Stillwater's Founding Fathers: The Vigilantes

 

In the late 1800s, a group of young pioneers known as The Vigilantes played a crucial role in the establishment and development of Stillwater, Oklahoma. These visionaries, driven by a collective dream of creating a thriving city, navigated legal battles, political negotiations, and strategic planning to secure key advantages for Stillwater. Their efforts ensured the town's long-term success and laid the foundation for its future growth.

 

The Birth of The Vigilantes

The story of The Vigilantes begins on April 22, 1889, during the land run into the Unassigned Lands of central Oklahoma. Among the thousands seeking new opportunities were seven bright, motivated young pioneers determined to carve out a new life in a thriving new town. This diverse group of young professionals, ranging in age from 22 to 48, included lawyers, doctors, a barber, a banker and an abstractor from states like Kansas, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Despite their varied backgrounds, they came together with a shared vision of building a prosperous new city in the Oklahoma Territory.

 

1889 Land Run
1889 Land Run

 

 

Meet the Vigilantes

 

 

Robert Lowry - Father of Stillwater
Robert Lowry

Robert A. Lowry, age 30, is often called the “Father of Stillwater.”  He played a lead role in organizing the city government, securing the county seat, and bringing the land grant college to Stillwater. In order to secure the townsite placement that The Vigilantes thought best, Lowry donated 80 acres of his 160-acre homestead. He led the negotiations with angry rival towns over the county seat designation. It was his plan and his $10 that secured the placement of Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater. He remained active in politics and shepherded the young town through many stages, always ensuring that Stillwater would be well-positioned to thrive into the future. In 1894, he was elected to the territorial legislature where he headed the Judiciary, Ways and Means and Criminal Jurisprudence committees. Lowry Street was named in his honor.

 

 

Vigilante - Frank J. Wikoff
Frank J. Wikoff

Frank J. Wikoff, a young lawyer, wrote the first city charter at the age of 22. He later became the first city attorney, Payne County attorney, and county judge. He also chaired the committee that secured the land grant college site. He later became chairman of the Board of Regents of the College. In 1909, he worked to set aside lots across Stillwater for the development of city parks and lobbied for a city library. He also founded Farmers & Merchants Bank and co-founded State Bank of Commerce.

 

 

Vigilante - Seth (Hays) Hamilton
Seth (Hays) Hamilton

Seth Hays Hamilton, was 21 years old and working at the Osage Indian Agency in Pawhuska when he rode with a group of Osage tribal members to see the abandoned site of the Boomer camp on Stillwater Creek and was so impressed with the beauty of the area that he quickly decided to join the land run once it was announced. Although he never claimed a homestead, he became involved in the business community as a grocer and then as an abstractor. He was a member of the first city council and the first school board. He was most likely the originator of the term “The Vigilantes.” He was also known as one of the most enthusiastic ‘cheerleaders’ for the town. When villagers erected a 75-foot flagpole at Ninth and Main, it was Hamilton who climbed up the pole, cut the guy wires and attached a huge American flag as a crowd cheered below.

 

 

Vigilante - Charles J. Knoblock
Charles J. Knoblock

Charles J. Knoblock, made the land run at age 25 and became the town’s first barber opening his shop on the northeast corner of Ninth and Main. He was heavily involved in civic activities and was elected city clerk in 1890 and became mayor in 1891. When the city needed to raise $10,000 in order to ensure locating the land grant college in Stillwater, the bank at first refused to lend the money.  Knoblock was among those who signed the note to get the loan approved. He died at the young age of 35 and a street and city park were named in his honor.

 

 

Vigilante - Amon Swope
Amon Swope

Amon W. Swope, despite being one of the older members at age 46, made significant contributions by establishing the first bank – Stillwater Bank – and being an active leader of the community. Swope played a large role in obtaining the county seat for Stillwater and led a committee to settle differences with Payne Center, a competing village at the time, over the issue. He was elected mayor in 1890. He is perhaps best remembered for constructing the first two-story building in Stillwater. Located at Ninth and Main, the Swope Building housed the first bank, the first school, the first church and the first city call along with a grocery store. The Swope Building has gone through myriad owners and changes, but it still anchors downtown Stillwater.

