By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
One hundred thousand people are preparing to make a run – but they’re not in Spandex and Nikes. This isn’t some jumbo version of the Boston Marathon. More than a century ago, it was a race for pioneers to claim land.
This is the historic Cherokee Strip Land Run. Today, one citizen has opened the River’s Eagle Bar and Grill near the site of the land run. He is seeking to celebrate the land run while supporting his community.
Russell Graves is the owner of Rivers Eagle Bar and Grill and the Cherokee Strip Campground near Arkansas City. Graves is a sixth generation Ark City resident. His ancestors worked cattle and trained horses and mules.
“At a very young age, I was told by my mother that I should go to Kansas State University and become an engineer, so that’s what I did,” Graves said. He became an industrial engineer and worked at the oil refinery in Ark City, but he remembered his rural roots.
As a kid, Graves saw his community participate in the 100th anniversary of the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1893. At noon on Sept. 16, 1893, an estimated 100,000 people dashed into the previously unassigned native lands that had been opened for settlement on a first-come, first-served basis. There were actually several land runs, but the one in 1893 was the largest.
In 1993, the community of Ark City commemorated the centennial of this momentous event. “The whole community got into it,” Graves said. “Women wore bonnets and the men grew beards.”
Years later, Graves and his family purchased 20 acres of land next to Highway 77 and the Arkansas River. They established the Cherokee Strip Campground with 50 fully equipped campsites for recreational vehicles.
He and his family also got into figure eight auto racing and had a nearby racetrack in Oklahoma for a number of years. “People would want to eat while there, and we figured we need to develop something of our own,” Graves said.
They settled on pizza.
“I brought together a bunch of suppliers and asked them for the very best ingredients for a pizza, regardless of cost,” Graves said. After refining some recipes, he developed what was called Speedway Pizza, which proved to be very popular. He also envisioned a food and drink facility on the property near Ark City.
Graves and his wife had four children. When one of his sons developed leukemia, Graves retired to care for him until his son passed. Graves developed building plans and started constructing the building himself.
“It was a release from losing my son,” he said. He worked for seven years to construct the building.
“My mother’s favorite bird was the eagle. Those are especially prevalent along the winter time near the river,” Graves said. In her honor, he named the new facility the River’s Eagle Bar and Grill, which opened in 2021.
In addition to Speedway Pizza, the restaurant serves prime steaks and all the trimmings. It also hosts lots of activities such as live entertainment, cornhole tournaments, kayak races, an event called Jammin’ on the River, and more.
Graves realized that 2023 would mark the 130th anniversary of the Cherokee Strip Land Run. He is developing plans to commemorate that anniversary with a major event on Sept. 16, 2023 involving live music, cowboy poetry, Civil War re-enactors and more.
He hopes to build a memorial wall and statue representing the original settlers. “Each stone would represent a family that participated in the land run. It would list the family name, tract number and legal description,” Graves said.
“I think this history has kind of been forgotten, and I would like to re-energize the community.”
That’s good to see in a rural community like Arkansas City, population 11,974 people. Now, that’s rural.
For more information, search for River’s Eagle Bar and Grill on Facebook.
We commend Russell Graves for making a difference with his entrepreneurial spirit and appreciation of history. I hope the river’s eagle flies high.