Just think, instead of North Carolina, Oklahoma might have been “First in Flight.”
North Carolina, of course, had the Wright brothers, who flew their flying machince success fully on December 17, 1903.
Oklahoma had Ben Bellis, a Muskogee plumber.
From The Oklahoman June 27, 1909:
“In the north part of town near the M.O. & G. depot in a pile of rubbish there is a framework of gas pipes, steel strips and wire. This is the first airship that was ever made in the southwest, and was conceived long before the Wrights got into the game. It was the “Ben Bellis,” and was made by a plumber who is still in the plumbing business in Muskogee, his ambition as an areonaut having perished in the ridicule that was heaped upon his machine.”
The article goes on to tell that this event had occurred several years earlier, when Muskogee was a small town of around 2,000 and had no waterworks and not much work for a plumber. Ben Bellis, having time on his hands, watched windmills and “then was born the idea of a flying machine.”
Being a plumber, he used the materials he had on hand. Quoting the newspaper, “Finally the contraption was completed. It was a curious affair, made of gas pipes, steel strips, wire and an expanse of canvas. It had a small but powerful engine attached. There was no aluminum in those days and Bellis did not have bamboo. So his airship was a weighty affair, several hundred pounds, in fact.”
The great day arrived and Bellis, who had spread the word near and far of the first flight, had attracted the “biggest crowd that had ever been in Muskogee up to that time.” People had come from miles around.
The crowd awaited breathless as the plumber started the engine and prepared for flight. “But the “Ben Bellis” was a sulky bird.” Bellis tried for hours to get off the ground, but his airship refused to cooperate.
The story goes on to tell that Ben Bellis stayed in the plumbing business and became a rich man, but he never tried to build another flying machine.
The Oklahoma River is quickly becoming a recreation destination. With the return of drag boat racing, the groundbreaking ceremony for the Devon Boathouse that will join the Chesapeake Boathouse and the inaugural Boathouse International triathlon, all in the month of June, the river has become a very busy place.
This is not a new phenomenon.
In 1909, the city waterworks plant was overworked. The Oklahoman for June 30, reported that the muddy water citizens were seeing when they turned on the faucet was safe to drink and would have to do until the new sedimentation basin was completed. When built, the waterworks plant was designed to purify two to three million gallons a day but demand was sending seven to eight million gallons to the filtering plant before mud had time to settle in the basins. The new basin when completed was to increase the capacity of the plant over 200 per cent.
An item from the Fourth of July paper brought the news that the city water was “a mite cleaner” than it had been. Construction on the new sedimentation basin had been slowed by heavy rains from the Colorado area, but workers expected the basin to be in use within the next few days.
The river served as Oklahoma City’s water supply until 1918 when the Overholser Lake and Dam was completed.
Here is an item from The Daily Oklahoman, July 27, 1918:
The picturesque color of pioneer days has not entirely vanished from
Oklahoma City streets. Yesterday a typical prairie schooner, reminiscent of ’89 days, traveled up Broadway. Under the big wagon with its canvas top, two dogs ran. Behind came a string of horses. In the wagon a woman with a baby in her arms sat gazing at the tall buildings.
Some Indians, garbed in their tribal costumes, wearing mocasins and liberally ornamented with beads, bracelets and tatoo marks looked at the schooner and smiled. It was a link that connected the city of today with the frontier days of the past.
But Oklahoma Cityans hurried on, unmindful of schooner or Indians. Tonight they can go to the movies and see schooners and Indians, so they should worry about the picturesque color of Oklahoma City. That is for effete easterners to rave about.
We hope that Oklahomans have not become so blasé as to forego the sights and opportunities available all around us in our great state.
Anyone familiar with The Oklahoman knows that the newspaper has a long history of covering the outdoors. On a recent Sunday, Ed Godfrey, Outdoors Editor, devoted the outdoors page to catfishing.
In June 1909, the Fish Editor of The Oklahoman, surely the earlier incarnation of Mr. Godfrey, found himself in a fish contest of sorts. He had invited a competition between the anglers of Oklahoma while pointing out the rivalry that existed (and still does) between the east and west sides of the state.
On June 2, the paper reported a “Monster Fish Recently Caught in Cache Creek Near City of Lawton.” The 63 1/2-pound, 4-foot, 3-inch fish was caught by Mrs. W.H. Edmond of near Lawton and witnessed by her husband and two others. On reporting Mrs. Edmond’s catch, the Fish Editor put out the challenge to the Washita on the east side of the state “that has theretofore been the champion fish market of the southwest.”
On June 5, The Oklahoman reported, “This Big Fish Weighs 78 Pounds and It Was Caught Near Fairfax.” On May 20, 1909, Font Sawyer and Alva Tucker brought the largest catfish ever caught in this part of the state. It weighed 78 pounds and was 4 feet 6 inches in length. It was caught in Salt Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River. “Isn’t that a sight,” exclaimed the amazed inhabitants of Fairfax.
