By Travis Sloat
At 90 years of age, Dorothy Gage Gilliam meets guests at the front door of her home, and walks them back to the door as they leave. She relates the events of her life — in which she seemed inexorably drawn to the Fort Gibson/Muskogee area — in a calm, clear voice, starting with a move from Oakland, Mo. in 1925.
“Just before the move, my father was married to another woman,” Gilliam said. “She wanted to move to Oklahoma, but my father didn’t, so they divorced. He remarried, then found out his ex-wife was pregnant with his son in Muskogee. He decided then to come to Oklahoma.”
Gilliam’s family loaded up, not in a car, but in a covered wagon for the journey. Gilliam, the youngest of 10 children, said she can’t remember exactly how long the trip was, but it lasted almost a month, if not longer.
“We would stop and make these big fires at night,” Gilliam said. “I can remember lawmen’s posses surrounding us and demanding to know who we were because they were looking for outlaws.”
When they first arrived in the area they lived on the “Gilliam” place, which was 160 acres of land given to her future husband’s grandparents in 1903.
The acreage was and still is located on U.S. 62, close to the six-mile line.
They lived on the ranch for a couple of years, and then moved to Muskogee. Gilliam fondly recalls searching for treasure “in the creek bed.”
“We would find so many arrowheads out by the creek,” Gilliam said. “A man would come out of Muskogee and buy them, and the more we found, the more he’d buy. We filled our little buckets full while my mother washed clothes in the creek.”
Gilliam spent almost three more years living in Muskogee, but returning to the Gilliam place almost every weekend to listen to Grand Ole Opry and enjoy huge platters of cookies made by her mother and “Mrs. Gilliam.”
Her father moved the family back to Missouri in 1929, only this time they traveled by car, minus the roof.
“He was so worried about that,” Gilliam said. “There was a blizzard coming in, so he stopped at the home of an Indian man and asked if they could lodge us for the night. He pointed us to a nearby house and told us to make ourselves at home. The people who lived there all went out and slept in teepees and gave us their home for the night.”
In 1938, the Gilliam family who Dorothy had lived with as a child started sending correspondence letters to her family, and it didn’t take long for Thomas “Frank” Gilliam to realize that the little kid who’d played in his family’s creek bed wasn’t 7 years old anymore.
“We started writing each other when I was 15,” Dorothy said. “He came up to see me in 1939, and we were married soon after that, when I was 16.”
Dorothy describes the marriage as a “run up the road to the justice of the peace,” and admits that her father was none too happy about it.
The straw that broke him, however, was the news that Frank was leaving to go back to Oklahoma — and taking Dorothy with him.
“He got a gun, and he came looking for him (Frank),” Dorothy said. “Frank asked me if there was another way out of town, and I told him yes. We packed some clothes and we left down Highway 5 and came straight back to the Gilliam place.”
Dorothy’s father eventually gave his consent to the decision, and soon started mailing her other belongs, some he had destroyed and repaired, to her in Oklahoma.
During the time they spent on the Gilliam ranch, they endured a tornado that moved their house off the foundation, a fire that completely destroyed that house and an accident in which Frank fell through the roof of Fort Gibson Schools in the 1970s.
They opened a store on U.S. 62 in 1937, and Dorothy recalled seeing World War II planes land in their field and come by groceries from them on their way to Camp Gruber.
“Frank would deliver groceries to people in his International truck,” she said. “He would milk our cows and gather eggs and take them to folks who couldn’t come to us. We gave the store to his parents in 1943 when his dad couldn’t work on the farm anymore.”
Frank and Dorothy had nine children, eight of whom are alive. Frank passed away in 2007 at the age of 90, having been married to Dorothy for 68 years.
Dorothy and some of her family still live on the Gilliam ranch, but the size has shrunk from 160 acres to 100 because of some tax problems in the 1930s.
Dorothy said she couldn’t imagine turning 90 years old on Nov. 3, but that she’s very happy and thankful. When asked what the secret to a long life was, she kept it simple.
“You have to stay active, have a lot of friends, and laugh a lot,” she said. “I have a wonderful family, and wonderful kids. I thank the Lord every day for my family.”