Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
Oklahoma’s boosters like to boast of her accomplishments in gaudy phrases—”from tepees to towers,” and “from arrows to atoms.” Her cities mirror the manner of her men.
Fair Tulsa, cosmopolis on the sandy Arkansas River, by day builds gleaming sky¬scrapers and high-speed expressways, and lives from aviation and aerospace as well as oil cash advance online. American Airlines, the city’s largest employer, keeps some 5,000 persons busy at its maintenance and engineering center. By night, progressive Tulsa washes down her sidewalks—to help back her claim as “America’s Most Beautiful City.”
Oklahoma City, amiable giant, sometimes unkindly called the world’s biggest cow town, ambles over 636 square miles. Oil wells stalk across the city. At Tinker Air Force Base, more than 25,000 persons work in a vast air¬craft-maintenance and supply setup. A few miles to the west, the Federal Aviation Ad¬ministration’s Aeronautical Center keeps tab on every aspect of civil aviation (pages 172-3). There I saw Charles A. Lindbergh’s application of April 26, 1927, for an airplane license; his Spirit of St. Louis, it stated, was to be used in a “Transatlantic Flight.” And there dedicated aeromedical researchers seek to help today’s pilots—men of exactly the same model as Orville and Wilbur Wright or Lindbergh—adapt to aircraft that fly faster and higher all the time.
Oklahoma’s capital is the largest U. S. city ever to elect a woman mayor—Mrs. Patience Latting. It also can claim a more mundane achievement. Back in 1935 the first parking meter was installed here; a nickel bought an hour’s time. At Will Rogers World Airport, I paid grudging tribute to progress—a quarter to let my car rest for 30 minutes.
“Don’t Like Meters. Or Taxes.”
The parking meter’s victory is not yet complete. To my surprise, I saw that Oklahoma’s third largest city, Lawton, eschews them on its streets—a kindness to recall as one woos sleep amid night-firing Army artillery practice at neighboring Fort Sill.
And at tidy, hard-working Prague, population 1,800, about 50 miles east of Oklahoma City, I learned that parking meters and city taxes alike are as welcome as the measles. I dropped in on Mayor L. B. Drury, owner of Drury’s Variety Store, and asked why.
“Don’t like meters,” he said, sitting back in a swivel chair. “Or taxes. We don’t need them. This is a real thrifty town. Our treasury’s got a surplus of about $334,000. We pay off a bond issue by adding $1.50 each month to everybody’s water bill.”
Prague was settled by a few Czechs in the Run of 1891. Others followed. Today farmers bring peanuts, alfalfa, and wheat to market here; cattle, dairying, and oil wells bolster the economy. Prague’s two banks each boast assets of more than $10,000,000—largest in Oklahoma on a per capita basis. And the community owns its water and power lines.
I strolled Main Street’s two business blocks, munching delectable kolaches—fruit-filled sweet rolls—from the Prague Bakery. In the pool hall, old men played dominoes and cards. I drove along quiet back streets, past trim white frame dwellings with neat yards shaded by elms, junipers, oaks, and maples. New one-story houses dotted “Mortgage Hill.” In a large park on the west side of town, people gathered pecans.
“Life is good here,” said Frank SeRik, a friendly, soft-spoken native son, vice president of the Prague National Bank. “We’re very conservative. Everybody goes to church. A few of us still speak Czech, but a lot of old ways are gone. We have a very active Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce.”
Glory Dims as Wells Go Dry
It was time to move on. I cruised north along State Highway 99, and turned off to Shamrock, a town with no future, a desiccated present, and a tumultuous past.
During Shamrock’s heyday, in World War I, with black gold flowing from hundreds of wells, 10,000 people lived in the area. Tipperary Road, three-quarters of a mile long, was appropriately lined with green-fronted businesses. The town had two banks, two newspaper plants, three movie houses, five lumberyards, and enough saloons to slake the thirst of a roistering oil camp. Three doctors and two dentists helped ease her pains.
Perhaps 200 people live in Shamrock today, and some remember. One of them told me, “Why, the pipeline from this field ran all the way to Houston. They shipped the oil to Europe to fight the Kaiser. You should have been here when the war ended. Everybody was shootin’ it up.”
Only a few months before he died, I walked along Tipperary Road with tall Eric E. Ferren, Shamrock’s mayor for 32 years and a Creek County deputy sheriff. Most houses had rotted away; foundations were over¬grown with brush. The old fire bell, a rusty sentinel, hung over the firehouse entrance; the rest of the firehouse had vanished.
