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AAA World Article

Getting to Know Guthrie

Oklahoma’s first state capital is steeped in historic attractions and modern-day celebrations that make for a great getaway.

By Elaine Warner

AAA World Article

Guthrie citizens celebrating Territorial times.
Photo by Elaine Warner

On the morning of April 22, 1889, the town of Guthrie consisted of a railroad depot and a partially finished land office. All around the perimeter of the Unassigned Lands—a 1.9 million-acre central parcel of land that had not been assigned to any of the Native American tribes—thousands of hopeful land-seekers awaited the noon signal of a canon shot that the Land Run was on. By nightfall, Guthrie was a tent city with some 10,000 inhabitants.

In anticipation of the opening of these lands, it was assumed by many that Guthrie, the designated Territorial capital with its central location and railroad connection, would eventually become the state capital. President Harrison’s signing of the 1890 Organic Act for Oklahoma Territory confirmed it. Guthrie was officially on its way to big things.

Covering the Territory
Any visit to Guthrie should begin at the Oklahoma Territorial Museum, a 20,000 square-foot building that incorporates the historic 1902 Carnegie Library. Exhibits provide background on the piecemeal settlement of Oklahoma, once considered surplus land to relocate Native Americans forced from their traditional homelands by an expanding nation. Displays feature items brought to the state by those making the Land Run, and written accounts from the time describe the challenges of setting up a new community. A large mural on one wall illustrates the chaos as hordes of hopefuls came by train, horse, covered wagon, bicycle and on foot in hopes of claiming land for themselves. Other exhibits cover life in the territory, the path to statehood and the battle over the location of the state capital. Even today, you’ll find folks who swear the capital was stolen by Oklahoma City.

There’s humor to be found in the museum, too. Check out the outlaw exhibit, where you’ll meet Elmer McCurdy, a bad guy who was really bad at it—he once used so much explosive to open a safe that it melted all the coins together. After he was killed by law officers, his body was taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska. Because there was no one on hand to claim his body, the embalmer added enough arsenic to turn him literally into a stiff. He was propped up in a corner, and people came to have their pictures taken with the dead outlaw. His body was claimed by traveling carnival workers who displayed him as a sideshow exhibit.

Guthrie OK Sign
Photo Courtesy of Oklahoma Tourism

For the whole story, including where he was finally found, how he was identified and why he is buried in Guthrie, you’ll have to visit the museum. His was the original “busy body,” traveling more miles dead than he ever did in life. 

Reclaiming Historic Treasures
Guthrie served as the state capital from statehood in 1907 until 1910. Political winds had changed, and rivalry between Guthrie and Oklahoma City, 30 miles to the south, intensified. A vote was taken as to the location of the capital, and Guthrie was the loser. When the capital was moved from Guthrie to Oklahoma City, Guthrie was left with an amazing legacy of Victorian architecture and a shattered economy.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that locals woke up to the treasures hiding behind mid-century facades and began to uncover the town’s architectural heritage. A large portion of the town is designated a National Historic Landmark district, one of the largest contiguous historic districts in the country. Saturday trolley tours of the historic district are informative and entertaining, but a good deal of it can be enjoyed on foot, too. 

A must-see is the Guthrie Scottish Rite Temple at the east end of Oklahoma Avenue. The oldest part of the building was constructed in 1908 for the Oklahoma Legislature. The newer massive Greek Revival section of the temple was completed in 1921. Weekday tours feature 14 “artistic” rooms designed to reflect different architectural periods, with designs ranging from the ancient Egyptian theater and Roman atrium to the Gothic library and elegant 18th-century English reception rooms.

Guthrie OK Library
Guthrie Scottish Rite Temple
Photo by Elaine Warner

Nearer to the center of town is Byron’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop, owned by three-time National Fiddle Champion Byron Berline. The 1893 Neo-Classical Revival building was originally Guthrie’s Ancient Free and Accepted Masons’ Lodge and Masonic Hall. The Fiddle Shop downstairs carries a variety of new and vintage stringed instruments. An adjacent door leads to a steep flight of stairs (no elevator in this historic listed building). At the top is the Music Hall, where guests sit on folding chairs under a ceiling acoustically adjusted with draped tee-shirts to enjoy live bluegrass concerts. 

