Years of cattle wrestling and ranchhanding have taken their toll on Jay Rankin, one of the last of the great American cowboys. When he speaks, his lips barely move, so you’ve got to lean in close to hear the stories he tells.
He’s spent most of his 70-plus years on the sprawling Selman Ranch in northwest Oklahoma. He’s met outlaws, chased off wildlife, and knows where the alabaster and gypsum caves are hidden.
What we found, however, digs deeper than the caves into a treasure of Old West Oklahoma history and a town of less than 300 people who refuse to fade into the dust. Freedom isn’t just another tiny, obsolete Oklahoma town, but an area with lost graves, age-old rodeos, cowhand reunions and a surprisingly diverse selection of things to experience.
In Freedom, unless you know someone’s daddy or a discreet ranch cowhand, the only public caves are at Alabaster Caverns State Park, home to the world’s largest public gypsum cave. Alabaster Caverns naturalist Tandy Keenan said more than 25,000 people visit it and its four sister caves annually.
Those sister caves are “wild,” meaning they’re only open for exploration to groups of three or more with proper equipment. The water cave has pallets for those who want to camp, but be warned: Wild caves mean wild animals. Keenan said explorers may come across snakes, insects and other creatures.
“The actual cavern formation was part of the last upheaval of the Rocky Mountains,” Keenan said. “The actual layering of the cave started about 200 million years ago.”
Created by water that swelled and dried over millions of years, the cavern that formed not only includes gypsum, but alabaster and selenite crystals.
Freedom should have dried up and blown away by now, but we’re aggressive.
And bats. The Selman Bat Cave, located at the Selman Ranch, hosts batwatching during the summer, when the caves serve as a refuge for more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats who pour out in a cloud of wings for nightly insect feedings.
“That fills up pretty quick, so you have to sign up early,” Keenan said. Registration begins May 31.
Cowboys and Indians
Tucked beneath the towering bluffs along the Cimarron River, Freedom has long held a reputation for being tough.
According to Brett Smith of Freedom State Bank (also Freedom Chamber of Commerce’s answering service), Freedom, founded in 1907, has sustained a population of about 250 people for about 100 years.
“I like to tell people that Freedom should have dried up and blown away by now, but we’re small and aggressive,” Smith said.
For many years, salt was big business here, along with cattle ranches and wheat farms. But salt led to one of Freedom’s loneliest sites, known as Salt Haulers Grave.
In 1878, a band of Northern Cheyenne Indians forced to live on the Fort Reno reservation escaped at night and headed back home to North Dakota. According to Smith, they got about seven miles away from Freedom, where they held off the Calvary coming from Fort Supply in what became known as the Battle of Turkey Springs.
“It’s the last known encounter between the Calvary and the American Indian,” Smith said. “The Indians held them off and went on toward where they were headed. From here, it gets hazy.”
On Sept. 12, 1878, cowboys Reuben Bristow and Fred Clark had the misfortune of crossing the path of the Cheyenne while hauling salt from the river to the Comanche Pool Cattle Company. They were more than likely killed for a few mules and firearms.
To this day, the Salt Haulers Grave remains a rough tombstone crudely carved with the words “2 cowboys and salt hall killed by Indias.”
Each August, the population of Freedom swells to more than 5,000 for the Freedom Open Rodeo and Old Cowhand Reunion. Called the “Biggest Open Rodeo in the West,” it has attracted visitors for more than 60 years.
The three-day, all-volunteer celebration includes a professional rodeo, community dances, a free chuck wagon feed, country music and a mock gunfight. Barreling onto Main Street on raging horses, volunteers act out a Western melodrama, full of pounding hooves and gunfire.
“All hell breaks loose,” Smith said. Like Freedom, it’s a tradition that will be hard to kill.
“Our biggest struggle is to stay viable,” he said. “We’ve managed to persevere. ‘Persevere’ is an Old West term, but that’s us.”
For more information, call 580-621- 3583.