Sunday, February 13, 2011

Early Homes were Half-Dugouts

Column sent to Frederick Leader and Frederick Press
November 3, 2009
The Victor E. Smith Family is pictured in 1903 at their homestead which featured their first home, a half-dugout.
In 1907 the Cooks built a new wood and plaster house at their homestead. The old half-dugout is pictured behind the new house.

By the 1940s, the Cook homestead included trees and landscaping.

In 1962 the 1907 Cook home was moved to Frederick at 915 North 11th.

Half-Dugouts were Home to Early Settlers
When the area was opened to settlement in August 1901, few people were able to build homes right away and most were forced to make the best living arrangements that they could. That often meant living in tents, wagons, or even old railroad cars. For most, though, the first homes in the territory were half-dugouts – homes that were half dirt cellars with crude wooden upper structures.
Eventually most families were able to build real homes. One particularly fascinating photo in the Tillman County Historical Society’s archives that is the Victor E. Cook home near Frederick. The picture, taken in 1907, shows the proud family and their dog on the front porch of their wonderful new farm home, with their old half-dugout (their previous home) in the background.
Mr. Cook had come to Oklahoma Territory in 1901, won a stake in the land lottery on August 6, 1901, homesteaded the farm, and built the half-dugout in 1902 before sending to Indiana for his family to join him.
In the Tillman County History Book, Vol. I, one of the Cook daughters, Clara Mildred Cook Smith, wrote a long fascinating account of the family’s early life on their homestead. Concerning the dugout, she wrote, “Lumber for the half-dugout had to be brought overland from Quanah, Texas, fording North Fork of Red River. Papa had to get his mail at Yelldell in Greer County. During the winter Papa lived in a tent while building the half-dugout. Two wells were hand dug, using a bucket, rope, and windlass to pull out the dirt. One well was 65 feet deep; ours was 72 feet, but the water was ‘gyppy’ which caused us all to have dysentery.”
In 1902 Mrs. Cook and the five Cook children came by train to join their husband and father in Oklahoma Territory, bringing furniture and personal goods with them. The family lived in the half-dugout for five years. Mrs. Cook’s mother also lived with them.
“The inside of the half-dugout was something else,” Mrs. Smith wrote. “– a cot bed, dirt floor, dirt walls half-way up, cracker box cupboards, homemade table, a two-burner gasoline oil stove, and a tool chest. We put our ingrain carpet on the dirt floor and placed what furniture we could around the walls; Our ruby red glass hanging lamp hung from a rafter above the table. The Victor E. Cook family of eight was home at last for the next five years. The tent was my parents’ bedroom for the first year. It blew down once too often.
“Foot-wide boards were placed through the center of the rafters under the roof for a sleeping place for two boys and two girls. The boys climbed on a chair, then climbed on the head of Grandma’s bed, and then pulled themselves through the rafters with their arms, like monkeys, to get to their room. I made a stairway with a length of 1 x 4 with a few pieces of 2 x 2 nailed across it for steps. One end was placed on the dirt ledge back of a cupboard the same height. Hazel (my sister) and I would climb on a chair then the cupboard and go to our room sideways.”
“There was building paper on the board walls. We could hear centipedes with their many feet and a stinger on each one, scratching under the paper at night. We had big black ants, scorpions, mice and snakes. One was right at my head on the ledge back of the cookstove forking its tongue at me as I started to put a cake in the oven. Chinch bugs came in the lumber at no extra cost. When they got in our beds, they were called bed bugs.”
Mrs. Smith’s detailed account in the 1976 Tillman County History Vol. I goes on to tell in detail about schools, education, farming, hard work and social life in the new Territory. It is located on pages 145-148 of the book.
“After we had saved enough money from picking four- and five-cent cotton, Papa had a nice plastered house built in 1907. The lumber cost less than $500, and the finished house less than $1,000.“
The historical society has several photos of the Cook home over the years.
The 1907 Cook family farmhouse was moved to Frederick in 1962 to 915 North 11th, and Mrs. Smith, by then a widow, continued to make her home there. In 1972, at the City of Frederick’s Founder’s Day celebration, Clara Mildred Cook Smith was honored for living in Tillman County for the longest period of time without moving (1902-1972). She died in 1985 at age 96.
The Cook house remained at 915 North 11th for many years but has now been torn down.

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