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Riding Shotgun With Alfalfa Bill Murray
Alfalfa Bill Murray wrote the constitution for the state of Oklahoma, was elected to Congress, was Governor of Oklahoma, and ran for President of the United States in 1932. He has been described as the most influential politician in Oklahoma history.
Story By John Murray
On a rolling hill of red dirt, burnt grass and bristles, we arrived at Alfalfa Bill Murray’s grave in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, with a bag of ice, a bottle of blended scotch whiskey, and a sweet potato pie. My daughter and I had sliced our way south from Connecticut through Washington D.C., the Blue Ridge Mountains, Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, and into Oklahoma in two days. We set a blistering pace and stopped to eat, refuel, sleep, and occasionally pose for ridiculous photographs with a ten-inch chalk bust of our deceased ancestor that I had purchased on ebay.
Chelsea Murray holding up a chalk bust of her great-great-great uncle, Alfalfa Bill Murray.
In solidarity with millions of Americans who spend Thanksgiving with eccentric family members, Chelsea and I blasted out of New England in search of the ghost of Alfalfa Bill, my eccentric great-great uncle, who has been described as the most colorful politician in the history of Oklahoma. He was a journalist, lawyer, congressman, governor, and in 1932 he unsuccessfully challenged Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency of the United States. Alfalfa Bill has been dead for fifty six years, but Chelsea and I planned to bring him back to life on Thanksgiving, and plunge ourselves into Murray family history along a kooky 4000-mile road trip.
Chelsea had a nine-day Thanksgiving break from a non-profit farm she volunteers at in Rutland, Massachusetts, and remarkably, it was her idea to brush the cobwebs off the Murray saga in Oklahoma. I had heard about Alfalfa Bill in my childhood, but the Oklahoma of my youth was centered on May Fouty Murray, Alfalfa Bill’s sister-in-law, and my great grandmother. She was a wonderful and loving woman (she wrote Santa Claus letters to us from the North Pole) and we visited her several times during cross-country road trips in a station wagon filled with my parents, their four sons, and a wire haired terrier named Snoopy.
Growing up I was aware that Alfalfa Bill had been elected governor in Oklahoma, and knew from family lore that he had been friends with Will Rogers. That was my basic understanding of Alfalfa Bill until 1994 when I discovered a three-volume autobiography in my parent’s bookcase entitled, Memoirs Of Governor Murray And The True History Of Oklahoma.
Thumbing through the books I was astonished to discover that before his storied political life, Alfalfa Bill had been a journalist in Corsicana, Texas, where he published and edited his own newspaper, The Corsicana Daily News. Alfalfa Bill had a penchant for writing strong editorials that landed him in fistfights, occasionally with men armed with handguns and knives.
The image of Alfalfa Bill risking his life to publish fierce editorials was an inspiration to me during a time when the Waterbury Observer was a sniffle away from oblivion. I discovered a role model that helped guide me in the years to come as the Observer published difficult stories about police corruption, controversial rapes, and the bizarre murder investigation of Billy Smolinski. My compass for publication was – if it was true, I would publish it and let the consequences be damned. So far I haven’t been slugged or shot, a record I hope to keep intact.
In the past ten years the internet has grown and morphed into the world’s library, and I have spent many evenings researching Alfalfa Bill, and purchasing old press photographs and memorabilia on ebay. My prized possession is a 10-inch bust of Alfalfa Bill I won on ebay after a two-day bidding war. Every few months I receive a new package from ebay containing a photograph or souvenir of Alfalfa Bill in the mail, and every time Chelsea would look at me, smile, and say, “what are you going to do with all these things?”
My answer is always the same – “when I die, they are all going to you.”
Boxes of old letters and photographs, family heirlooms, memorabilia from the Japanese surrender onboard the USS Missouri that ended WWII – these will all be passed down to my daughter who is free to do whatever she wishes with them. Chelsea can burn, sell or pass them along to her children. It will be her choice. My choice is to be collector, gatherer, and keeper of the flame.
