Participants in the 24th annual Statewide Preservation Conference were treated to an in-depth view of Tahlequah’s history during the opening session Wednesday afternoon.
“Currents in Our History” traced the city’s history from the Trail of Tears, to the establishment of what is now Northeastern State University, and detailed the many “firsts” for which the city is known.
Cherokee Nation At-Large Tribal Councilor Jack Baker spoke to attendees about the “Old Settlers,” and the removal of the Cherokees from their ancestral home in the South, along what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
“The original Cherokees lived primarily in the Southeast, in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia,” said Baker. “During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokees were divided, as they often are, with some siding with the British and others with the American colonists. Those who fought with the British wanted no part of the American government, and left the homeland for Cape Girardeau, in Missouri. That territory belonged to Spain at the time. It turns out a massive earthquake in Cape Girardeau convinced the Cherokees to move again – this time to Arkansas, near Fort Smith, where settlements cropped up along the Arkansas River around 1811. These people were known as the Old Settlers.”
Baker detailed the treaties that diminished the Cherokee’s home land, eventually resulting in the Indian Removal Act. In 1838, the Cherokees were forced to move west, and arrived in what is now Tahlequah in 1839.
Despite facing immense adversity, the Cherokees set about rebuilding their government, and on Sept. 7, 1839, they signed a new Constitution, which laid out Tahlequah as the new capital of the nation.
“There have been many legends about how the name ‘Tahlequah’ came to be,” said Baker. “Many involve the phrase ‘two is enough,’ but many now believe this city was named after the Cherokee’s original capitol, Tellico.”
Northeastern State University History Professor Dr. Brad Agnew detailed the background of a number of buildings on the campus, which is inextricably linked to the Cherokee Nation.
“Now, I don’t know much about old buildings,” said Agnew. “If I had to describe the architecture of Seminary Hall, I would describe it at Cherokee Gothic.”
Agnew then launched into architectural comparison and varying names of types of architecture, showing slides of Romanesque Revival buildings and others.
“Now that you’re completely confused, I’ll just tell you, any building older than me is historic,” said Agnew. “What I find interesting is what happened in and near these buildings.”
Agnew spoke about the original Cherokee Female Seminary, which was at Park Hill before a fire destroyed it. The new seminary, now known as Seminary Hall on the NSU campus, was built in 1888.
“This school was run by A. Florence Wilson,” said Agnew, showing a slide of a Victorian matron. “She glares down at you like a Prussian drill sergeant and ran the school as such. This was the largest building to be erected in Indian Territory, at a cost of $60,000, which equates to about $1.5 million in today’s terms.”
Agnew went on to explain a little more of the history of the 161-year-old structure, saying Charles Haskell, Oklahoma’s first governor, signed legislation allowing the institution to continue after statehood as a “normal” school, educating both men and women.
“My office is on the third floor of this building, in what was once the dormitory area,” said Agnew. “I often look out across the south lawn, and imagine female students gathering for their required daily walks.”
By 1909, Northeastern Normal School had an enrollment of 180 students during the regular session, and grew exponentially in the summer months.
“Even then, teachers enrolled in summer classes to prepare for certification exams,” said Agnew. “The dormitories were insufficient to house the summer enrollees, and often, tent cities sprang up on the campus lawns to house the overflow.”
Agnew explained that this prompted construction of the second building, located directly behind Seminary Hall, as a bath house. Over the years, it has been recognized as the financial aid building, and most recently, houses offices for the athletic department.
The third building was commissioned in 1917, and was an 800-seat auditorium, now recognized as the eastern part of the Jack Dobbins Fieldhouse.
Agnew also spoke briefly about Bagley Hall, Haskell Hall and Wilson Hall. Bagley was supposed to be named Hackler Hall, after one of the school’s faculty, who politely declined. It came to be named Bagley after a professor who briefly visited Tahlequah and proclaimed the school to be one of the foremost in the country.
“I will endorse the claim NSU has produced more teachers than any other institution in Oklahoma, who were trained in what should have been known as Hackler Hall,” said Agnew. “The only bigger blunder made was in removing the third floor. What had been an immensely handsome building was truncated.”
Wilson Hall and Haskell Hall were both Works Project Administration structures and were built in the 1930s. Haskell Hall, named after the state’s first governor, has been renovated.
The fate of Wilson Hall, named after the seminary’s matriarch, A. Francis Wilson, remains unclear.
“Wilson is being considered for demolition,” said Agnew. “Betty Ridge, a correspondent for the [Tahlequah Daily Press], launched a one-woman crusade to preserve Wilson Hall, as can be seen by these numerous articles on the subject.”
Rounding out the session was local historian Beth Herrington, who provided a time-line synopsis of many of the buildings in the downtown area, and how they related to Tahlequah’s motto: “City of Firsts.”
“We are, truly, a city of firsts,” said Herrington. “Of course, we begin in 1839 with the Cherokee Square. By 1844, there were four buildings lining the corner of this square. Muskogee Avenue, what we know as Main Street, was platted in 1841-43, and was the first plat in what would become Oklahoma.”
In 1844, the Cherokee Advocate was the first newspaper printed west of the Mississippi, and was housed in the Cherokee Supreme Court building, on the corner of Keetoowah and Water.
“We can also lay claim to the first public school, which was also located here on Water Street in 1846,” said Herrington. “In 1851, the first Masonic Lodge in Oklahoma was built across from the courthouse square.”
Herrington pointed out that Tahlequah also had the first telephone switchboard west of the Mississippi, which ran from Tahlequah to Fort Gibson.
“Ed Hicks was charged with making the first call from Fort Gibson to the phone in the Stapler Store, here in Tahlequah,” said Herrington.
“Well, the phone rang in the Stapler Store, and Mr. Stapler answered, saying ‘Who’s this?’ to which Ed Hicks replied, ‘It’s the devil, and I’m coming to get you!’”
Herrington mentioned other structures of interest – including the Dawes Commission Office, which is now Meigs Jewelry; the Carnegie Library; the Joseph Thompson home; and finally, the Franklin home, known to many local residents as “The Castle.”
“The Franklin Home was constructed of Boone Chert rock, common in this area,” said Herrington.
“The walls are a foot thick and are reinforced with rebar. The home has four floors and is listed on the National Historic Register. After the Franklin family moved from the area, the home remained empty for quite a while. Fortunately, a jazz musician from California has purchased the home and is planning to restore it.”
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