Saline Courthouse: A Place of Beauty and Mystery

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
03/02/2016 12:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
The historic Saline Courthouse near Rose, Okla., is the last remaining district courthouse built by the Cherokee Nation in the 1800s. In 2003, the Saline Preservation Association was formed to restore the courthouse and the grounds around it. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
ROSE, Okla. (AP) – On the border between Mayes and Delaware counties sits a property that is one of the best-kept secrets in Oklahoma. The Saline Courthouse site is a magical natural wonderland in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by empty meadows, a chicken farm or two, pasture and woods, the courthouse is a spring creek-fed idyll full of beauty and mystery and…death.

People in the know visit this place to take photos along the rock-lined creek and watch tadpoles and crawdads scoot around. In the summer, it is a great place to sit on the grassy bank and dip your feet in the cold water. The courthouse doors have been closed for many years, but the old white building serves as a good backdrop while lounging.

In 2003, the Saline Preservation Association was formed to restore the courthouse and the grounds around it. The courthouse is the only remaining one of nine that were built in the 1880s by the Cherokee Nation. Though it only operated as a courthouse for 14 years, it has a rich history.

Mayes County Assessor and SPA President Lisa Melchior said, “The first time I visited Saline was with my mother in 2002. The door was locked but the windows were busted out, and you could just step right in. It was in a dilapidated state with rotten wood, paint peeling, etc.”

Melchior was intrigued and went home and began searching for information about it. She discovered it was on Preservation Oklahoma’s Most Endangered List.

“Here was the last remaining structure of nine rural courthouses in the Cherokee Nation from the 1800s and it seemed to be forgotten,” said Melchior.

After she and others worked to form the SPA, they began working with the CN on a master plan to restore, renovate and renew the property, which is now designated as the Saline National Park.

When the courthouse closed in 1898, it passed through a succession of private ownerships, including being the property and residence of John Teehee, John and Poca Phillips, Coon Phillips, Stanley Perkins and finally Lee and Florine Ransom. The Ransoms sold the house in 1970 to the Oklahoma parks department. The CN eventually took ownership of the property in the 1980s.

The springhouse was the first building to be restored, and the courthouse has had major improvements made, and a plan for the original 14 acres around it is being carried out, piece by piece.

In addition, said Melchior, “The Teehee Cemetery had the stones repaired and a fence placed around it. A split-rail fence was put along the roadway. The courthouse structure has been stabilized with the lead paint abated, porch, chimneys, fireplace and foundation restored.”

“Broken windows have been replaced, rotten siding replaced and a new roof put on. It has come a long way and is now one of Preservation Oklahoma’s success stories,” said Melchior.

Travis Owens, Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism manager, said the organization is continuing to work on a master plan for the property.

“We hope to have the plan complete by fall and will consider site access, walking trails, parking, public restrooms and options for the permanent use of the courthouse,” Owens told the Pryor Daily Times.

“The master plan focuses on exterior grounds and our first priority was preserving the building’s structural integrity,” said Owens. “We have successfully completed an exterior restoration, which included the stabilization of the building and a new roof.

“At this time a future use for the property has not been determined but we look forward to developing plans for the interior restoration,” he added.

Melchior noted that the CN had bought 50 additional acres for a Memorial Trail and other trails around the courthouse.

“I envision hiking trails and historical markers telling the story of the Saline District and the Cherokee Nation, a place that families can spend time visiting nature at its best and learning the history of the Cherokee Nation,” said Melchior. “The Cherokee Nation has not determined the future use of the courthouse structure, but I personally would like to see it used in a way to tell the judicial story of the Cherokee Nation.”

Melchior envisions the site being an interpretive one that “brings the past to life though pictures and stories.”

“People are drawn to the site and have been for hundreds of years. It’s a special place with a unique and special story,” she said.

Stories of the courthouse abound, many of which involve some not-so-savory characters and happenings.

In the cemetery located on the grounds is a gravestone for A.J. Colvard. The thing about this stone was it read “Born April 12, 1958, Murdered . . . “ The date is illegible. It’s not many gravestones one sees that have “murdered” on them.

Colvard was a store owner who was apparently killed by Stand Rowe, with John Hicks as an accomplice, in February 1892. Rowe was killed running from the law, and Hicks was tried and convicted but acquitted in a second trial.

Five years after Colvard’s murder, “The Saline Courthouse Massacre” occurred. Omer Morgan describes this incident in a 1955 article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma. According to Morgan, on Sept. 20, 1897, three people were shot and killed at the courthouse, one of them the outgoing sheriff Jesse Sunday and the other the current sheriff Dave Ridge. Also killed was Saline community store owner Thomas Baggett.

Stories conflict surrounding the murders, but what is known is that Dave Ridge showed up at Baggett’s store after it closed and stood on the porch trying to get in. Baggett appeared at an upstairs window and talked to him, and as he did, he was shot.

Most reports blame the murder on Sampson Rogers, who was hiding out nearby with a friend of his. Rogers apparently had a feud with Baggett and supposedly was going to pin the murder on Ridge. Rogers then allegedly killed Ridge.

The outgoing sheriff Jesse Sunday deputized some men and then came to the Saline Courthouse to see what anyone knew about the murders. Martin Rowe, who lived there, and John Colvard, his friend, were sitting on the porch. Sunday apparently took a shotgun from Colvard and then began searching the area around the courthouse. During his search he was shot and murdered.

Rowe was convicted of Sunday’s death, but the sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison, since the evidence was not strong. Rowe, however, escaped three months later, fled to Texas, joined the army, was discharged and eventually ended up in Stilwell, where he lived the rest of a long life.

Rogers was tried and found not guilty of Ridge’s murder.

Despite some unsavory stories involving it, the Saline Courthouse continues to be a place where people can learn about the past and soak in the beauty of the natural scenery.

For more information about the SPA, visit www.salinecourthouse.net.

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