Times Past

How 'Oklahoma!' — playing soon in SLO — touches on themes relevant to early California

A 1943 poster for "Oklahoma!" on Broadway.
A 1943 poster for "Oklahoma!" on Broadway.

“The farmer and the cowman should be friends.

“Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.

“One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,

“But that’s no reason they cain’t be friends.”

Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics from the 1943 musical, “Oklahoma!” address land-use issues often forgotten by audiences in the 21st century.

For those of us old enough to recall the Westerns of Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the tension between farmers and ranchers was palpable.

The 1953 classic film, “Shane” (who can forget the boy crying out, “Come back Shane”), featuring Alan Ladd, tells of a gunfighter siding with farmers against cattlemen. The script is partially based on the Johnson County Range War, also known as the War on Powder River or the Wyoming Range War, from 1889-1893. So too was the 1980 film, “Heaven’s Gate,” ranked among the top 100 films ever made.

The conflict centered on open range for cattle grazing, versus the farmers who didn’t want their crops trampled. Water rights also came into play in the dry American West.

“Oklahoma!” premiered during World War II and depicts a cowboy in love with a farmer’s daughter. There’s a struggle between ranchers and farmers over fences and water rights in the formerly Indian territory, about 1912.

I didn’t understand those issues when my Aunt Gertrude took me to see it when I was 6, but I fell in love with the music and lyrics.

I got a better understanding of some of the conflict in the musical when I began studying the agricultural history of California. Here, the struggle over mining, grazing and water rights frequently led to violence.

The new state of California tried to give cattlemen the edge in 1850 by passing the “Trespass Act,” requiring farmers to protect their planted fields from free-ranging cattle. As wheat growing became more dominant to the California economy, the “No-Fence Law” of 1874 repealed the “Trespass Act.” Now it was up to the ranchers go to the heavy expense of fencing in their livestock.

The worst violence in California occurred between ranchers and farmers William Willoby Jenkins and William C. Chormicle in Castaic near today’s Six Flags Magic Mountain Amusement Park.

The Castaic Range War, 1890-1916, killed between 16 and 40 people, including children. Even the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 failed to stop the hostilities. Much of the land that was fought over is under Lake Castaic today, but as recently as 1998, construction workers at a housing development unearthed some wooden boxes containing the remains of a small child and four adult men.

When I was in the Boy Scouts, I loved our camp outs in Bouquet Canyon, where Jenkins’ son, David, was lynched by Chormicle’s gang. At campfires, I became adept at scaring a number of “Tenderfoot” scouts, telling them why the real name of the place was “Hangman’s Canyon” or “Dead Man’s Canyon.”

“Oklahoma!” confronts the primitive violence of a range war, jealousy and the dark side of human nature with a spirit of tolerance and hope for a better future. These themes were much needed in 1943 and perhaps even more so today.

The admission of farmer Andrew Carnes’ daughter, Ado Annie, that she’s a girl “who cain’t say no” is a comic high point of American musical theater.

I hope that we will see you at Opera SLO’s production of “Oklahoma!” May 12-13. To order tickets by phone, call 805-756-4849, or online at operaslo.org.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, he is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.