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Battle Cry for History

The First Century of the Oklahoma Historical Society

Battle Cry for History was written in 1993 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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 tribal destruction. 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.

Historic Photograph of the Land Run

The run of 1889, the beginning of a new state.

On the streets of Kingfisher that Saturday morning, nineteen members of the Oklahoma Territory 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 century of the Oklahoma Historical Society.1

Little did the editors realize that one hundred years later their offspring would be a statewide educational institution with a budget of $6.5 million, 150 employees, 39 staffed historic sites and museums, and nationally recognized research, publication, and preservation programs. That century 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 opportunity, resources, 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 by-laws, no operating budget, 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

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

Members of the Oklahoma Territory Press Association readily sent copies of their newspapers to W. P. Campbell for inclusion in the collections of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Today the process continues with the Oklahoma Historical Society’s repository being one of the largest in the United States.

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 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 capitol building when constructed. The following year, when an invitation of free rent was offered by the directors of the newly constructed, fire-proof Carnegie Library in Oklahoma City, the directors voted to move the society.6

1910 Photograph of OHS Staff

Caretakers of the society’s growing collections in 1910 included (l to r) Edith Knean, file clerk; Lon Wharton, Secretary; Jasper Sipes, President; and W. P. Campbell, custodian.

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 capitol building 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

Basement of the State Capitol Building

Basement of the State Capitol Building

A simple museum was organized from the mass of collections, roughly divided into display cases on archeology, 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 buffalo-hide tepees 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 first newspaper published in the territory, 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 (1836–1844), a complete set of the Missionary Herald (1822–1862), Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1832), and a rare copy of a Child’s Book in the Creek Language (1835).10

Photograph of carved artifact

Joseph Thoburn, OHS board member in 1909 and staff member after 1917, conducted some of the first legal excavations at Spiro Mounds. As a result, a number of striking artifacts such as this breast gorget are to be found in OHS collections.

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 Cherokee. 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 300-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. Initially, 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 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.

OHS Publications

Publications of the Oklahoma Historical Society contribute to historical knowledge about the people, places, and events of Oklahoma.

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 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 St. 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 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.

Former home of the society during construction

Oklahoma’s “Temple of History,” here under construction in April 1930, was built to hold collections as well as to honor veterans. OHS still honors that legacy today with various military exhibits at the Oklahoma History Center.

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, 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

OHS Board members in 1932

The 1932 board of directors, many well-known Oklahoma historians among them, posed on the steps of the new historical building.

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 “Rs”: 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 writers’ project grant for an interview program. The project employed more than 100 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

Painting of a Kiowa Dancer

Kiowa Dancer is one of the eight Indian figures painted on the walls of the former historical society building by the Kiowa Five in the 1930s.

The public works projects conducted by and for the society signaled a change in attitude which 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 agents 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.

A good example of this new activism was marking and preserving historic sites. As early as 1927 the legislature had responded to consistent requests from the board and staff and authorized the society to mark historic sites with low-priced markers manufactured by prison labor. The will had outpaced the means, however, and no markers were installed. In 1934, with new resources provided through federal programs, the society passed a resolution committing itself to “aid in the location and preservation” of historic sites. At that same board meeting, attention was drawn to two “venerable” sites that were threatened with destruction, Fort Gibson and Sequoyah’s home site.18

Black and white photograph of Fort Gibson

Fort Gibson was the first historic site owned by the society. The old barracks building shown was accepted in 1934.

In 1934 the society accepted title to the Fort Gibson barracks and bake oven, built on top of the hill overlooking the Verdigris. 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. Down river, 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 home site 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 home site 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.19

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. Undaunted, the next year the board authorized the acquisition of three more sites, the Cherokee Female Seminary, Dwight Mission, and Union Mission. Obviously, the willingness was there; the resources were not. The sites were never purchased.20

Historic Marker for Dwight Mission

The historic markers project in the late 1940s was an outward sign of the society’s increasing and active participation in outreach programs and services.

Although the war eliminated the primary resource that had allowed the society to expand its outreach, the spirit of activism survived. In 1942 the board appointed a committee to “study historic places worthy of preservation,” followed three years later by a resolution calling for a more “progressive drive to mark historic spots.” In the meantime, the board accepted two gifts of property, Garland Cemetery and the Epaphras Chapman Cemetery, both in the old Choctaw Nation.21

Historic photograph of Fort Washita barracks

Fort Washita, south barracks as seen during an archeological investigation in 1971.

