On April 22, 1889 an estimated 50,000 people lined the borders of the “unassigned territory” for the first of five land runs. By the end of the day over 10,000 people had filed claims in Guthrie, Oklahoma. It is that event that has annually been celebrated in Guthrie and will be celebrated with a host of activities beginning Tuesday, April 17 and concluding with the “Biggest parade in Oklahoma”, Saturday, April 21st.
In the late 1930s the annual ‘89er Parade was looking for a special “signature” float and Irene McClellan, the Logan County Clerk at the time, had some ideas. She discussed her thoughts with Helen Mitchell and together they thought that having a recreation of the “Pioneer Woman” masterfully sculptured in the middle of Ponca City would perfectly honor the time of the land run and thus fittingly be a signature float. Their plan was to have the clothes represent the statue’s period dress and be dyed gold. The American Legion Auxiliary was contacted and agreed to assist McClellan and Mitchell in making the costume. McClellan would play the part of the stately “Pioneer Woman” but who could they get to play the “Pioneer Boy”? Well, Helen Mitchell had just the person in mind, her son. And so it was that Kenneth Mitchell assumed the role of the first “Pioneer Boy” to ride in the ‘89er Parade. Kenneth remembers well those events and recently reminisced, “In those days the floats were pulled by horses or oxen, and it was not a smooth ride. Every time the float came to a stop or started there was a significant jerking and since we were supposed to be statues, we had to brace ourselves and try to remain as still as possible. It was tiring and by the time the parade was over we were exhausted and pretty sore.” Apparently they must have done a pretty job of recreating statues, because shortly after their first appearance in the parade, the organizers of a parade in Ponca City contacted the ‘89er parade officials and asked to borrow the “cardboard dummies” that were used to portray the “Pioneer Woman and Pioneer Boy”.
The Pioneer pair was such a hit that they were invited to participate in several other parades around the state. The Frank Philips’ 66th Birthday Parade near Bartlesville holds a special memory for Kenneth. “They invited us to come, paid our hotel room and meals and even sent a limo to pick us up from the hotel. It was a grand affair.”
Another special parade event that year was the Arklalah Celebration in Arkansas City, Kansas. The Pioneer Woman and son joined with the Guthrie Roundup Club to attend this October event. It was a time that the Guthrie Roundup Club was able to ship their horses by rail and all the participants rode the train to Arkansas City and back. Kenneth recalls the sound of those horses coming out of the box cars, “They were ready to get off that train and into the parade.” He also recalls that the float for the parade was painted orange to go along with their theme. “It was a pretty orange, kind of an OSU orange, but it really clashed with the golden colors of the Pioneer Woman and Pioneer Boy.”
But all good things must come to an end and in this case after five years of playing the “Pioneer Boy” Kenneth had to retire from the prestigious position (actually the he had outgrown the golden outfit). But the tradition had been established and each year on April 22nd, a new boy was cast in this position and became a part of this symbolic duo. The Mitchell connection with the “Pioneer Boy” was reinstated the next generation however, when Kenneth’s wife, Jane, assumed the role of the “Pioneer Woman” and each of their four sons; Mark, John, Van and Brad took turns recreating this special and historical figure in the annual ‘89er Parade.
Kenneth has special memories of the ‘89er Parade and all the associated activities. “Early on some of the financial support for the various activities was handled through the sale of “booster buttons” with a new color introduced for each year. These buttons later began to be numbered by the year”. The early buttons were known as “shaving buttons” which allowed the wearer to not shave until the parade day. Mitchell notes “I guess the ladies got a little upset that they couldn’t participate in the “button fund raiser” and so the shaving part was dropped and the button simply became an “89er Button — a tradition that carries on to this day.”
Kenneth has had a long association with the ‘89er Day Activities even after growing out of the “Pioneer Boy” costume. In the 1950’s he headed the PR committee and has been actively engaged in a number of committees and activities ever since. He is presently on the main coordinating committee and helps in organizing the parade VIPs. Jane is also very importantly engaged in hand making each of the vehicle signs that mark the VIP occupant. “It was THE event of April in central Oklahoma. Always on April 22nd, always with a huge parade and always with a special parade marshal” recalls Mitchell. “We usually got a local sponsor who would financially support our efforts to bring celebrities from all over the country to be our parade marshal including New York Mayor LaGuardia (late 30’s), Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke), Jane Jayroe (Miss America), Gene Autry, Dale Robertson, Victor Borge to name a few. In the old days, the Guthrie High School would declare a “free day” from classes and students from other high schools in the region would somehow manage to find their way to Guthrie for the day. High School and College bands would flock to the city for the opportunity to march and play in the parade. It was, and continues to be quite an event!”
This year the ‘89er Activities begin on Tuesday, April 17th with a Chuck Wagon Feed and Western Art Auction, a huge carnival running from Wednesday through Saturday, great craft and food vendors set up each day in downtown Guthrie, an Old Timer Baseball Game Thursday, the Longnecker Bucking Bull rodeo Friday and Saturday night and of course the “Largest Parade in Oklahoma” at noon on Saturday, April 21st. The parade will be broadcast live on Cox Channel 20. 89er Buttons reflecting this year’s theme “Heroes of Service” honor the military, the police and the firefighters, and are available at local merchants throughout Guthrie. More information can be found on: www.89erdays.com or calling (405) 282-2589.