Everyone loves their family, and most people feel immense pride at the saga of how their ancestors clawed their way across the world to reach America. Every American has a story. Many immigrants who settled in Waterbury came directly from Ireland and Italy to work in the brass factories. Many of their offspring still live and work around Waterbury today.
Portions of my family can be traced back to the first English settlers in the early 1600s, to the Scottish Highlands, and to Germany in 1840. Once my ancestors reached America some settled in Maryland and Connecticut, and planted roots that are long and deep. Others, the Scottish lineage, proved restless and migrated west through Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma. The Murrays fought in the Texas War of Independence, were sucked into the Confederacy during the American Civil War, became Texas Rangers, Indian fighters, lawyers, politicians, and in the case of Alfalfa Bill – a candidate for president of the United States.
Alfalfa Bill loved his cigars.
We have extensive information about the Murray family from five books and hundreds of magazine articles published about Alfalfa Bill, which gave us plenty of reading material to sift through as we screamed across the south towards his final resting place in south central Oklahoma.
Road trips offer eyes an endless treat as the land shifts and morphs around each bend. Car radios offer ears a glimpse into the local culture and demographic. We passed through Dismal Hollow, Virginia, Cuba Landing, Tennessee, and Ten Killers Lake State Park in Oklahoma. The differences in music, food (Butt Buster’s BBQ), and culture are not subtle. Driving through western Virginia and the length of Tennessee we listened to several hours of bluegrass music, the country music top 25 countdown, religious sermons, NASCAR updates, and angry white guys yelling about the recent presidential election. My favorite was #21 on the countdown, “If I Had A Beer With Jesus.”
John Murray, Publisher of The Waterbury Observer newspaper poses with Alfalfa Bill in front of the U.S. Capital, where Alfalfa Bill served as a Congressman from Oklahoma.
In 1932 Alfalfa Bill thought he was going to be President of the United States. He was crushed by FDR at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, but seemed to have a hoot in the process.
Alfalfa Bill on the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee.
On Beale Street in Memphis Alfalfa Bill posed with the Godfather of the Blues, Clyde Hopkins.
Alfalfa Bill at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
After a blistering 2000 mile drive we arrived in Oklahoma, and Alfalfa Bill Murray was back home.
Pecan farmers in northeast Oklahoma had never heard of Alfalfa Bill Murray and wondered if Connecticut was still a part of America.
In route to Oklahoma we photographed the bust of Alfalfa Bill at Congress, at the White House, on Beale Street in Memphis where he posed with the Godfather of the Blues, Clyde Hopkins, at the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, and with two pecan farmers one mile over the Oklahoma state line.
The pecan farmers, who were selling the nuts from the back of a battered pick-up truck, had never heard of Alfalfa Bill Murray, and asked us jokingly (we think) if Connecticut was still part of America. The farmers filled our ears with stories of the dust bowl in the 1930s, we assured them that Connecticut was indeed part of the United States, and then we cruised into northeast Oklahoma where we stopped to get a vanilla milkshake at a malt shop offering fried okra, fried pickles and a display case of hunting knives.
Before heading to Alfalfa Bill’s grave we stopped in Pryor, Oklahoma, in the northeast corner of the state, to try and find May Murray’s obituary in the microfilm archives at the public library. An eager librarian helped us find both the obituary and my great grandmother’s death certificate. We had hoped to visit her grave in Pryor, and were surprised to learn she was buried in Tishomingo, in the south central part of Oklahoma, most probably near Alfalfa Bill’s grave. In reading the obituary we learned that May Murray was born in Texas in 1875 and rode a wagon into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1902 with her husband, John Shade Murray, and three young children.
May Fouty Murray, my great-grandmother, who we called Granny.
May and John were both teachers and spent several decades bouncing around Oklahoma working in small one and two-room school houses educating a mix of Caucasian and Native American students. John died in 1927, leaving May a widow for 45 years that she filled with teaching, managing a small apartment building and writing letters to her family scattered across North America. She died in 1967 at the age of 92, leaving behind 30 great grandchildren. I was ten years old, and it was my first experience with death.
