Lee Cruce: Oklahoma Governors (1911-1915)
This Kentucky-born pioneer came to Ardmore in 1891, nearly 20 years before statehood, at the age of twenty-eight. He worked his way up to a bank presidency, as well as a city alderman (councilman). Parleying these experiences and the influence garnered from them, he sought election as the new state of Oklahoma’s first governor, but lost to Charles Haskell. Four years later, however, Cruce ran again. This time, he won a blockbuster victory over Constitutional Convention titan and Speaker of the State House William H. Murray.
Though not possessing such influence over the legislature as his legendary predecessor Haskell, Cruce accomplished much as governor and attempted more. He initiated the historic construction of the State Capitol building. He undertook numerous state budget-tightening measures. With Oklahomans owning several thousand automobiles during his term, he ramrodded through legislation establishing the State Highway Commission, which secured Oklahoma’s part in what became an early cross-country interstate highway, U.S. Highway 77. The forerunner to Interstate 35, it ran from Canada all the way to the Gulf Ocean.
Cruce left his greatest mark, however, as the sort of moral champion for which Americans before and since have clamored, but rarely desire should they actually receive it. He struck hard with the force of the law vested in him against a storm of social ills he saw wrecking lives all around him. Racetrack betting—he unleashed famed Oklahoma lawman Frank Canton and the Oklahoma National Guard on this practice in Tulsa. Gambling—he ramrodded legislation making it a felony. Prizefighting—five times, Cruce sent the Guard to quash this activity, which was particularly brutal in that era. Prohibition—he strengthened Haskell’s strictures against consumption of alcoholic beverages. Blue Laws—he championed legislation prohibiting many commercial activities that occurred on, and—he believed—distracted people from, the beneficial spiritual observance of and worship on the Lord’s Day.
Like nearly every other major white political figure of early Oklahoma, Cruce supported Jim Crow, but unlike most of them, he opposed the taking of life in capital punishment. He commuted twenty death sentences, including those of African-Americans. Murderous mobs lynched fifteen others whom he might have spared.
When fellow Democrats tried to railroad the boundary-drawing process for three new Congressional seats in fast-growing 1910s Oklahoma, Cruce stood up for the rights of the minority Republicans. He vetoed the plan, telling his colleagues they wouldn’t appreciate the Republicans attempting such a scheme. This led to the first in an infamous series of legislative impeachment efforts against the state’s governors. Cruce escaped the action by a single vote.
He later gained wealth upon the discovery of oil on his Ardmore property. He died in 1933 while visiting his only child, daughter Lorena, who like thousands of other Oklahomans, had emigrated to Los Angeles.