On Sunday, June 6, the Fish Editor announced, “Enviable Reputation of Washita Sustained by Big Fish Catch.” U.G. Canfield of Carnegie caught a 66-pound, 4-foot 10-inches long fish from the Washita River. He went on to apologize if he left “the impression that all the big fish in Oklahoma are in Cache creek and Salt creek.” He knew that he would hear from the Washita and that “the Washita takes its place alongside Cache and Salt, or rather, between them, for it produced a fish two and a half pounds larger than Cache, but twelve pounds smaller than Salt.”
“Dear Brother Anglers: Isn’t it about time we were organizing a state association of anglers? Write me what you think of the scheme. Angling should be done scientifically, and we need to discuss methods. We have a bad reputation from the standpoint of veracity, and a strong organization can overcome that. Cordially, Fish Editor”
From Dec. 2 -Dec. 5, 1923, the Great Houdini performed on the stage of the Orpheum theater in Oklahoma City.
Houdini was the famous magician who made a habit of escaping from handcuffs, straight jackets, jails, prisons, belts and bars. He would often accept challenges from local law enforcement agencies to escape from their facilities.
An advertisement for the Orpheum announced that “The engagement of Houdini is the most notable vaudeville booking that this house has ever presented to its patrons.” The self-termed escapeologist was touted as “vaudeville’s greatest individual act.”
In The Oklahoman for Dec. 4, 1923, the headline reads “Houdini Turns Down Good Chance to Do Some Extra ‘Stuff’ in Cell of City Jail.” The chief of police Ray Frazier offered Houdini the chance to break out of the city jail. The magician stated he was too busy doing three shows a day and was “ accepting no challenges from the police.” He also seemed to be grumbling a bit when comparing his pay. “They only pay 25 and 50 cents to see me, but in Chicago and New York they pay $2,” he said.
In 1923, the Oklahoma City police believed in their jail, quoting one policeman who said, “I’ve got a month’s salary that says that he can’t get out if he let’s me search him and turn the key on him.”
A review from the evening newspaper, the Oklahoma City Times said ”Although Houdini is as mystifying as ever and is still the undisputed king of the mystery branch of his profession, we found Frank DeVoe and Eddie Willis far more entertaining at The Orpheum Sunday. Houdini’s feats left us filled with wonder, his escape from the torture chamber being especially baffling but DeVoe found far greater favor with the audience with his songs.”
What might the papers had said if Houdini had escaped from the city jail?
In 1907, 15 buffalo boarded a train in New York City and made the journey to the brand new state of Oklahoma.
The Wichita Forest and Game Preserve, now known as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, was to become their home. This “gift to the people, for the express purpose of helping to preserve the American bison from ultimate extinction” originated with the director of the New York Zoological society, Dr. William T. Hornaday. He offered the bison to the secretary of agriculture, who accepted it.
After sending experts to choose the best land and fencing the land, 9 cows and 6 bulls of varying ages and representing four different blood lines traveled from New York to Cache, Oklahoma, and were hauled the last 12 miles to their new home.
The Oklahoman for Nov. 19, 1907, announced the birth of a heifer calf that was named “Oklahoma” in honor of the arrival of statehood and who joined a bull calf born about two weeks before.
According to a story dated Sept. 23, 1917, “four of the original number were lost, two dying from Texas fever and two from other causes.” The herd in 1917 numbered 94, including “the largest buffalo bull in the world. He weighs 2,800 pounds and is 10 years old. His name was Black Dog.
The herd and others in Oklahoma and across the nation have thrived so that the buffalo is no longer in danger of extinction. Nat Batchelder, Oklahoma City Zoo spokesman in 1982, said, ” That has got to be one of the ironies of nature, that an animal killed off in its natural habitat had to be sent out from New York City.”
“Among the descendents of those original 15 bison are the four animals obtained by the Oklahoma City Zoo in November 1977.”
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, established in 1901, now maintains the bison herd at about 650 animals with the surplus being sold annually at public auction, according to their website http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/oklahoma/wichitamountains/
It’s popularity as a tourist destination has continued to grow, hosting more than 2 million visitors a year.
The Oklahoma River has the Chesapeake Boathouse and is soon to have the Devon Boathouse. Often from the Interstate, you can see rowers pulling their shells along in the water.
This is not new for Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoman for July 4, 1912, announced that the first regatta of the Belle Isle Rowing club would take place that afternoon and stated that the members of the club had been working “very strenuously for more than a week and the crews are in splendid form. ”
“Nothing of this sort has ever been shown in Oklahoma City before and the races today promise to be the starting point for the organization of a permanent club for the promotion of rowing, swimming, canoeing and other aquatic sports.”
The next day the newspaper said the Fourth of July crowd “ran in the thousands,” and the headline roared “FIRST REGATTA A SUCCESS.”
The club organized July 1, 1912, as the Oklahoma City Boating Club and was also known as the Belle Isle Boat Club.
Regattas were held up through 1919, and no mention was found in the newspaper after that.
After the purchase of the park land by OG&E in 1928, the park remained open for picnicking and fishing.
In 1974, a group gathered informally as the Oklahoma City Rowing Club and formally organized and was incorporated in 1977. They practiced and held races at Lake Overholser.