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Notes on the Geography of Oklahoma: Norman 1: The Agrarian Background

Though Norman today is mostly a bedroom suburb of Oklahoma City, it began as a homesteader's paradise. It didn't stay that way long (paradises have a bad habit) but at least began with a bang: the opening in 1889 of 2,000,000 acres to homesteading. Norman lay at the southern edge of the so-called Unassigned Lands of Oklahoma Territory, the block not assigned to an Indian tribe.

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Oklahoma: Norman 1: The Agrarian Background picture 1

Not an inspiring picture? Maybe, but interesting in its own way. Norman is on the left bank of the Canadian River, which flows from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico to the Arkansas River of eastern Oklahoma. The flow varies hugely over the course of the year, and many parts of the streamcourse are dry in the summer. Here, looking like a sea of gravel, is the river during a dry spell. Norman is hidden on the left. Sadly, most Normanites believe that the only good river is a mountain river, so the city's devotion to the river amount to appreciating it as a source of sand and gravel. Not so long ago, the bank around the bend downstream was also the city's so-called sanitary landfill.

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In summer, the water is very warm. Twenty miles downstream from this spot, white homesteaders in 1889 came splashing across the river to stake their claim to 160 acres of the Unassigned Lands.

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Those settlers found themselves on or near an ecotone, with grasslands to the west and oak forest--the Crosstimbers--to the east. Both were homesteaded and put to cotton. A century later, the Crosstimbers are back, except for the occasional pasture, like this one, just east of town.

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The Crosstimbers had for decades been a huge impediment to travelers. Here, again from East Norman, a creek flows in a channel incised through Permian sandstone and sheathed by tough oak.

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The townsite of Norman had been laid out by employees of the Santa Fe railroad, which had begun passenger service two years earlier, in 1887. The town lay on the grassy side of the ecotone, of which a residual bit is shown here. It survived as long as it did because it was part of the North Base. The University eventually prised the land from the arms of the Department of Defense and oversaw the conversion of the land into a commercial paradise. The road on the right was the first step in that conversion.

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Tucked away on the same bit of ground, an old farmhouse survived until the commercial wave hit.

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In the background, buildings flank Interstate 35.

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I know, I know, you want to go shopping. And you don't even see what I want you to see.  Look at that pattern in the foreground. Know an old weedy cotton field when you see one?

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A couple of miles to the south, and next to the state's new museum of natural history, another cabin, the Neal Family Cabin, was trucked in from its original location at Wanette, and prettied up. Update: in December, 2005, a flatbed truck drove up, loaded the Neal cabin, and took it to the Harn Homestead, a museum just south of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Consolation: near the site where this picture was taken there's now a spanking apartment complex and, on the other side, a great new car wash. Furhter update: the car wash died.

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Norman once had dairy farms. These silos were built for them, but now they're only a momento, surrounded by soccer fields and parking lots. Thank some Oklahoma State landscape-architecture students.  In the mid-1980s, they were told to do a masterplan for a new park.  They suggested that keeping the old farm silos might be a good idea, not only as a bit of heritage but also as a place maker on the otherwise homogeneous landscape.

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An abandoned but miraculously surviving schoolhouse at the north end of town.

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The schoolhouse had a tornado shelter, now collapsing. New schools don't bother. Go figure.

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From the schoolyard you get an almost pristine view of what Norman looked like a century ago: prairie plains, the Santa Fe track, and some track-side telegraph wires.

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Not far away you can also see sheet erosion at work. 


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