Days before she died I had baked a loaf of white bread and mailed it to her in the hospital from our home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She passed away before the bread arrived, but my great uncle, Clive Murray, wrote a beautiful letter telling me that he had eaten the bread, and reported back that it was delicious.
Driving through Pryor transported me back to 1966 and the last time our family visited Granny Murray when her friend Blanche made the four boys a special orange cake. It was a sweet gesture, but Blanche was in her 90s, and had left inedible chunks of orange peel in the cake batter. Granny Murray forewarned us about the orange peels and asked us to try Blanche’s cake, and to thank her profusely, which we did. We tried our best not to laugh, and when we got back to the hotel we unwound by throwing all the pool furniture into the water and watching it sink.
Chelsea and I found the old hotel on the outskirts of Pryor - the Holiday Hotel - and the pool, which is on the front lawn, was filled with four feet of muddy water and leaves. I didn’t see any pool furniture in the gruel. Afterwards we sat on the lawn next to the decaying hotel and called my father, Stuart Murray, at his retirement home in Hudson, Ohio. My father is 90 years old and we talked to him for over an hour about Oklahoma, and his memories of coming to Pryor and visiting his grandmother, After a glorious connection with my father, we stuffed our mouths with incredible barbeque (which is Oklahoma’s version of pizza and Italian food), and we motored to Tishomingo, which was three hours south.
When we arrived in Tishomingo late at night our adventure with Alfalfa Bill veered into the Twilight Zone. It was two days before Thanksgiving and we checked in at the Western Inn Motel on the outskirts of town. Tishomingo has a population of 3000, and is the capital of the Chickasaw Nation. It was also Alfalfa Bill’s home for 60 years. The local college is named after him, Murray State College, and he is buried in the local cemetery. We knew all that before we left Connecticut, but when we arrived in Tishomingo, it was surreal to pick up a copy of the weekly Johnston County Capital-Democrat and discover a front page column referencing Alfalfa Bill Murray, and my grandfather, Admiral Stuart Murray, who was the captain of the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered onboard the battleship to end WWII.
The column was written by J. Ray Lokey, the publisher of the newspaper, who wrote, “Blake and Miranda are not our first brush with stardom”, and then Lokey wrote about our two relatives. In addition to the ghost of Alfalfa Bill, Tishomingo is home now to county music superstars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert.
Surprisingly, Lambert has opened a retail store in downtown Tishomingo, The Pink Pistol, and was throwing a grand opening party that Friday night. Instead of Black Friday they were calling it Pink Friday, and the whole town was going to be smeared in pink. Main Street was going to be closed off for the party, the high school marching band and the all-state choir were scheduled to perform, and Santa Claus was going to arrive in a pink suit. Lambert and Shelton were both coming, and we decided it might be pretty cool if Alfalfa Bill crashed the party. The ghost of Alfalfa Bill coming back to life in Tishomingo for one final hurrah was an opportunity too delicious to ignore.
Struggling to process Miranda Lambert’s looming Pink Friday bash, we awoke in the Western Inn Motel the day before Thanksgiving, and headed into town to rustle up some caffeine. Chelsea spotted a small shop called Latte Da, and surprisingly, in a small town of 3000 in rural Oklahoma, we found an upscale espresso shop. A sweet young girl asked where we were from - how could she tell we weren’t from Oklahoma? - and we explained our journey to bring Alfalfa Bill back to life. We asked her if she knew who Alfalfa Bill was, and she said, “Everybody around here knows who Alfalfa Bill Murray was, he made this town.”
