A tiny park is a piece of not-quite-history
Photos by M.J. Alexander
Before the smoke had cleared from the opening cannon of the 1889 Land Run, homesteaders were lined up outside a little frame building on the hill east of the Guthrie train station, ready to file claims and counter-claims.
The U.S. Government Land Office, located in what came to be known as Hell’s Half Acre, operated for several years beginning April 22, 1889. It eventually outlived its purpose, and was removed in 1903 to make way for an impressive brick post office worthy of the territorial capital. On the front lawn of that post office, a stone marker in the shape of Oklahoma marks where the Land Office once stood.
But behind the post office there is another monument: an island of green in the sea of asphalt that is the parking lot. This 100-square-foot piece of land is promoted by the State of Oklahoma as … the nation’s smallest national park.
The tiny plot – about the size of a small bedroom – is occupied by a vine-covered elm, protected by a low curb and cordoned off from visitors by the post office’s sliding iron security fence featuring six – count ’em, six – No Trespassing signs.
The State of Oklahoma touts the plot as a “memorable landmark,” adding, “Guthrie lays claim to the smallest U.S. National Park … Since the state marker stands behind the Guthrie Post Office, technically on federal property, the park's status eventually changed from a state monument to a national park.”
In 2017, the City of Guthrie declared the second week of May as “Smallest National Park Week.” In the months before and after, the Smallest National Park was covered by newspapers, TV stations, magazines and bloggers.
THE CLAIM: Guthrie is home to the smallest national park in the United States.
THE SOURCE: Travel Oklahoma
FACT CHECK: False. Of the 60 national parks in the United States, none are located in Oklahoma.
THE TRUTH: Among the current roster of 60 U.S. national parks, the smallest are in states that border Oklahoma: the 5,549-acre Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas and the newly designated Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, measuring 91 acres.
Of the 417 areas under the auspices of the National Park Service – a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior – the tiniest parcel is the Thaddeus Kosciuskzo National Memorial in Philadelphia, listed at 0.02 acres.
Back in Guthrie, self-appointed guide Stacey Frazier leads the curious on “smallest national park” tours, bedecked in a faux ranger uniform featuring a Star Trek patch on her right sleeve and a badge fashioned from the trunk decal of a ’72 Cadillac.
She is quick with a quip, honed during years of leading the town’s ghost tours, and offers comments with deadpan delivery: “I have not had a single bear fatality reported in my park since I came on watch.” She posts frequent updates on the “United States Smallest National Park or Landmark Guthrie, OK” page, which counts 450 followers and features media coverage and visitor selfies.
To draw attention to the site during last year’s Smallest National Park Week, an iron archway was installed near the fenced-in tree, cemented between the sidewalk and the gate. Created by local welders, the decorative arch declares “GUTHRIE: FIRST CAPITAL” below silhouettes of a horse-drawn wagon, tipi, two bison and a pump jack.
At the arch’s dedication, Frazier mused about how interest in local history waxes and wanes over time. In front of the new panel, with the elm as her witness, she said, “My hope is that by having this here, we’re not going to lose the story again. The stories will be told. And not only will they talk about the tree, they will talk about the Land Run, they will talk about the state capital being moved, they will talk about the economic rebirth, they will talk about this amazing — this completely unique downtown.”
Covering the dedication, which also featured Guthrie Vice Mayor Ed Wood, The Guthrie News reported that the event was held “in front of an elm tree and a wrought iron fence, which actually – yeah – is a national park.”
Sadly, no. As Ron Parker, chief of interpretation for the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, notes, “Only God can make a flower. Only the U.S. Congress can make a national park.”
Ironically enough, Oklahoma once actually was home to the smallest national park in the United States. Platt National Park was established June 29, 1906, out of the old Sulphur Springs Reservation. Featuring 32 freshwater and mineral-rich springs among the foothills of the Arbuckle Mountains, Platt was the eighth national park in the United States and – at fewer than 10,000 acres – the smallest.
However, Congress voted in 1976 to expand the park to include the Arbuckle Recreation Area and additional land. Platt’s national park status was revoked, in favor of a new name and designation: The Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Why So Tiny?
Guthrie’s memorial to its original Land Office wasn’t intended to be so small. By the time the city got around to creating a space, in 1974, it was discovered that a long-ago clerk mistakenly recorded the land to be set aside in remembrance as “100 square feet” instead of “100 feet square.”
The post office parking lot had been long established, but a resilient elm in the corner nearest the post office inspired organizers. So they measured out 100 square feet around the tree and built a protective curb around its base. There was no room for a historical plaque, so the marker they ordered was installed near the sidewalk to create a refuge 8 feet by 12.5 feet.
National Park Service in Oklahoma
As territorial capital from 1890-1907 and state capital until 1910, Guthrie is one of four historic districts in Oklahoma. The Library of Congress lists the 1,400-acre Guthrie Historic District, also classified as a National Historic Landmark, as the largest contiguous property of the National Historic Preservation Places. Although Oklahoma has no national parks, it is home to several properties run by the National Park Service, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior:
1 Recreation Area
Chickasaw National Recreation Area
1 National Memorial
Oklahoma City National Memorial
2 National Historic Sites
Fort Smith (straddling Arkansas-Oklahoma border)
Washita Battlefield (Cheyenne)
2 National Historic Trails
Santa Fe (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma)
Trail of Tears (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma)
22 National Historic Landmarks
101 Ranch Historic District, Kay County
Bizzell Library, University of Oklahoma
Boley Historic District, Okfuskee County
Boston Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, Tulsa
Camp Nichols, Cimarron County
Cherokee National Capitol, Tahlequah
Creek National Capitol, Okmulgee
Deer Creek Site, Kay County
Fort Gibson, Muskogee County
Fort Sill, Comanche County
Fort Washita, Bryan County
Guthrie Historic District, Logan County
Honey Springs Battlefield, McIntosh and Muskogee Counties
Marland Mansion, Ponca City
McLemore Site, Washita County
Murrell Home, Cherokee County
Platt National Park Historic District, Sulphur
Price Tower, Bartlesville
Sequoyah’s Cabin, Sequoyah County
Stamper Site, Texas County
Washita Battlefield, Roger Mills County
Wheelock Academy, McCurtain County