 

 

Vigilante - James Buchanan Murphy
James Buchanan Murphy

Dr. James Buchanan Murphy was 33 years old when he began his medical practice in Stillwater. He became close friends with Robert Lowry and worked with him on several endeavors in building the town. Dr. Murphy was elected to the city council in 1889, helped form the new city government and then served as mayor in 1891. He became the city’s first elected city clerk, was the first registered pharmacist in town and also served as the county’s first coroner. He solidified his position as a heroic town founder when he stepped up to co-sign a $10,000 note that was necessary to ensure that the land grant college came to Stillwater.

 

Dr. Robert L. Hester played an essential role in the town’s early government and efforts to secure the county seat for Stillwater. Unfortunately, Dr. Hester passed away in 1892, just three years after making the land run into Stillwater. Hester Street was named in his honor. No photos are known to exist of Dr. Robert Hester.

 

 

Securing the Townsite

One of the first major challenges The Vigilantes faced was securing an ideal location for the Stillwater townsite. After the land run they formed the Stillwater Town Company to choose a site and plan for the town's future.

A significant breakthrough came when Lewis Cooper, a Town Company member, discovered an unclaimed eighty-acre tract in the heart of the area. This tract bordered claims by prominent figures like John Barnes, Robert Lowry, David Husband, Sanford Duncan, and Frank Duck. Recognizing the strategic importance of this land, the Town Company decided it should become the core of Stillwater's townsite.

To secure this tract, they appointed Garnett Burks to stake a claim and file it, with the understanding that it was for the townsite. However, Burks attempted to double-cross the Town Company, claiming the land for himself.

 

Garnett Burks
Garnett Burks

 

Despite Burks' actions, the Town Company remained resolute. On June 11, 1889, they organized the drawing of town lots. Each Town Company member was entitled to one business lot and two residential lots, which were drawn in a public event. This date became a landmark in Stillwater's history, as it marked the official establishment of the townsite. That same day several streets were named including Lowry, Lewis, Husband, Duncan, Duck and West. Lots were set aside for a courthouse, the first school and for churches.

 

Downtown Stillwater in 1890
Downtown Stillwater in 1890 Townspeople gathering on April 22, 1890 for the one-year anniversary celebration. The flagpole in the background is the one Hays Hamilton climbed to attach the flag.

 

Despite Burks' actions, the Town Company remained resolute. On June 11, 1889, they organized the drawing of town lots. Each Town Company member was entitled to one business lot and two residential lots, which were drawn in a public event. This date became a landmark in Stillwater's history, as it marked the official establishment of the townsite. That same day several streets were named including Lowry, Lewis, Husband, Duncan, Duck and West. Lots were set aside for a courthouse, the first school and for churches.

In addition to the eighty acres at the center of the legal dispute, Robert Lowry donated eighty acres of his land, while Sanford Duncan and David Husband each donated forty acres. These donations ensured that the townsite met the required 240 acres, strategically placing Main Street and other key locations within the donated land.

The legal battle with Garnett Burks continued into 1891. Burks claimed he had legally filed for the land as his own and had attempted to build improvements as required, which the Town Company members disputed. After months of arguments, the Secretary of the Interior ruled on March 14, 1891, that Burks had not made his homestead claim in good faith. This victory allowed the Town Company to officially establish the townsite as planned.

 

 

Winning the County Seat

In the early days of Oklahoma Territory, establishing a county seat was a fiercely contested affair. For the settlers of Stillwater, securing the designation as the county seat of Payne County was a vital step in ensuring the town's growth and prosperity.

In the late 19th century, being designated as a county seat meant more than just prestige. It brought economic advantages, increased political influence, and attracted settlers and businesses. County seats became hubs of activity, housing government offices, courthouses, and other essential services. For a fledgling town like Stillwater, winning the county seat could secure its future as a central and prosperous community.

Stillwater was not the only contender for the Payne County seat. Nearby towns like Payne Center and Perkins were also vying for the title, each with its own supporters and strategies. The competition was fierce, and tensions ran high, with each town determined to outmaneuver the others.

The Vigilantes understood that winning the county seat required more than just local support; it demanded a well-executed plan to influence decisions at higher levels of government. Recognizing the stakes, they devised a multi-faceted strategy that combined political lobbying, strategic alliances, and clever maneuvering.

One of the key moves by The Vigilantes was sending Frank Hutto a handsome, persuasive 27-year-old attorney on a covert mission to Washington, D.C. Hutto's objective was to lobby Congress to include several small townships including Glencoe, Eden, Rose, Walnut and Rock, in the county's boundaries, effectively placing Stillwater at its geographical center. This strategic positioning would make Stillwater the logical choice for the county seat.

 

Frank Hutto

Attorney Frank Hutto

 

Hutto's mission was a success. He managed to convince lawmakers to draw the county lines in a way that favored Stillwater, giving the town a significant advantage over its rivals. However, the rival towns of Payne Center and Perkins back home were unaware of the cunning maneuvers happening in Washington, D.C. and they were growing impatient to get the county seat designation, so much so that it almost resulted in violence.

According to historian Dr. B.B. Chapman, “One summer night in 1889 a group of 30 or 40 men from Payne Center proposed to move to that place such county records as were at Stillwater. About dusk they reached Stillwater Creek, just below its junction with Boomer Creek, where they were met by twice their number of men from Stillwater. Some men on both sides of the creek were armed. Robert Lowry was the spokesman for the Stillwater men. He talked with the Payne Center group, across the creek, and they agreed to abandon their scheme.”

A few days later, a group of Perkins men gathered on the banks of Stillwater Creek and argued bitterly with a Stillwater contingent over who should have rights to keep county records until a seat was chosen. As the number of Stillwater defenders kept growing, the Perkins group decided not to force the issue.

 

Swope Building in 1892
Swope Building in 1892

 

After these confrontations, a leader from Payne Center offered to work out a compromise on the county seat issue. Stillwater appointed a committee of three including Vigilantes Amon Swope and Robert Lowry as well as John Clark to negotiate the compromise. The Payne Center leader, Patrick Guthrey, had only one demand for the compromise, he wanted the county named Payne County after the Boomer leader, David Payne, who he idolized. The Stillwater committee happily agreed. On May 2, 1890, Congress officially designated seven counties in Oklahoma including Payne County with Stillwater being the county seat. 

Winning the county seat was a defining moment in Stillwater's history. It solidified the town's status as a central hub in Payne County, attracting settlers, businesses, and government offices. The economic and political advantages gained from this victory propelled Stillwater's growth and development.

 

 

Establishing the Land Grant College

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Vigilantes was their success in securing the land grant college for Stillwater. Thanks to the Morrill Act of 1862, each state and territory was able to establish a land grant college to promote agricultural and mechanical education. The Vigilantes, understanding the long-term benefits of having such an institution in Stillwater, campaigned vigorously to win the designation which would be awarded by the territorial legislature. While many towns vied for the honor, Stillwater faced particularly stiff competition from Kingfisher and El Reno, both of whom were presenting strong cases for locating the college in their towns.

In the territorial legislature, Stillwater had two delegates – James L. Mathews was elected to the house of representatives and George Gardenhire was elected to a thirteen-member council which was the equivalent of our state senate. Both Mathews and Gardenhire exerted great influence in their respective chambers of the territorial legislature in Guthrie. Several other towns were vying to win certain institutions in the newly formed territory and Stillwater’s delegates bargained wisely. For instance, Kingfisher wanted to be the home of the state penitentiary, so the two Stillwater delegates agreed to back that proposal in return for Kingfisher’s backing of Stillwater for the land grant college.

 

Oklahoma Delegation Seeking Statehood in 1905
Oklahoma Delegation Seeking Statehood in 1905 Robert Lowry is top left.

 

The strongest opposition for the land grant college came from El Reno. El Reno’s delegate to the legislature was known to have a penchant for alcohol. Gardenhire and Mathews strategized with Robert Lowry, often referred to as “The Father of Stillwater,” and a member of “The Vigilantes” who were influential in founding Stillwater. On the day that the territorial legislature was to decide where to place the land grant college, Lowry gave a local cowboy $10 and sent him to see the El Reno delegate. Lowry’s money bought enough whisky to get the delegate so intoxicated that he failed to show up for the debate and vote.

On Christmas Eve 1890, the territorial legislature passed a bill naming Stillwater as the site of the land grant college. However, this victory came with conditions: Stillwater had to raise $10,000 for a new building and secure 200 acres for the college and an experiment station. The community rallied, with key figures like Charles Knoblock and Frank J. Wikoff playing vital roles in securing the necessary funds and land.

The Vigilantes' success in securing the land grant college left an indelible mark on Stillwater's history. Their strategic vision and collaborative efforts laid the foundation for the town's future as a center of education and innovation. Today, Oklahoma State University stands as a testament to their legacy, continuing to inspire and educate generations of students.

 

 

Explore Stillwater's Rich History!