By JOHN REDWINE II
An important event took place 113 years ago on Aug. 26, 1908—a runoff election that would determine the destiny of two towns and the future of LeFlore County.
Shortly after Oklahoma became a state on Nov. 16, 1907, an election date of June 13, 1908, was set to determine the location of the LeFlore County seat. Five towns were in the contest for the title. After the primary election ballots were tallied, the results were: Poteau 1,432; Spiro 1,252; Howe 527; Wister 264; and Panama 180. Only men, age 21 or older, could vote. Women, African Americans, and Native Americans were not permitted to vote at that time.
Since no town received a majority, Governor Charles Haskell set the date of August 26, 1908, as a runoff election between the two towns receiving the highest number of votes. With only 180 votes separating Spiro and Poteau, the campaign to secure the county seat was underway. Both communities went all out in an attempt to swing votes in their favor. Spiro and Poteau citizens hit the campaign trail. It became one of the fiercest political battles ever staged in the county. Even though females did not have voting rights, women from Poteau and Spiro actively participated that summer in the countywide campaign.
In 1971, I was news editor of The Spiro Graphic, published by Frank and Ann Howery. After interviewing three longtime Spiro citizens (all now deceased), I wrote a feature article for the newspaper, sharing their memories of the campaign and events of that runoff election.
Vera Chrestman Nelson (my maternal grandmother), wife of Willis P. Nelson, recalled riding the Kansas City Southern to Howe for a parade, picnic, and political rally with several speakers. She said Spiro had a large delegation at the event. Mrs. Nelson pointed out that both Spiro and Poteau had elected queens to represent each town during the campaign, indicating Spiro was represented by Miss Georgia Fannin and Poteau’s queen was Miss Ruth Morrison, daughter of a Poteau physician. The queens appeared at all the rallies and rode in parades on floats.
In looking back, Mrs. Nelson remembered that Essie Bryan Redwine (my paternal grandmother), wife of John Redwine, Sr., sang a song, written by Spiro resident Sam James, with lyrics about locating the county seat in Spiro. She said Poteau had a song in its support which was sung by their queen, Miss Morrison.
Mrs. Redwine stated that she sang the song at various rallies across the county but could not recall the exact words. She reminisced about making campaign trips on a decorated wagon to Panama, Shady Point, Bokoshe, Wister and Howe, recalling both Spiro and Poteau had a small band that performed.
Lifelong Spiro citizen Flora Ryan Parks, wife of H.P. Parks, stated that the Spiro float was a wagon with elevated tiers, draped with patriotic colors of red, white, and blue, decorated with several U.S. flags. She said it had a stairstep design with the queen at the top. The float was driven by Jim Berry and hitched with the finest pair of mules in the northern part of the county, in order for Spiro to look its best. She noted Poteau’s float was an extended wagon, also adorned with patriotic decorations.
Mrs. Parks’ father, M.M. Ryan, a pioneer area schoolteacher, spoke at many of the gatherings in favor of Spiro and wrote several speeches for the occasion. Mrs. Parks stated that her father was the county’s first State Senator, later serving as Tax Assessor and County Surveyor. She said pioneer Spiro merchants Dunklin Bros. and Redwine Bros., as well as other businesses and residents, played a leading role in an effort to secure the county seat for Spiro.
Eventually the runoff election day came and all the political rallies, speech making, bands, campaigning, young ladies on floats, and special songs came to an end.
Howe turned against its sister town of Poteau, voting 150 to 108 in favor of locating the county seat in Spiro. Most folks thought Cameron would surely go all out for Spiro, since only eight years earlier Poteau brazenly secured the Federal Court, moving it from Cameron. A Federal Court was established at Cameron in September 1896 when Indian Territory Court at Ft. Smith was closed.
My grandmother Nelson settled with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James G. Chrestman, at Cameron arriving in 1893 by wagon train from Mississippi. She recalled several lawyers, doctors and professional people immediately moved to Cameron because of the Federal Court location. She remembered the names of four doctors who were practicing in Cameron shortly before the turn of the century. They were Dr. Hanison, who later moved to Shady Point; Dr. Harbor; Dr. Grey; and Dr. James L. Shuler, who moved to Durant, later serving as President of the Oklahoma Medical Association.
New eating places and hotels were soon established for the people brought in by the Federal Court. Early coal development also added to its rapid growth, and Cameron was quickly becoming one of the leading towns of the Choctaw Nation. The U.S. Census showed Cameron’s population in 1900 as 316.
Mrs. Nelson pointed out Cameron had several attorneys. She could recall three lawyers that moved to Poteau with the Federal Court. They were Tom Varner, Jim Hale, and his young nephew, also named Jim Hale. She said the Hales were often referred to as “Big Jim” Hale and “Little Jim” Hale. Two other attorneys she remembered were Gene Day, who later moved to Oklahoma City, and a Mr. London. Judge M.E. Rosser and Judge Pollan also relocated from Cameron to Poteau.
Apparently, the lawyers, doctors and judges who followed the court to Poteau, still had enough influence with their friends, relatives, and business associates back in Cameron to convince them to vote 86 to 56 in favor of Poteau as the county seat.
Talihina, located in the southern tip of the county, voted 87 to 44 to establish the seat in Spiro. Pocola also favored Spiro by a 65 to 37 vote. Wister played neutral with 65 for Spiro and 64 for Poteau.
For some reason 13 Spiro voters felt they did not want their town to become the county seat and cast their ballots for Poteau, while the other 486 votes favored their hometown.
One Poteau precinct gave every single vote, 397, to themselves. A second Poteau precinct followed with a 175 to 4 vote. Summerfield also voted 100 percent in favor of Poteau with their 80 ballots. LeFlore strongly favored Poteau by a 95 to 3 vote. Hontubby, Reichert, and Fanshawe gave Poteau 154 votes to Spiro’s 13.
When all the ballots were tallied, the final result was Poteau 2,375 and Spiro 1,965. Poteau became the county seat.
Branch county offices were opened in Spiro and Talihina for court proceedings and to allow residents to acquire marriage licenses, pay taxes, etc. For several years, the Spiro branch was located on the second floor of the First National Bank building. In Talihina court trials were held on the upper level above Taylor’s store. The two LeFlore County branch offices of the courthouse were abolished in 1946.
The first official county owned courthouse in Poteau was completed in 1926, at a cost of $132,000, with Paul Mathis, Harvey Bryan, and a Mr. Johnson, as County Commissioners. It cost an additional $3,000 to furnish the new facility. It was not necessary to vote a bond to construct the new building, as the county had funds available to pay for it in full. That structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1910 U.S. Census figures reveal Poteau’s population as 1,830, while Spiro’s was 1,173, both considered to be boom towns in the early 1900s.
Election results for this article were taken from The Proud Heritage of LeFlore County, authored by Henry L. Peck, published in 1963. Some precincts were not included in the publication. No records are available at the LeFlore County Election Board for the 1908 county seat election.