As it turned out she was a student at Murray State College and was the recent homecoming queen. She was bubbly and a fountain of information. She was a hunter, like most girls in Oklahoma, and had recently shot a wild boar and a white tailed deer. She told us the Pink Friday celebration was one of the biggest events in the history of Tishomingo, and thousands of visitors were expected to flood into town for the chance to see Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. She told us that the mayor, the chamber of commerce and most business people were thrilled at the opening of Lambert’s Pink Pistol, and the attention it was bringing to Tishomingo. The event was drawing national attention in celebrity magazines, and a photo of Lambert with a wild pig she shot with a bow and arrow for Thanksgiving was splashed across the internet.
Our coffee server also told us that there was plenty of jealousy swirling through the town, and that Pink Friday had the potential to turn into a “hot mess” of pettiness. “The Pink Pistol, Miranda Lambert and Pink Friday are all anyone is talking about in Tishomingo,” she told us. “Whether they are jealous or not, the whole town will turn out.”
Moments later two women entered Latte Da and engaged us in conversation. They both worked at Murray State College, knew all about Alfalfa Bill, and told us about some of the memorabilia scattered around campus. Murray State was closed for Thanksgiving, but they tried to find a way we could get into the administration building to see Alfalfa Bill’s desk. When that proved unsuccessful, the two women left to go deer hunting.
Cranked up on caffeine, we drove up to Murray State College to walk around, and then entered the Tishomingo Cemetery to try and find Alfalfa Bill’s grave. It was easy to find with the flag of Oklahoma, the flag of the Chickasaw Nation, and two historical plaques marking the spot. Buried next to Alfalfa Bill was his wife, Alice, a half-blooded Chickasaw, and his son, Johnston, who is the only Native American governor ever elected in Oklahoma history. They are also the only father and son who were both elected governor in Oklahoma, and magically, we discovered that we had arrived on November 21st, which would have been Alfalfa Bill’s 143rd birthday. We read some passages out of Alfalfa Bill’s memoirs and decided to come back to celebrate his birthday at sundown with an impromptu party.
We tried to track down Tishomingo’s mayor, Lewis Parkhill, and J. Ray Lokey at the weekly community newspaper, but both had already departed for the Thanksgiving holiday. Several hours later we arrived back at the grave site with party hats, a bag of ice, a bottle of Chivas Regal scotch whiskey, and a sweet potato pie we purchased at the local Sooner grocery store. We read from Alfalfa Bill’s memoirs again and learned about his birth in Toadsuck, Texas, his mother’s early death, his decision to run away from home at the age of 12, his struggle to claw his way through school, and his insatiable appetite for reading books. He eventually became a lawyer in Texas, and just before leaving for Indian Territory in 1898, he met a little girl who was also headed north with her family. Before departing for Oklahoma the girl dropped to her knees and prayed “Good-bye God, we are going to Indian Territory.”
Indian Territory was the home of the Five Civilized Tribes – the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek and the Seminole Indians. Each tribe had been forcibly removed from its ancestral land and relocated to Indian Territory. Each tribe signed a treaty with the U.S. government that established a separate nation for itself within Indian Territory, and they had their own schools, laws and courts. Tishomingo was named for the Chickasaw chief who died of smallpox on the Trail of Tears when the tribe was uprooted from their original homelands in Mississippi.
Alfalfa Bill ended up in the heart of the Chickasaw Nation, Tishomingo, and became the legal advisor to the Chickasaw Governor, Douglas Johnston, and married Johnston’s niece, Mary Alice Hearrell. Alfalfa Bill was an expert on parliamentary procedure and was at the center of Oklahoma’s push for statehood. In 1906 he was elected president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention, and is credited with being the author of the Oklahoma constitution, which at the time was the longest governing document in the world.
Upon Oklahoma’s acceptance into statehood in 1907, Alfalfa Bill became the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and immediately had a showdown with the state supreme court. The court sent word to Murray that he did not have the authority to set up territorial elections. Alfalfa Bill sent back a wire to the Supreme Court, “My compliments to the Court. Go to Hell.”
