Okemah is a city in and county seat of Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, United States. It is the birthplace of folk music legend Woody Guthrie. Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, a federally recognized Muscogee Indian tribe, is headquartered in Okemah. The population was 3,223 at the 2010 census, a 6.1 percent increase from 3,038 at the 2000 census. About 26.6 percent of the residents identified themselves as Native American.
Okemah was named after a Kickapoo Indian Chief named Chief Okemah. In March, 1902 Chief Okemah built a bark house after the fashion of the Kickapoo tribe. He had come to await the opening of the townsite which took his name April 22, 1902. In the Kickapoo language, "Okemah" means "things up high," such as highly placed person or town or high ground. Okemah thus had the old chief's name to live up to in leadership.
Okemah was platted by a group of Shawnee residents March, 1902 on land belonging to Mahala and Nocus Fixico, full blood Creek Indians who had no legal right to sell their holdings, but who did anyway. This apparently made no difference to the promoters. April 22, 1902 the formal opening launched the town into an instant business success as the first plows broke the fertile area described in Washington Irving's "Tour of the Prairies" 60 years earlier. The town was incorporated in 1903 and in the spring of 1904, when restrictions on sale of townsite lots were removed, the Indians were paid $50 an acre for their land by trustees who were authorized to give legal deeds to the purchasers who claimed title. In the first week the city had the following stores: four general merchandise, two hardware, one 5 & 10 cent store, three drug stores, four grocery stores, three wagon yards, four lumber yards, three cafes, one bakery, two millinery stores, four livery barns, three blacksmiths, two dairies, two cotton gins and two weekly newspapers. There were eight doctors, four lawyers, two walnut log buyers, and one Chinese laundryman. Two hotels were quickly put up, including the three story Broadway hotel which set the city apart as an important town in early-day Oklahoma. Okfuskee county was organized at the time of statehood and Okemah was chosen as county seat in an election held August 27, 1908.
Some of the "firsts" recorded in Okemah's history are as follows: Perry Rodkey and H.R. Dexter surveyed the townsite first. The town's first state-chartered bank began business the day of the opening, April 22, 1903 in a tent on the northwest corner of the present Fifth and Broadway (now City Hall). C. J. Benson was president. W. H. Dill was vice president and served as cashier. It became the First National Bank in 1903, but was liquidated in 1939. J. E. Galloway was first mayor; Perry Rodkey, first postman; E. D. Dexter, first hotel operator; W. H. Dill ran the first telephone company; a Mr. Franklin wore the first city policeman's badge; John D. Richards had the first hardware store; McGee Brothers put in the first cotton gin and E. E. Shook established the first lumber yard. The first church in the city was the North Methodist, at Sixth and Ash, but the first church service was in the Baptist faith presided over by the Rev. Black. The first execution at the hand of a bunch of vigilantes resulted in the death of a man alleged to have been trying to steal a saddle. Editor, Charles Barnclaw, published the first newspaper. S. L. O'Bannon was the teacher in the first school which was opened in 1902 with funds gained by subscribers and classes were held in a store building. The first school building was built in 1902 on the site of the old Wilson School. The first public school was opened with Dr. Z. Cheatwood as superintendent in 1904. A store building housed one of the first public schools and the other was situated in buildings where the American Legion building now stands. Noble School, completed in 1907, was named for Miss Mae Noble. Okemah High School gained accreditation in 1912 and met in the old Noble School building until the building of 1918 was erected. In the high school complex the band shop building was erected 1941 and a vocational building in 1948.