Strong sunlight washed a few pallid, sagging buildings, their paint long since flaked away. We stopped before a concrete block¬house with a man-size hole hacked in one wall.
“The First State Bank stood here,” Deputy Ferren said, unconsciously easing his holster. “That’s the vault. It’s the only thing left. Why the hole? Bank robbers made it.”
By 1920 Shamrock’s oil boom had burst, and the roughnecks headed for a strike at Whizbang, over in Osage County. Whizbang soon fizzled out.
A gentle melancholy tugs at one in ghost towns, like the haunting peace of ancient battlefields. Let Oklahoma’s motto—Labor Omnia Vincit—serve as their benediction: “Labor Conquers All Things.”
I drove away, glad to be transient, wanting to watch today’s Sooners at today’s work. In Sapulpa, at Frankoma Pottery, I discovered more than a hundred craftsmen handily turning out nearly 30,000 pieces a week.
White-haired, jovial John Frank escorted me through his pottery, as proud of it as a man should be whose business succeeds on the fifth try. “Any piece of pottery is merely the right mud in the right shape,” Mr. Frank declared. “Its value lies in what it’s worth to live with, for this is the true value of art.”
Last year 120,000 passersby turned off Interstate 44 to tour the plant. John Frank sometimes puzzles over the influx. “I guess they just want to come,” he muses. “My daughter Joniece and I design every piece; my wife Grace Lee runs the show¬room. We are Frankoma. People come be¬cause they like what we create. It’s our greatest compliment.”
Ardmore Caters to Western Craze
All over Oklahoma I saw this story repeated. In the south, at Ardmore, I caught up with the Western-clothing boom.
“It’s the only kind of apparel that is America’s own,” said shirt-sleeved John C. Simpler, general manager of Corral Sportswear. “My father and mother formed this business in 1953, and it’s been growing ever since. People are identifying with the West, with the old, solid, traditional values. Demand for leather¬wear is fantastic. We’ve been operating nine hours a day, six days a week, for months.”
A family man in his mid-thirties whose hobby is flying, John Simpler often visits New York City on business. He said, “Some youngsters there have never seen open country.” A frown. “They’ve never seen a cow or ridden a horse. I’m always glad to get home.” His face brightened. “You can’t beat Oklahoma.”
As we walked to my car, a small boy gal¬loping a large pony suddenly bore down on us, and we leaped from the sidewalk. “See what I mean?” demanded my host happily. You can bump into enterprising business¬men and horses elsewhere, too. On a cool cloudy morning I drove through the undulating green country of the east, a hunter’s and fisherman’s paradise, and onto the north¬east’s Ozark Plateau. In Commerce, where baseball’s Mickey Mantle grew up, I found George Newman busily building the fine boats that bear his name, and I knew better why Oklahoma highways are thronged with cars towing sleek inboards and outboards.
“We’re making about 1,500 runabouts a year now,” Mr. Newman said, “and I can’t see anything but growth ahead. Boating’s great for families, especially fathers. No traffic lanes. No traffic lights. No traffic jams. They can unwind and relax.”
A short drive away I pulled up at the Bar 20 Ranch. “Be glad to show you what a trained cow pony can do,” said Max Blue. Spurs jingling, he took me to the corral.
There I sat with his charming Quapaw Indian wife, Jean Ann, and her sister, Geneva Ramsey, and watched a cowboy cut a cow from a milling herd. Then the rider gave his mount free rein. No matter which way the cow turned to rejoin the herd, the pony anticipated her. Stop. Start. Hesitate. Run this way. That way. Try here. There. A duel to the finish. At last the cow quit, motionless, head down. Without guidance, the pony had won.
Max and Jean Ann breed and train registered quarter horses and run about 500 cows. They hope for an annual calf crop of about 90 percent; most calves, said Max ruefully, seem to be delivered in freezing weather at midnight, with snow on the ground. After the calves are weaned and have grown to some 450 pounds, they are sold. Eventually they arrive at a feedlot, fatten, and go to market.
The Blues raise quarter horses for love and calves for profit. I asked if they had any trouble with rustlers. Max jumped as if he’d heard a rattlesnake.
“There’s rustlin’ goin’ on, you bet! We’re short four head right now in that pasture across the road. One feller, he even used his private plane to spot bunches of cows. If no people were in sight, he’d radio his waiting trucks. They finally caught him.”