As had happened before and would happen again, citizen interest and legislative responsiveness 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 100 aluminum markers, costing ninety dollars 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.22

The society’s interest in historic sites did not stop at marking. In 1952, after failing again 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.23

Historic photograph of Choctaw Chiefs House

The Choctaw Chief’s House near Swink was restored by OHS following greater legislative support for historic sites.

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 was funded 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 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.24

The interior of the Aline sod house

The sod house at Aline, the only original homesteader’s "soddy" in the state, came under the OHS umbrella in 1962.

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 500 sites to be “marked, repaired, and some acquired.”25

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 archeologist 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 also was purchased in 1962. Other sites were considered, but resources prevented more rapid expansion.26

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 the division was responsible for sites such as Pawnee Bill’s Ranch near Pawnee, the Hunter’s Home (formerly known as the Murrell 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 Home, Fort Washita, and the Chief’s Home, and $7,000 for Sod House.27

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.28

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 during the Civil War in the Indian Territory. 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.29

The exterior of Old Central

Restoration of historic sites such as Old Central was a direct result of federal monies made available through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

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 Home 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 and the eventual acquisition of the State Capital Publishing Museum in Guthrie.30

By 1972 some board members and staff were having second thoughts about the longterm 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.31

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 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 State Parks division 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.32

Historic photograph of an oil well next to the O.H.S. building

In the 1940s oil companies drilled wells on both the north and east sides of the historical building. The collections continued to grow in both the museum and research departments.

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. 33

Bookcases holding the D.A.R. collection in the library

The DAR collection, shown here in 1950, formed the basis of the library’s genealogical collection which is now one of the largest in the state.

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 historic 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.34

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 200 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—$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. 35

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.36

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-genealogists. There had always been an element of genealogical interest in the book and periodical collection, 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.

Research Division publications

In 1945 the Oklahoma Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution nudged the society deeper into genealogical research when the hereditary 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 U.S. Census microfilm in 1969–and a growing enthusiasm for genealogical research after the release of the book and movie, Roots, by Alex Haley.37

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.38

Care of the collections, both in the research departments and the museum, became increasingly important after the war 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 society.39

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 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 Choctaw 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.

Photograph of early exhibits in cases

Early museum exhibits of the Wiley Post Building (former home of the OHS) often included row upon row of display cases and walls full of portraits and paintings.

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 Hall o 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.40

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 pre-historic 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, it was also a matter of necessity due to the museum’s limited staff of two people and a minimal operations budget.41

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 OETA, which sponsored Oklahoma history lessons originating in the museum. Meanwhile, the collections continued to grow, both in quantity and quality.42

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 society. With a staff of five, however, came higher expectations and new ambitions. In 1972 the State Museum (now the Oklahoma Museum of History) first applied for accreditation from the American Association 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 AAM.43

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 Chenall 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.44

75th Anniversary of Statehood exhibit

Exhibit celebrating 75 years of statehood.

Fortunately, this foundation of progress was in place when funding for the Diamond Jubilee of Statehood was appropriated to the society 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 completed in 1991, with accurate records of accession numbers and location cards.45

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.46

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 2,000 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 5,000, a membership coordinator was hired.47

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 1974, when Oklahoma’s Governors, 1890–1907: Territorial Years was released, to 1986, twenty-one 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 pre-press 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 illustrated photography. By 1978 the society had twenty-eight titles in print, including several in second and third editions.48

Oklahoma Historical Society publications

Since 1921 the Oklahoma Historical Society has maintained an award-winning publishing program.

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.49

Much of the production came out of the society’s newest division, the State Historic Preservation Office. 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 society.50

The F. Drummond Home

Drummond Home in Hominy is one of the numerous Oklahoma properties listed on the National Register.

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 society added a staff of historians, an archeologist, 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.51

The State Capital Publishing Museum

Federal preservation funds aided the society’s restoration projects at several historic sites including the State Capitol Publishing Museum in Guthrie.

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 1976, then by the Reagan administration’s 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 the 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 personnel. 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.

People dressed in period clothing for the Battle of Honey Springs Re-enactment

Re-enactment of the Battle of Honey Springs

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.52

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 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.53

In the past, the society’s leadership had juggled ambition and resources with mixed results. When intuition and circumstances were favorable, the society leaped forward with achievements such as the newspaper collections, a new building, the WPA projects, and historic sites. More often, the board and staff waited and prepared for opportunity, pulled relentlessly in all directions by their own expectations and the demands of legislators, constituency groups, and the professional history community.

People dressed in period clothing for the Battle of Honey Springs Reenactment

Innovative programming such as major living history events increased after the first reenactment of the Battle of Honey Springs in July 1988.

