EVERYDAY HEROES: Eloping couple still together after 73 years

Shirley and Henry Farmer recount the story of their elopement 72 years ago, and of their experiences serving each other and the Tahlequah, Oklahoma community.

TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – “You do know there’s a three-day waiting period from the time you buy your marriage license,” a judge in Van Buren, Arkansas, told a local couple in 1949.

He didn’t like marrying people who were too young. The judge looked at Henry Farmer and said he didn’t believe he was even 21. However, he did look at his fiancé, Shirley, who looked 18, which was acceptable to him – despite the fact that she was 17 at the time, and Farmer was only 18.

“I didn’t know,” Shirley told him.

The judge explained there was only one way to get out of the three-day waiting period, and that was to get a signature from the judge himself, who was still wearing his gardening pants.

“Is there a good reason why you should be exempt from the three-day waiting period?” he asked, looking at Shirley’s belly.

With a bright smile, Shirley exclaimed, “Because I love him!”

To the dismay of their family and friends, Shirley and Henry Farmer eloped. They had their first of two daughters three years after their marriage, and many years later, they will be celebrating their 73rd wedding anniversary in October. Recently, they have looked back on how they have supported each other and the Tahlequah community, and how they have made it through the pandemic.

“I made a commitment, and if I make a commitment, I’m going to do my best to do it,” said Shirley, referring to her marriage.

She applies this concept in whatever stage of life she has been in. For years, she worked at the Tahlequah Junior High School in the cafeteria.

Together, the couple have lived in Oklahoma, Florida, California, Kansas, and Missouri, but they settled in Tahlequah by the 1960s.

“We drove four stakes into the ground and built this home,” said Henry.

In doing so, he cut down Shirley’s favorite oak tree, which was on their property near Moody.

“That was such a beautiful oak tree. When I came home, my tree was gone. He took it to the sawmill, made planks out of it, and made a roof. That was my only solace, that my tree is now part of the roof,” said Shirley.

At 90, Henry still works on the house, which has been lifesaving during the pandemic.

“Whenever I need anything fixed, if I can get him to understand, he does a fantastic job. He is good at anything. He is an electrician, plumber, carpenter, house builder, mechanic, salesperson, ditch digger, a gardener, and he’s a good father and church leader,” said Shirley.

Henry served as the first branch president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tahlequah from 1963-1969. He received no pay for it, and he even helped construct the building where they met, which stood at the intersection of Crafton Street and Oklahoma Avenue.

“I was the building representative for 50 years. In the old building, we put the roof on it, and we did the painting, and the cleanup afterward,” said Henry.

In the new building on Southridge Road, he consulted the general contractor.

Because of the pandemic, he could not hire someone to replace a window, so he taught his grandson how to do it.

“He also built me a custom stool for the shower, just a few weeks ago. We were fortunate through this pandemic. We made it through easier because he could take care of all of those things. We didn’t have to worry about bringing someone in,” said Shirley.

In the 1970s, Henry leased Service Skelly Oil Co., where he developed an interest in vehicles. Until recently, he was active in the 5Cs Car Club, and he even allowed Charlie Soap and Tim Kelly the use of three of his vehicles in the movie “The Cherokee Word for Water.” In return, he played the mechanic in the production.

Throughout their lives, they have lived humbly, even at one point repurposing a chicken coop into a two-room cottage. Henry retired from NSU in 1991, having worked in maintenance.

“To me, Henry is a hero,” said Shirley. “I wouldn’t trade my experience moving around with him for anything. Everyone said we were too young to get married, but now all of those people are all gone, so now I can’t tell them, ‘I told you so.’”

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