August 5, 1893.

3 “Governor’s Message to the Third Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Oklahoma,” January 8, 1895, Territorial Governors Papers, 10, folder A, box 2-A, Record Group 12-1, Oklahoma State Archives, Oklahoma City, OK.

4 Eva Riggins Johnson, “The Oklahoma Historical Society and Its Work,” (master’s thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1926), 2.

5 Quoted in Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 39–40.

6 Session Laws of Oklahoma Territory, 1901, 56.

7 William P. Campbell, “Oklahoma Historical Society, Custodian’s Report,” 1907–08, 7, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center, Oklahoma City, OK (hereafter cited as OHS Research Center).

8 Johnson, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 5–6.

9 Ibid., 14–17.

10 Ibid., 10–13.

11 Ibid., 7–8.

12 Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 89–104.

13 Edward Everett Dale and James D. Morrison, Pioneer Judge: The Life of Robert Lee Williams (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1958), 365–73; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1929, 57–59.

14 Lawrence C. Kelly, “Indian Records,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 54, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 229–30; Charles Evans, “The State Historical Society and Its Possessions,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 24, no. 3 (Fall 1946): 254. For the best description of the society’s efforts to obtain the Indian records, see Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 139–50.

15 Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 145; US Congress, “An Act to Authorize the Secretary of the Interior to Place With the Oklahoma Historical Society at Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, as Custodian for the United States, Certain Records of the Five Civilized Tribes, and of Other Indian Tribes in the State of Oklahoma,” March 27, 1934.

16 Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 153–55.

17 A. M. Gibson, ed., The West Wind Blows: The Autobiography of Edward Everett Dale (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1984), 346–47; Grant Foreman, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” pamphlet, vertical files, OHS Research Center; “Indian-Pioneer History Project, W.P.A. 131,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 37, no. 4 (Winter 1959–60), 507–09.

18 Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 158–59.

19 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1949, 691–92; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, February 1949.

20 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, January 1952, November 1951, April 1952, October 1952.

21 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1953, 445–49; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1957, 599–600; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1951, 248.

22 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1957, 452; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April 1957, July 1957, July 1958.

23 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 1959, July 1960, January 1962.

24 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1967, 423.

25 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, January 1967, April 1967.

26 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 1967, January 1968, April 1968, July 1968, July 1969.

27 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April 1970, July 1971.

28 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, February 1972, October 1972, April 1973.

29 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, June 1973, April 1974, October 1974, January 1975; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1975, 699–701.

30 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 1952, July 1970.

31 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1949, 691–92; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, February 1949.

32 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, July 1949.

33 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1957, 596–97; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April 1957, April 1958.

34 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, January 1945, January 1946; Charles Evans, “Quarterly Staff Report, OHS, July 15, 1959,” 4–5, OHS Research Center; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1969, 406.

35 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, November 1951, July 1956, July 1976.

36 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, July 1942.

37 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April 1971.

38 Charles Evans, “Oklahoma State Historical Society,” (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d.), booklet, OHS Research Center.

39 Evans, “Quarterly Staff Reports,” April 15, 1959, through April 20, 1960.

40 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 1972, January 1974, January 1975.

41 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, July 1978, October 1978, July 1979, April 1980.

42 Kenny A. Franks, You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma! A History of the Diamond Jubilee, 1907–1982 (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983), 61–70; Interviews with OHS staff members, September through December 1992.

43 “Annual Meeting Files, 1986–1993,” Office of the Deputy Director, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.

44 “Membership Files,” Development Office, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.

45 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April 1971; “Publication Files,” Publications Office, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.

46 Ibid.

47 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 1972.

48 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 1975; interviews with OHS staff, December 1992.

49 Franks, You’re Doin’ Fine, 61–70.

50 Interview with OHS staff, January 1993.

51 Oklahoma Historical Society Constitution, Art. V; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, March 1981.

52 “Historic Context Review,” Office of the Executive Director, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.

53 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, July 1991.

54 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, January 1994, April 1995.

55 “Cost-Benefit Analysis,” Office of the Executive Director, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.

56 The Daughter of Dawn, directed by Richard Banks, written by Norbert Myles (Texas Film Company, 1920; Harrington Park, NJ: Milestone Film & Video, 2016).

57 The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org/encyclopedia.

58 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, January 1997, April 1998.

59 “Society Unveils Proposed Museum,” Friday (Oklahoma City, OK), February 6, 1998.

60 “OKC Firm to Design New $46 Million Museum,” Ponca City (OK) News, April 22, 1999, 1.

61 “Lawmakers Craft Bond Issue for History Center,” Tulsa (OK) World, May 8, 2003.

62 “Smithsonian Affiliate Directory,” Smithsonian Affiliations, affiliations.si.edu/about-us/affiliate-directory; “Affiliated Archives,” National Archives, www.archives.gov/locations/affiliated-archives; “Museums Committed to Excellence,” American Alliance of Museums, ww2.aam-us.org/resources/assessment-programs/accreditation/accredited-museums.

63 The Gateway to Oklahoma History, gateway.okhistory.org; OHSfilm, www.youtube.com/user/OHSfilm/videos; The WKY KTVY KFOR Archives brought to you by the Oklahoma Historical Society, www.youtube.com/user/kforarchives.

64 “Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” February 28, 2001, www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf.

65 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October 2008.

66 Rebecca Cantrell, “Gov. Fallin Signs Bill Funding OKPOP Museum,” KFOR, May 29, 2015, kfor.com/2015/05/29/gov-fallin-signs-bill-funding-okpop-museum.

67 John Klein, “Local Help Saves Oklahoma Historical Society Sites Amid Decade of State Funding Cuts,” Tulsa World, March 3, 2018, www.tulsaworld.com/news/columnists/johnklein/local-help-saves-oklahoma-historical-society-sites-amid-decade-of/article_6f990223-4c6b-50da-adf1-3c3f3d2ecdbe.html.

68 “Hostile takeover disguised as consolidation,” Mistletoe Leaves (Oklahoma City), April 2014, 1.

69 “Reception Honors Lew Ward Family,” Oklahoma Historical Society, www.okhistory.org/about/pressrelease.php?id=756.

70 “Sequoyah’s Cabin transferred to the Cherokee Nation,” Mistletoe Leaves, January/ February 2017, 5.

71 “Fort Washita transferred to the Chickasaw Nation,” Mistletoe Leaves, November/December 2017, 7.

72 “Frank Phillips Home to Change Ownership,” City of Bartlesville, www.cityofbartlesville.org/10818-2.