Much of the society’s progress had been achieved through the talents and energies of individuals, especially in the early days when goals were relatively simple and the standards by which success was measured were still evolving. But as the society grew in size and complexity, individual efforts on both the board and the staff–no matter how remarkable–could not sustain enough momentum to keep up with expectations. The results were cyclical setbacks, inconsistent growth, and a public relations nightmare.

The solution was, and still is, organization–a process that blends the talents of the many, establishes goals and objectives, and adopts a system of management that makes the most of creativity, communication, and resources. This “holy grail” of organizational direction has long been the object of attention at the society. As early as 1949 the president of the board stressed the importance of “plans and policies.” In the 1960s a four-year plan was discussed. In the 1970s, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the society brought in an outside consultant to study organizational strengths and weaknesses. Other self evaluations followed in the 1980s.

The cumulative effect of these efforts was a structured planning process adopted in 1992, just as the society approached the end of its first century. At the top of the organizational pyramid is a five-year plan, which groups programs and ambitions into six broad goals, then establishes more specific goals with objectives that detail cost, time, and plan of action. From this document comes a set of one-year goals and objectives. Both are used to prepare budget allocations, generate requests for future funding, and make organizational changes to accomplish specific tasks.

The emphasis on preparation for the future also includes new tools for evaluation, such as a “Historic Context Report” with essential themes and topics, a priority ranking of museums and sites, and detailed budget allocations and reports for every division and program. Taken together, all of these documents and planning processes provide direction and help balance expectations with resources.

As the society begins its second century, such preparation will become increasingly important. There will be new challenges—a declining state tax base, the preservation of fragile artifacts and documents, the conversion of new believers in the importance of state and local history. And there will be new strategies–greater reliance on local support groups, more revenue earning capabilities, more programming, greater access to collections. But whatever tomorrow brings, the society will be there, 100 years strong, ready to “preserve and perpetuate the history of Oklahoma.” William P. Campbell would not have it any other way.

Bob L. Blackburn is the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. A native of Oklahoma, he completed his PhD in History at Oklahoma State University in 1979. He is the author of numerous books, more than twenty scholarly articles, and several screenplays, including the narrative script for Oklahoma Passage: The Telecourse on OETA-TV. He also has made more than 120 presentations for scholarly audiences, local historical groups, television, and radio.


1 Fred Smith Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society, 1893–1943,” (M.A. 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, 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, Record Group 12-1, Box 2-A, File Folder A, 10, Oklahoma State Archives, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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

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

6 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1901, 56.

7 William P. Campbell, Oklahoma Historical Society, Custodian's Report, 1907–08, 7, Archives and Manuscripts Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1958), 365–373; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1929, 57–59.

14 Lawrence C. Kelly, “Indian Records,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, 54 (Summer, 1976): 229–230; Charles Evans, “The State Historical Society and Its Possessions,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, 24 (Fall, 1946): 254. For the best description of the society's efforts to obtain the Indian records, see Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 139–150.

15 Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 145; U.S., 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,” 153–155.

17 A.M. Gibson, ed., The West Wind Blows: The Autobiography of Edward Everett Dale (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1984), 346–347; Grant Foreman, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” pamphlet, Vertical Files, Library Resources Division, Oklahoma Historical Society (hereafter cited as OHS LRD); “Indian-Pioneer History Project, W.P.A. 131,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, 37 (Winter, 1959–60), 507–509.

18 Oklahoma Session Laws of 1927, 43; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April, 1934. The most comprehensive approach to development of the OHS's historic sites program is contained in LeRoy H. Fischer, “The Historic Preservation Movement in Oklahoma,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, 57 (Spring, 1979): 3–25.

19 Standley, “The Oklahoma Historical Society,” 158–159.

20 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October, 1941.

21 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October, 1942, October, 1945, April, 1946.

22 Session Laws of 1949, 691–692; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, February, 1949.

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

24 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1953, 445–449; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1957, 599–600; Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1951, 248.

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

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

27 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1967, 423.

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

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

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

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

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

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

34 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1949, 691–692; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, February, 1949.

35 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, 1946, July, 1949.

36 Session Laws of Oklahoma, 1957, 596–597; Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, April, 1957, April, 1958.

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

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

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

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

41 Charles Evans, “Oklahoma State Historical Society,” (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d.), booklet, OHS LRD.

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

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

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

45 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.

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

47 “Membership Files,” Publications Office, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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

49 Ibid.

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

51 Minutes of the OHS Board of Directors, October, 1975; Interviews with OHS staff, December, 1992.

52 Franks, You're Doin' Fine, 61–70.

53 Interview with OHS staff, January, 1993.