The Norman Transcript

April 20, 2014

Settlers found opportunities in red dirt fields

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — There are few constants in families where the teenagers and soon-to-be teenagers outnumber their parents. One things holds true at my home: Nobody gets out of bed in the morning before dear old Dad.

My father was the same way. Four to five hours is all the sleep you need, he’d say. His father was making hospital rounds before the sun topped the Canadian. My great-grandfather was likely working on the rails in the pre-dawn coolness. Those cool summer mornings when the grass and flowers are still perky with morning dew and the birds are warming up with their wake-up songs are perfect complements for that first cup of coffee. It’s a time for thoughts about the big pictures of life. Thoughts like how your ancestors got here and whether your children will stay around and what your community will look like at the start of the next millennium.

No matter where you live in Norman, if the air is still and the atmosphere is right, you can hear the soothing rumble of an early-morning freight train as it passes over the tracks. Those glistening rails tied to the creosote-soaked timbers make up the spine of our community today much as they did more than 100 years ago. The return of passengers trains in recent years makes for two or more daily whistles, one at mid-morning and one late in the evening.

Norman’s Camp has come a long way since the railroad employees and early-day settlers descended upon the forests, creeks, pastureland, wild flowers and animals that inhabited this little corner of the Southwest. When they got here, they found a sort of crosstimbers between the flatlands of the west and the treelines of the east.

Abner E.Norman, the young Kentuckian that led the railroad survey crew through here about 130 years ago, would be proud of what has become of his campground. A member of his survey crew scraped the bark from an elm tree trunk and burned “Norman’s Camp” into the wood. The tree is gone but that site, a bit south of the intersection of what is now Classen Boulevard and Lindsey Street, was marked with a simple plaque.

The early settlers were hard-working folks, many of them recent immigrants like my great-grandfather who came to America from Germany at age 17. His few possessions fit in a wooden trunk. He worked as a cowhand and a rancher on his way to Kansas City where he signed on to build railroads through the South.

Settlers found the game plentiful. Deer, prairie dogs, buffalo, elk, bear and wolves once roamed our county. The Arbuckle Trail brought Texas cattle to Kansas markets. A highway sign hidden among trees near State Highway 9 and 48th Avenue SE talks of the Dave Blue Trading Post, undeniably the county’s first convenience store.

The trains brought settlers, soldiers and students to Norman. Today, the Amtrak Heartland Flyer takes on southbound passengers much as passenger trains did a century ago.

The battle to open the Unassigned Lands pitted cattlemen and Indians versus the railroads and the settlers. We all know who won. Besides those trains, covered wagons, oxen teams and horses brought settlers — Sooners and Boomers — to the territory on opening day in 1889.

My clan staked out a quarter section of unforgiving dirt in the southeast corner of the county. It is flanked by small creeks and stone outcroppings. The meadows come to life about this time each spring with orange and yellow wildflowers. There were frustrations in the early days. The Canadian River was about like it is today: too thin to plow and too thick to drink. But thankfully they saw only opportunities in those red dirt fields.

Andy Rieger


Editor’s note: This column is republished in honor of Tuesday’s anniversary of the April 22, 1889 land run.

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