He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1910, was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1912 and 1914, and unsuccessfully ran for governor a second time in 1918. After his second gubernatorial defeat he retired from politics. In 1924 Alfalfa Bill took a group of 40 ranchers and farmers from Oklahoma and established a colony in Bolivia to create an agricultural utopia on 75,000 acres. Difficulties with the Bolivian government doomed the experiment, and in 1929 Alfalfa Bill returned to Oklahoma broke. He promptly announced his third candidacy for governor.
(Listen to Alfalfa Bill by clicking on this YouTube clip http://youtu.be/YmyZzcGGBF4)
Political pundits gave Alfalfa Bill no chance in the election, but he hitchhiked from town to town, living off cheese and crackers and gave rousing speeches to farmers from the rusted beds of old pick-up trucks. The Daily Oklahoman vehemently opposed his candidacy, and wrote a front page story on Alfalfa Bill entitled, “An Unconscionable Liar Seeks The Governorship.”
Alfalfa Bill often campaigned in overalls with stains on his shirt. The Daily Oklahoman unleashed its society page reporter on Alfalfa Bill, and he was lampooned as a man who didn’t bathe, and is a man “who despises soap and water.” The paper described Alfalfa Bill as a man who ate his pancakes with his bare hand and allowed butter to drip all over himself. They reported that he had lived in a house with a sod floor and if elected, he would plant potatoes at the Governor’s mansion (which he later did). When a female columnist critiqued his long underwear, Alfalfa Bill fired back, “she ain’t ever going to know nothing about my drawers. She ain’t my type.”
His campaign spent a total of $500 and he astonished the political world when he crushed his millionaire opponent by 100,000 votes. He was despised in the cities, but the rural folk adored him. Alfalfa Bill was sworn in by his father, Uriah Dow Murray (my great, great grandfather) on January 12th, 1931. One of his first decisions was to cancel the inaugural ball and replace it with a massive square dance with himself as the caller.
Alfalfa Bill was notorious for greeting visitors to his office with a gruff, “What the Hell do you want?”, and immediately faced some of the most difficult economic circumstances in American history - the Great Depression, and the dust bowls that devastated Oklahoma.
When a young reporter later asked him to describe his term as governor, Alfalfa Bill said, “Son, it was just one damn thing after another.”
With his citizenry in economic chaos, Alfalfa Bill used the Oklahoma National Guard to enforce order through the use of martial law. In his four-year term as governor he called out the National Guard 47 times, and declared martial law more than 30 times. During the Toll Bridge War between Oklahoma and Texas in 1931, Alfalfa Bill used the National Guard to seize control of the bridge and re-open it for public use. When he arrived at the Red River Bridge with a pistol strapped to his side he was described as “Horatio at the Red River Bridge”, an incident that garnered international acclaim. In Scotland, the Duke of Atholl (where the Murray clan originates) is granted permission to have a private army of 1000 soldiers. When Alfalfa Bill staged the showdown on the Red River Bridge, reports in London newspapers said the current Duke Of Atholl offered to send his private army to the rescue of a fellow clansman to help hold the bridge.
One year after being sworn is as governor, Alfalfa Bill declared his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, and his face appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, February 29th, 1932. Time described him as the “political darling of really poor men everywhere”, and said he is scorned by the literate and the urbane, but is “better read than the average run of U.S. Presidents.”
Alfalfa Bill made the cover of Time Magazine with his improbable run for the presidency.
No one gave him much chance at succeeding, and he was clobbered by Franklin Roosevelt at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago. By state law he could only serve as governor for one term, and in 1935 he stepped back into private life practicing law and writing books. He attempted to win back the governorship in 1938, but lost in a Democratic primary, and failed at two attempts to get elected to the United States Senate. His later years were marked by eye problems and extreme political and racist rants. He wrote his three volume memoirs in 1946 and Time Magazine described them as “not only a history of Oklahoma, but a history of the world (often somewhat original).” The review in Time Magazine called the books “a fabulous item of Americana.”
In one of the books Alfalfa Bill described a childhood scene where he was laying in bed listening to women gathered around the fireplace swapping “absurd snake stories. There was the time a snake tried to bite a man, missed, and sunk it’s fangs into a tree. The tree died instantly.”
