On a hot September morning in 1893, my great-grandfather, Charlie Hasbrook, sat atop a retired racehorse named Old Prize and waited with 50,000 other anxious people near Hennessey, Okla. All were taking their shot at the last great stretch of free land in the United States. When the gun fired, the multitudes took off across the red dirt landscape.
By sundown, a few like Charlie had staked their claims and made a future, but most had lost what was, for many, their last hope. And a few were even dead.
Some 115 years later, also on horseback, I rode past Hennessey on my way to Charlie Hasbrook's homestead -- lost during the Depression, and for 60 years after that, but recently regained by the family and undergoing a full historic restoration.
Why I found myself on horseback, here in the 21st century is a story in itself, one that speaks volumes about the great technological divide between Charlie Hasbrook's world and our own; what's been gained in the process but also what's been lost.
Charlie was in Hennessey because he had little choice. His father was dead, murdered with the likely assistance of his mother … and he had left home after facing a similar threat from his step-father. The early 1890s had found him in the Oklahoma Indian Territory, working as part of a crew surveying the future path of a railroad line that would roughly follow the path of the already legendary Chisholm Trail -- the great cattle drive path from Texas to Abilene, Kan., that fed the workers of a rapidly industrializing America.
In the afternoons, when the day's survey was completed, Charlie and a friend would ride the countryside -- ever watchful of Cheyenne and Cherokee braves -- and look for the best ranch and farm property. When Charlie spotted one particular beautiful stretch of Wolf Creek, a tributary of the Cimarron River, he turned to his friend and said, "If they ever open up this country, I'm coming back right here."
A few years later, he burst off the line at Hennessey and, instead of heading toward Enid (a town he is often credited with founding), Charlie turned east, toward Wolf Creek. He staked his claim and built a dugout cave in the creek bank. It was to that homely little cave that he brought his wife, Mary, and newborn daughter, Theresa, my grandmother.
The dugout cave is still there … and I find it impossible to enter it without being overcome with emotion. I come from this tiny space, smaller than a walk-in closet -- and I try not to think very long about this little family of three, literally buried in the ground, alone in the vast prairie, another baby on the way, and the hardships and nearly impossible odds that they faced.
Yet they made it, the family prospered, and Charlie's and Mary's descendents are now scattered across not only Oklahoma, but the world. And now, as I write this, I am slowly making my way back toward the Hasbrook homestead.
The occasion is a 50-mile ride up the Chisholm Trail, from the old cavalry fort at El Reno to the tiny hamlet of Bison, just down a long dirt road from the farm. I am part of a group of about 20 Boy Scouts and dads who are riding the trail, documenting it, repairing old markers and creating a Web site devoted to the ride.