This story was written by Keith Austin, as part of a series – Cherokee Matters, Volume 15 and was shared with the Claremore Museum of History on March 4, 2023.
She was in her ninety-forth year the first time I met her. She was a humble lady and time had slowed her steps, but it was clear there was something special about this Cherokee lady named Maggie Culver Fry. Her friend and colleague, Dr. Richard Mosier, long time President of Claremore Junior College, described her well when he said, “She represents a turning point. She can see backward and forward at the same time”.
Maggie Culver was born in the Cherokee Nation in the year 1900, seven years before Oklahoma became a state. She spent much of her youth near her grandparents in a place called Buckskin Hollow near the community of Vian, listening to stories of earlier times. It is reported that sixty-one years before she was born, her grandfather was orphaned when both of his parents died on the Trail of Tears.
From a very young age, Maggie was a natural storyteller. When she was about ten years old, she wrote her first poem. A poem expressing how the modern inventions of her youth were proof that God is the greatest inventor of all. When she was a young adult, her family moved to Rogers County to a farm near Verdigris where she met a young man named Merritt Fry. He lived on a nearby farm. Several short months later, they were married.
For the next thirty years, Merritt and Maggie worked hard. Maggie wrote sporadically while they lived the farm life, built a family business and raised two sons. Maggie reported that God said to her, “Little child, we’re going to write a book”. At the age of fifty-four and with Mr. Fry’s support, she published her first book, “The Witch Deer.” It was a collection of poetry that reflected the stories she learned from her grandfather, the stories of the Cherokee People.
She was quoted once saying, “I live by my own time clock”. This helps explain why it was nearly twenty years before her second book was published. “The Umbilical Cord” was published when Maggie was seventy-four. It was worth the wait. This collection of her original poetry was nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Three years later, when she was seventy-seven years old, Governor David Boren appointed her as Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma. She continued as Poet Laureate until she was ninety-five years old. She served under Governors David Boren, George Nigh, Henry Bellmon and David Walters. She served longer than any other Poet Laureate in state history.
She never learned to drive. She never graduated high school and she never worked by other people’s schedules. Success had to adapt to Mrs. Fry, not the other way around. Her writing never brought her fortune, but she once said as only she could, “I’m rich as I can be, but not with money.” When you read “Profit and Loss”, one of my favorite Maggie Culver Fry poems, I think you will agree. Maggie left us all a little richer.
Profit and Loss
Maggie Culver Fry
(The next year after you married ME).
We didn’t own much: some feed and tools.
A wagon and harness and span of mules.
A cow, some chickens, and homemade jell.
A cabin, a barn, and a good deep well.
Plenty and power: my wants are few.
Over a section of land, by far.
A tractor, a truck, and a sleek new car;
Ranch-type house. . . the best by earth.
But you’re not here, so what’s it worth?