Stables Café on North Division is a hot spot for barbecue and history. Back in the day, it was E. E. Tallman’s Flour, Feed and Wagon Yard. Tallman also ran a stagecoach line between Guthrie and Oklahoma City. The menu provides history and an 1889 photo of the business. Décor reflects the transition of Tallman’s from the horse and buggy era into the automobile age, when Tallman became one of the first automobile dealers in the area.

Building Exterior
1890 Gaffney Building
Photo by Elaine Warner

On Oklahoma Street, the Frontier Drugstore Museum is housed in the 1890 Gaffney Building with its ornamented roofline. It’s on the site of the F. B. Lillie Drugstore, established in a tent on April 22, 1889. The collection of antique cases, the pressed tin ceiling and the apothecary bottles filled with jewel-toned liquids provide a real time trip. And the huge collection of old drugs and panaceas indicates that the most troublesome tract in the Territory was the digestive tract!

Guthrie OK Drug Store
The Oklahoma Frontier Drugstore Museum
Photo by Elaine Warner

Down the hill to the west is the Oklahoma Territorial Capital Sports Museum, featuring the stories of Oklahoma athletes. Housed in three adjoining listed historic buildings, exhibits cover a variety of sports and the Oklahomans who starred in them. Baseball and football get the most space with stars such as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench and all seven of Oklahoma’s Heisman Award winners. One area features Native American athletes with several pieces honoring multitalented Jim Thorpe. Other sections include golf, rodeo and Olympians from many categories.

Guthrie OK Museum
Oklahoma Territorial Capital Sports Museum
Photo Courtesy of The Oklahoma Territorial Capital Sports Museum

On the northeast corner of 2nd Street and Harrison is the Blue Bell Saloon building, where Western movie star Tom Mix tended bar in the early 1900s. The large building catty-corner from the Blue Bell was once the home of the State Capital newspaper. The first edition of the paper was printed and distributed from a tent on the day of the Run. It was printed in this building from 1902 to 1911.

The Pollard Theatre, a block-and-a-half east, is the home of a resident professional theater company that typically produces six shows, from dramas to musicals, between August and June.

Pollard Theater
The Pollard Theatre
Photo Courtesy of Oklahoma Tourism

While you’re hitting these highlights, you’ll also pass a good selection of shops, boutiques and art galleries selling goods as diverse as antiques, handcrafted chocolate and custom cowboy boots. Sidewalk signs throughout town tell stories of early-day Guthrie.

A Turn of Events
When it comes to events, history hits a home run with Guthrie’s biggest annual celebration: 89er Days (April 16–19, 2019). This year’s activities included an Old Timers’ Baseball Game; the Geezers, Gassers and Hogs car show; and The Great Bed Run. A rodeo, parade, musical entertainment, food trucks and more are traditional features. Expect to see lots of people in ’89er attire.

Another much-anticipated annual event is the International Bluegrass Festival. Nationally and internationally acclaimed musicians, impromptu jam sessions, kids’ programs, food and fun are the big attractions. Activities take place in the Cottonwood Flats recreation area, a combination of performance sites and camping facilities. This is definitely a BYOBlanket or folding chair venue. This year’s festival dates are October 4–6 with headliners including Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, the Kentucky Headhunters and the Kruger Brothers.  

The year’s last major celebration is A Territorial Christmas. Festivities kick off November 24 with a lighted parade and inauguration of the season’s new Territorial Governor. Highlights of the season are two Victorian Walk Evenings, December 8 and 15. Shop windows feature living postcards as costumed participants create scenes from the Territorial period. Shops are open late, and visitors are treated to a cup of hot wassail at the Carnegie Library. Other events include a Historic Homes Tour and the annual Guthrie Scottish Rite Christmas Concert, featuring the 5,373-pipe Kimball organ.

Guthrie OK
A Guthrie's Territorial Christmas costumed performer
Photo Courtesy of Oklahoma Tourism

Smaller events keep folks coming to Guthrie round the calendar. Red Brick Nights, held the first Saturday of the month from May through September, make great family gatherings with food trucks, entertainment and after-regular-hours shopping throughout downtown. Another popular summer pastime is a night at the 1950 Beacon Drive-In Theater. Pile the kids and the dogs in the car; bring lawn chairs if you want. They have old-fashioned hang-on-the-window speakers, but bring a radio to hear the sound on FM.

As it was in 1889, Guthrie is a unique destination that’s continually on its way to big things. Back then, it was settlers looking for land. Now it’s visitors looking for the charm of a bygone era. Today, Oklahoma’s Territorial Capital is truly a capital getaway.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of AAA World.

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