He also wrote a passage about a lion that escaped from a traveling circus and was seen drinking blood out of a cow’s neck, like a vampire.
Chelsea and I learned a lot about Alfalfa Bill Murray while reading through the material we brought with us to the Tishomingo Cemetery, and as we sat next to his grave, with the sun sinking on the horizon, we toasted his memory with plastic cups filled with scotch whiskey and ice. Chelsea lit the candles on the sweet potato pie, we sang a rousing version of happy birthday, and then helped the ghost of Alfalfa Bill blow out the candles. Then we sprawled out on the grass and watched pink clouds float past. Within minutes there were 50 turkey vultures flying around the cemetery, and circling above our prostrated bodies on the ground. It’s not often that raptors spot two bodies lying in a cemetery surrounded by remnants of sweet potato pie and a near empty bottle of scotch. The birds were eyeing their own holiday feast and I’m sure we disappointed them when we climbed in our car and drove away.
We returned again on Thanksgiving to continue looking for the gravesites of my great grandparents, and to read more stories about the Murray family adventures in Texas and Oklahoma. And while millions of Americans were gorging themselves on massive holiday spreads we created our own unique experience; Charlie Brown had his sad sack Christmas tree, and Chelsea and I will always remember this Thanksgiving for a can of cranberry sauce.
With everything closed for the holiday, we holed up in a battered motel room and spent a portion of our day killing flies (at least 15 in the room), hiking through a vast wildlife refuge on the edge of town, watching movies, napping and fixing a rustic holiday meal. We nuked two sweet potatoes and had some deli-fresh sliced turkey out of a package. Chelsea insisted on buying a can of cranberry sauce the day before, but we were unclear how we were going to open it. We stabbed the sweet potatoes with a pen, but that wasn’t going to work on the can. We scoured the hotel room for a metal object to pierce the can, and only came up with a plastic spoon. We finally decided to run the can over with our car. With great delight Chelsea jammed the can beneath the left rear tire and put the car in reverse. A second later we heard a loud pop and cranberry sauce exploded across the parking lot. 90% was lost, but the 10% we scooped out helped make this a Thanksgiving neither of us will ever forget.
In the morning we were undecided whether we were going to stay for the Pink Friday celebration. We had a dinner date in Chicago the following night, and if we stayed in Tishomingo we would have been forced to drive 800 miles non-stop. While we wrestled around with our decision I discovered a website that precisely identified the gravesites of John and May Murray (my great grandparents) in Milburn, just a few miles east of Tishomingo. It was a surreal moment during our final hours in Oklahoma.
We discovered their graves beneath a massive scrub oak tree and read aloud the passages that described the lives of our two deceased ancestors. John Shade Murray was Alfalfa Bill’s older brother and helped him runaway from home when he was 12 years old. They escaped a religious stepmother in Toadsuck, Texas, who according to Alfalfa Bill’s autobiography was a terrible cook, and spent most of her days in a shed speaking to God. The three Murray boys (John, George and Bill) picked cotton, split wood, sold books out of a wagon, and clawed their way through school. We learned that John Shade Murray had died three years before his kid brother was elected Governor of Oklahoma.
Chelsea Murray at the grave site of her great-great grandmother, who helped settle Oklahoma.
John Murray at the grave site of his great grandfather in Milburn, Oklahoma.
Chelsea and I sat in legless camping chairs on a blustery 65 degree day and took turns reading books out loud that retold the story of early Oklahoma, and the Murray family’s prominent role in Indian Territory achieving statehood. We decided to skip the Pink Friday madness and use our time in Oklahoma learning about our family, and getting a head start on that 800-mile drive to Chicago. For three and a half hours we read to each other, took a hundred bizarre and fun photographs, and finally said a prayer of thanks to Alfalfa Bill, and John and May, who like tens of thousands of fellow pioneers, had the courage to peek around the next bend.
(This article was originally published in the December 2012 issue of The Waterbury Observer)