In its 150-year history, the Chisholm Trail has seen its share of champions, from the cowboys who rode it, to the poets who eulogized it and the ranchers whose fortunes it made. And, thanks to the work of Oklahoma native Bob Klemme, 91, it’s certain to live on even after its deepest ruts begin to fade.
Klemme’s interest in the Chisholm Trail was sparked in 1939, when his ninth-grade history teacher invited his class to go see the trail where it once ran south of Enid, Okla. To Klemme’s knowledge, no one took the offer, but for him, a seed of curiosity was planted.
“Teachers never know what they’re going to say that might affect someone their whole life,” Klemme reflects. “As I got older, I just came to wondering—where did the Chisholm Trail come through Enid anyway?”
It was the mid-1980s before Klemme searched out the spot on the original government survey of Garfield County, minted in 1871. The trail was labeled the Abilene Cattle Trail, one of the many names it bore. Klemme also discovered a book of survey notes that told him exactly where the trail crossed each section in the county.
When he learned each county had their own maps and survey notes recording the path of the trail, he felt a call to action.
Thirty days from retirement, Klemme turned his backyard into a masonry workshop and began construction on a series of 200-lb. concrete trail markers he designed himself. Each post was made 6-by-6-inches wide and 7-feet tall, painted white with black letters. Klemme fondly says, “You can plainly see them from the air.”
Klemme originally intended to put a marker at each of the 79 section lines the trail crossed, where it passed through the Cherokee Outlet in northern Oklahoma, but the project quickly grew in scale.
“I guess I was having too much fun,” Klemme admits, “because when I got through marking, I had 25 posts leftover. I had to trim around the extras in the backyard, and the grass and the weeds were growing up over them.
“Finally, it was either get rid of the posts, or get rid of my wife. So I decided I’d use up the rest of the posts.”
But he didn’t stop there, either. In seven years, Klemme staked an incredible 400 posts, marking the Chisholm Trail throughout Oklahoma, from the Red River to the Kansas border. Some of the markers rest by towns or roadsides, but others sit deep in the heart of ranches, where Klemme says “only cowboys” will likely see them in the years to come.
Even so, he says the tracks of the trail are worth preserving.
“It gives me a kind of thrill to be able to go out and see those ruts that are still there after 150 years,” Klemme says. “These old cattle trails were the interstate highway system of their day. If it hadn’t been for them, we’d have never gotten the West settled. It’s important to keep them alive.”