I was more than a little disconsolate after seeing the demolition of the farm house my old fourth-grade teacher, Helen Atherton, lived in for many years just northwest of Waukomis.
I’ve written on any number of occasions that I began my love of history in fourth grade, and Mrs. Atherton had a lot to do with that, since she used to read to me and my longtime childhood classmates each morning from the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, “Little House on the Prairie.”
Unfortunately state history taught in school wasn’t very exciting, as I always dreaded having to crack that dry old Oklahoma history book in junior high years. The writing was as drab as the tan-brown cover and dusty-dry readings in its many chapters.
But one iconic figure jumped off of those pages at me, and had I known then what I later learned from my dad, I certainly would have paid closer attention.
William Henry Davis Murray, known from younger years as “Alfalfa Bill,” was as colorful a character as any you’ll see in American history, from the Founding Fathers of Virginia and Massachusetts, to the gold fields of California.
Born in Toadsuck, Texas (later renamed Collinsville) in 1869 to farmers Uriah and Bertha Jones Murray, he left home at age 12 after the family moved to Montague, Texas, near the Red River border with Oklahoma.
He worked farms in summer and attended public school in winter, studied hard and graduated with a teaching degree, becoming an instructor in Parker County, Texas.
The son of a Confederate veteran, Jim Christy was a Texas Ranger for four years from 1893 to 1897 in that area of Texas, and it was here Alfalfa Bill and my great-grandpa Christy apparently crossed paths as acquaintances. More on that later.
Alfalfa Bill moved to Indian Territory in 1898 after being admitted to the bar, settling in Tishomingo, where he practiced law.
His legal acumen and colorful personality brought him to the attention of leaders of the Chickasaw Nation, who appointed him legal adviser.
He got his colorful nickname in 1902, when Murray — who was born on a farm — would tour and give talks to local farmers about politics and their profession. He would talk about the large tract of alfalfa he cultivated, and often said “civilization begins and ends with the plow.” And the nickname stuck with him for life.
Alfalfa Bill had a large hand in the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention, which eventually was melded into the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, and statehood for Oklahoma in 1907.
Alfalfa Bill, a crusty Southern Democrat from the mold of the old Confederacy, saw many political victories and defeats in his early career, and had an irascible wit and tenacity that appealed to common Oklahomans.
Following the near ruin of the Oklahoma economy from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Murray successfully ran for governor, with a racist appeal set firmly in his support of Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Foreclosures, bank failures and mass unemployment were Alfalfa Bill’s great hurdles in the early 1930s, during his only term as governor.
A populist throughout his life, Murray as governor collected money from state employees, businessmen and his own salary to finance programs to feed Oklahoma’s poor, since a federal relief program had not yet been devised.
Alfalfa Bill became a national leader for victims of the Great Depression — in which Oklahoma had more than its fair share — and called for a national relief council in 1931.
Irascible and controversial in all his public dealings, Alfalfa Bill famously planted food crops on the lawn of the governor’s mansion to feed the hungry. During his most famous moment in history, he called out the Oklahoma National Guard in the so-called Toll Bridge War, during a court conflict between Oklahoma and an existing Texas toll bridge over the Red River, after a free bridge had been barricaded from the Texas side.
The bloodless conflict soon was adjudicated in favor of Oklahoma, Murray and the free bridge, bringing Alfalfa Bill instant fame around the country for his stand.
Overplaying this notoriety, he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1932 against Franklin D. Roosevelt, campaigning across the country in rumpled, ash-covered, food-stained clothes on a platform of “bread, butter, bacon and beans,” yet won only a single delegate outside Oklahoma.
As my great-uncle Barney Christy told it, his dad Jim Christy went to the state Capitol to get redress for a wrong, and actually was called into Alfalfa Bill’s office for a meeting. When my great-grandpa begged off meeting the governor due to the state of his attire, Alfalfa Bill said, “Nonsense, Jim, it’s just two old former Texans having a visit.”
And they did — Alfalfa Bill, his cigar-ash-covered suit, his rope belt and all.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking