Sod Houses were not so Bad


By Carolyn B. Leonard

(First published in the Harper County Journal on Dec 23,2007)


Alpha Branch had just turned 21 when he qualified for the Land Run of 1893, and successfully staked a claim with his older half brother, Will Branch, at Gibbon. Only a grain elevator and a few tombstones in the middle of a pasture remain to mark the site of the frontier town in the Cherokee Outlet, also called the Cherokee Strip, of Oklahoma Territory.


Alpha told the story about that exciting ride to his son, Ernest Branch, who told it to me, his youngest child. Although my dad died in 1969 at Buffalo, he put the story on cassette tape, and we still listen to it and are amazed at the details.


Across the road south from the Branch brothers’ land near Wakita, was the claim of a German family, John and Elizabeth Barr. Alpha fell in love with the Barr’s youngest daughter, Addie Matilda “Tillie” Barr. Tillie agreed to marry Alf, but times were hard and the young couple had to wait until Alf had a crop in 1896, and harvested enough ears of corn to sell at Medford to pay for the marriage license. Alf and his bride rented another piece of farmland from the John Cleason family where they lived in the “improvement” — a one room “soddy” house.


Alf and Tilda had four children, Carl, Mabel, Ernest, and Paul.  When their third child – my dad - arrived in 1905, Alf and Tillie and family moved west to near Buffalo, Oklahoma, and purchased a claim there where they lived out their days.   Their home was in the Hopewell community just north and east of the Buffalo Feed Yards off highway US 64. The patent record for that land is recorded in book #618, at page 493 in land office records as Homestead Certificate No. 419, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 – the year of Oklahoma statehood. A grandson of Alpha and Tilda Branch, Bill Branch-now deceased, raised his children on this place. The farm is still owned by a descendant of the Branch family, though the house has been vacant for many years and has fallen into disrepair.


Mabel married Ed James and they lived in the Farry Community between Buffalo and Alva. Carl married briefly and had a son Eldon, who never married and died young. Paul, the youngest, served in the Phillippines during World War II, and came home from the war a changed young man. He never married and committed suicide at age 35.


The Wildest Horse Race in History!


Here is the story of the Cherokee Strip land run as told by Ernest Branch, who heard it from his father, Alpha C. Branch.


Two orphaned half-brothers, Will and Alf Branch registered for the run at the registration booth at Kiowa, Kansas. Their wealthy uncle John Lydick of Anthony KS had convinced them it was the smart thing to do. Alf said he knew other young people who wrote “21” on a piece of paper, put it in their shoe, and then could honestly swear they were “over 21”, but Alf was proud to be legal. 


After registering, the two young men lined up with thousands of others a few miles east of town near Anthony, Kansas,  to make the run for free land. Waiting for the race to be announced turned into days, weeks and months.  While waiting, Alpha got a job driving a pioneer taxi - a team and hack - hauling people and supplies between the rail depot and town. He earned enough extra money to buy a spirited mustang.  He said many others invested in imported blooded and trained race horses from back east, but he had faith in his range pony. Alf worked with Little Black every day, training him for the race, hoping for a winner.

Finally, the announcement came – high noon on September 16, 1893. Will was ready with his family in a wagon loaded with supplies and a good team.  The Branch brothers set up side by side because they planned to claim adjoining quarters and share the work. Little Black pranced beside Will’s wagon while they waited and excitement mounted. Just before the opening sounded, someone “jumped the gun” and the race was on. People were on every kind of conveyance imaginable. The brothers became separated in the dust and confusion of wagons and horses. Alf raced off on his own.


Competition was heavy for the Outlet’s six million acres, less school land and public land. Alf estimated more than 100,000  people were infected with “Strip Fever” that day running “hell-bent for leather” for the squares of 160-acre allotments that could accommodate less than 40,000 homesteads. He knew that more than half of those in the race would go home empty-handed and he was determined not to be one of them.


Alpha told about an elderly lady who fell off her horse ahead of him. He said she rolled a hundred yards or so then quickly jumped up with her flag in her hand and staked her claim.  Alf kept on going and drove his claim stake on land three miles east and one mile north of present-day Wakita.


He marked his corners, found the rocks with the land description on them and planned to ride to the Enid Land Office the next morning to file his claim 

Alf hadn’t seen or heard anything from Will. That night it was cold and damp.   Alf didn’t have a scrap of bread to eat or a blanket to make a bedroll, because the food and supplies were all in the wagon with Will’s family.  Still, Alf knew he had to stay right there to defend his new land from claim jumpers who might try to say they staked the corners first, and anyway there weren’t any restaurants or grocery stores in the territory back then.


With no food or even a bedroll, he stretched out on the damp ground, laid his head on the saddle and fell asleep holding the pony’s bridle reins.  Alf planned to look for his brother’s family in the morning on his way to the land office. In the middle of the night a prairie thunderstorm hit with a fury.  Fierce lightning and loud thunder raked the shelterless lad.   Alf’s little black pony “spooked” and ran away.  Now Alf was not only alone, but also afoot.   In later years he said “the next morning a wiser young man gathered up sticks and wood for a campfire.”  He finally got a fire going with the damp wood, but he was so chilled he said it was noon before he felt warm.


Just as Alf shuffled off to Enid, he had a good surprise. His brother Will rode up with the team and wagon. Will had not been able to get a homestead, so they all agreed to share Alf’s claim and “prove it up” together.


Alf didn’t see his beloved pony again for more than a year. The man who captured Little Black gave Alf a chance to buy him back, and “the wiser young man” gladly paid the asking price.


Across the road south from the Branch brothers’ land near Wakita, was the claim of a German family, John and Elizabeth Barr. Alpha fell in love with the Barr’s youngest girl, Addie Matilda “Tillie” Barr. Tillie agreed to marry Alf, but times were hard and the young couple had to wait until Alf had a crop in 1896 and harvested enough ear corn to sell at Medford to pay for the marriage license. Alf and his bride rented another piece of farmland from the John Cleason family where they lived in the “improvement” — a one room “soddy” house.


After three years or so, Alf and Will Branch decided they had enough “starving out” on the 160-acre claim and they sold a relinquishment for about  $1,250, considered a fair price at the time.


Unfortunately for Alpha Branch, the land they sold in Grant County sprouted oil wells in time, while the rocky ground in Harper County grew rattlesnakes and dry holes. Still, it provided a good living for the family and kept their table supplied with vegetables and beef. 











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A Little Old Sod Shanty ...

Soddy:  Alpha C. and Matilda (Barr) Branch with their first child, Carl, posed in front of their sod home near Wakita about 1900. They were luckier than many homesteaders. They had a wood roof and floor, a solid wood door, and real glass windows.  Matilda, known as Tillie or Tilda by the family, was a prize-winning quilter and used her colorful quilts to decorate the house.  Her Lone Star red and white quilt (pictured) won blue ribbons in five different state fairs. She sewed curtains for the windows and made the little dress coat and hat for her son, all with tiny hand-stitched seams. She did not get her treadle sewing machine until several years later when they had a good wheat crop. (click on the photo above to see more sod houses)