In 1889, they stood on the Texas and Arkansas borders and looked across into Oklahoma. Some men had horses. Some men had guns. All of them had their eyes on land.
Lake Eden is small by just about anybody’s standard. You can walk around the perimeter in less than 30 minutes. It’s surrounded by small Appalachian mountains that are as gold and red, and yellow as any in in the middle of October. Autumn mornings are often beset with fog so thick that walking can be dangerous. So, the smart people grab a cup of coffee and a chair, sit beside the lake, and wait for the sun burn a line of sight across the water. It is tranquility defined and the highlight of nearly every year of my past decade.
It’s also the place where I experience one of the top ten most stressful hours of my year.
The Lake Eden Arts Festival happens twice a year. We used to go in both May and October. Now, because we’re all old and have families (and because we all used to work in television and event organizers moved the May version right into the middle of the ratings period), we only go in October. Our group began as a few guys in the mid-1990s. My wife and I joined in 1999. Since then, our crew has grown to more than 30 people. We are known as the Big Swiss Flag group, due in no small part to the giant Swiss flag that hangs above our campsite. You’d be surprised how many people think we are the first aid station.
We all have our roles. I have two jobs each year. I make dinner on Friday night. That’s the easy part. The hard part is the real estate gold rush that happens on Thursday at 3pm.
“We’re done for,” said a town-site speculator, in dismay. “Some one has gone in ahead of us and laid out the town.”
“Never mind that,” shouted another town-site speculator, “but make a rush and get what you can.”
–Harper’s Weekly 33 (May 18, 1889)
The music that serves as LEAF’s raison d’etre does not begin until Friday, but the event opens a day before to allow people to compete for the prime real estate along the waterfront. When the gates open, there is a tense wait at the ticket area where we get our wristbands. Then comes the fight for land. To accommodate a group of our size, we need space for 10-15 tents, a fire pit, 15-25 camp chairs, three or four tables, a firewood stack, a trash area, and a play area for the kids. That is the minimum.
We also need a perfectly triangulated spot suitable for the construction of Tarp City, a highly advanced and well-engineered system of tarps designed for protection from rain that allows for safe and dry run-off. We also need a tree from which we can string the big Swiss flag that establishes our identity and serves as a landmark to find our camp site when things start getting blurry. In a perfect world, we also have line-of-sight to the lake and egress to the roadside picket fence, from which we will attach our American flag (yet another landmark for people coming from the other direction). This all says nothing about the need for flat, rock-free land for tent-sleeping and enough of a buffer that late-night sing-a-longs don’t unduly freak out our neighbors. All of this has to be accomplished in a very short period of time and in a crowd of dozens of other Advance Teams who want the exact same thing.
I’m a lover. I hate the fight for land. I hate it so much that I don’t look forward to LEAF until the land rush is over and I’m sitting with a beer and looking at the sunrise over Lake Eden.
During the 1889 land rush in Oklahoma, federal marshals and railroad men were prohibited from claiming land in advance of the official rush. That didn’t stop them from doing just that. When the law-abiding rushers crossed the borders from Texas and Arkansas, they found much of the good land had already been picked up before they arrived.
As chronicled in the aforementioned Harper’sWeekly, a writer who witnessed the rush had this conversation with a man he found set up with a tent.
“But it is not legal for a deputy United States marshal, or any one in the employ of the government, to take up a town lot in this manner.”
“That may all be, stranger; but I’ve got two lots here, just the same; and about fifty other deputies have got lots in the same way. In fact, the deputy-marshals laid out the town.”
And that’s the rub.
Last year at LEAF, my wife and arrived an hour before the gates opened. We were turned away and told to come back at 3pm. Back at 2:55pm, we were among the first in line. By the time we made it to the rush for land, we found 95% of it gone. We got land, but it wasn’t ideal space. We could only assume that people had come across the border in the overnight hours and secured the good land.
This year, the Advance Team is coming in from two fronts. G-Rob, Uncle Ted and I will come in from the south. Team Jane will be approaching from the east. LEAF is sold-out and the fight for prime land will be as tough as ever. I am, to put it succinctly, not looking forward to it. Still haunting my plans are the words of that Harper’s writer so many years ago.
In this part of the country the poverty and wretched condition of some of the older boomers who have been waiting for years for the opening of Oklahoma were painfully apparent. Men with large families settled upon land with less than a dollar in money to keep them from starvation. How they expected to live until they could get a crop from their lands was a mystery which even they could not pretend to explain. Like unreasoning children, they thought that could they but once reach the beautiful green slopes of the promised land, their poverty and trouble would be at an end. They are now awakening to the bitter realization that their real hardships have just begun.
Or, in the alternative, all will go well and in in the next few days I’ll get to see Donna the Buffalo and Robert Earl Keen. I’ll sit by a lake, drink a beer or cup of coffee, and let the past ten months of stress wash off with the rain. And when I come home, maybe I’ll just have figured out where I’m going in life.
It certainly isn’t going to be Oklahoma.