By Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
“I’d rather have a pocket full of rocks than an empty gun.”
If you’ve lived in Stillwater or been an Oklahoma State University student or fan for any amount of time, you probably know the story (or at least some of it) of Oklahoma State’s mascot. With the onset of a new academic school year and football season beginning (Go Pokes!) we think the history behind “America’s best loved mascot” bears repeating.
In the first decades of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College’s existence, the school’s mascot was not our familiar “Pistol Pete” the inspiration for the “Cowboys” but rather the Tiger. It seems incongruous, doesn’t it? OAMC touted itself as the “Princeton of the Prairie” and took its mascot and colors from that legendary institution in New Jersey. And while the official mascot was the Tiger, in those early days, the OAMC sports teams were called many things including “Agriculturalists”, “Aggies”, and even “Farmers”.
Then in 1923, after seeing Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton lead Stillwater’s Armistice Day parade on horseback, many OAMC students decided that “Pistol Pete” was a more suitable mascot. These students were unhappy with the “Tigers” mascot and felt “Pistol Pete,” symbolic of the American Old West, better represented the college.
Francis Eaton was born on October 26, 1860 in Connecticut. When Frank was eight years old, his family moved to Kansas to homestead. There at their Kansas homestead, Frank witnessed his father’s murder by six former Confederates. A family friend told Frank, “May an old man’s curse rest on you the longest day you live if you don’t find and shoot the men that murdered your father.” It was then, that he began to learn how to handle a gun.
In his autobiography, Frank explains, that at the age of fifteen, he decided to visit Fort Gibson, to learn more about handling a gun. At the Fort, located in eastern Oklahoma, Frank competed with and beat the cavalry’s best marksmen. The fort’s commanding officer, Colonel Copinger, gave Frank a marksmanship badge and a new name, “Pistol Pete.”
According to legend—a legend Eaton promoted through storytelling as well as his autobiography, Pistol Pete: Veteran of the Old West—Eaton served as Deputy U.S. Marshall and found and killed five of the six men who killed his father. The sixth was killed over a dispute about a card game before Frank could get to him.
“Pistol Pete” eventually settled in Perkins, Oklahoma. He lived the life of a true cowboy, said to “pack the fastest guns in the Indian Territory”, he usually carried a loaded forty-five and often said “I’d rather have a pocket full of rocks than an empty gun”.
After that appearance in the 1923 Armstice Day Parade, no one knows exactly how and when Frank Eaton came to serve as the unofficial mascot for the college; but he was a gregarious, friendly character, and Frank Eaton took to the roll of mascot with enthusiasm. He patrolled the sidelines at athletic competitions and could often be found strolling across campus with his trademark loaded .45s in holsters at his hips. Professor B.B. Chapman invited Eaton to speak to his history classes about his life and experiences in the wild west. One campus legend tells of Frank pulling out his six-gun in class and discharging it, putting a hole in the wall.
After Eaton died on April 8, 1958 at the age of 97, there was a void where he had once served as mascot. It was in that year that Charles Lester became the first student to don the big papier-mâché “Pistol Pete” head to portray the legendary mascot.
The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is proud to have Charlie Lester’s “Pistol Pete” on exhibit as well as other items believed to have been associated with Frank Eaton. Many of the earliest items donated to the museum do not have any documentation of their origin or even their donors. In these cases, museum staff must base their interpretation upon evidence from the object itself and investigative research to determine its significance. On the inside of the “Pistol Pete” head on exhibit at the Sheerar Museum, there is a piece of tape with the name “Charlie Lester” written on it. While there is no other documentation on record, most likely this head was the original worn by Lester in 1958.
Visit the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History located at 702 S. Duncan Street to learn more. Museum hours are Tuesday-Friday 11am-5pm and Saturday and Sunday 1-4pm. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. The Sheerar Museum can also be found online at www.sheerarmuseum.org, www.twitter.com/sheerarmuseum, and on Facebook too!
(Photos of Frank Eaton from University Archives and Special Collections, OSU Library.)