Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Heading south from the town of Hobart my family would have looked out upon miles and miles of prairie farmland in every direction.    Soon, though, we would have come upon a break in the roadway with a   turn-around driveway leading off to the left.    At the end stood a sturdy red stone marker.  I don't know if we would have stopped to read the marker, but knowing my dad, there is a good chance that we did.    This marker, which is still there, tells the sad story of a one-room school house which had once stood on that spot in what was once  the community of Babbs Switch, Oklahoma.  Neither the School House nor Babbs Switch can be seen there now.

from  E. Taylor @

There are many stories and newspaper accounts of this 'town that is no longer there,' including a popular children's book The Babbs Switch Story, by Darleen Bailey Beard.    On a snowy, cold Christmas Eve in the year 1924 the people of Babbs Switch all gathered at the school house for the annual Christmas program.  Typical of that time, the building was a one-room school house.   It had been damaged by the strong prairie storms in the years past, so the community had fixed up the building with fresh paint (thinned with turpentine) and strong screens to seal the windows from wind damage.   

About 200 people from the extended community crowded into the school house for the program which, of course, included both Santa and a Christmas tree lighted with holiday candles.  Toward the end of the program Santa apparently caused one of the candles to ignite a tree branch.  The tree was knocked over in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, which, instead, caused the fire to spread rapidly.   Terrifying panic took over the crowd and people rushed to the only exit.  The door, however, opened inward so the push of the crowd prevented the door from opening fully and trapped many folks inside.  The strong screens prevented attempted escapes through the windows.  In the end, many people were severely injured and burned, and a total of 36 people lost their lives that evening as the building burned to the ground.  

The survivor's stories are harrowing.  Some say that the jammed doorway was filled with only the hands and heads of people trying to escape the inferno.  People were seen pleading for help at the windows, but the strong screens prevented escape.   It was reported that one family of four, the Coffey's, calmly formed a tight circle in the center of the room.  Their burned bodies were found wrapped arm in arm the next day.  One engaged couple were planning a Christmas wedding the next morning.  The prospective groom was instead being treated for severe burns Christmas day, while his bride was being buried in a mass grave.  The Oklahoman, December 27,1924

Injured survivors were rushed to nearby Hobart for medical treatment, but the tragedy continued.  Most people had taken the common precaution of draining their car radiators to prevent them from freezing while they attended the program.  Their cars, as a result, overheated along the roadway to Hobart's medical facilities, complicating the rescues and delaying treatments.

School House Safety

The Babbs Switch fire did have a positive consequence in the end.   The story of the tragedy in this tiny town swept the the entire nation as well as the state.   Oklahoma's Governor together with the State Fire Marshall launched a campaign to improve fire safety at all school houses and public buildings.  The result was a nationwide requirement that all doors on public buildings open to the outside,  and steel netting was banned on all school house windows.  Additional safety regulations were also adopted, such as a prohibition of candles on trees and the requirement that there always be more than one exit on buildings. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Heading South

I have decided that, with three young ones in the back seat of the car, my parents would have foregone the "scenic" route of going by the Wichita  Mountains and, instead, would have headed directly south from Rocky on US 183.   If so, they must have passed through the town of Hobart, named for President McKinley's Vice-President Garret Hobart.  Since he was from the state of New Jersey, I'm wondering why the folks that settled here in Oklahoma decided to name this town after him.  Perhaps it was because he died while in office, and there was no replacement until President McKinley made Theodore Roosevelt his new Vice-President at the next election.  (During this second term, President McKinley  also died while in office).

William McKinley and Garret Hobart

 Hobart is a great example of a "land run" town.  The townsite started the day the Kiowa-Commanche-Apache Land Run opened  on August 6, 1901, when the population went from zero to more than 2,500 people in a single day.  It had the nickname  "Ragtown" for a while since all of these people lived in tents until they could build more permanent housing.

Courtesy: E Taylor

There is an interesting short movie posted by M. Pfenning here:      movie      which shows the beautiful view of the nearby Wichita Mountains and the farmland around Hobart, Oklahoma.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dugout...No Diamond

I think the resourcefulness and ruggedness of the pioneer people that came to Oklahoma Territory is remarkable.   It must have been both frightening and exhilarating for families to pack up what they could and move on to an unknown, undeveloped place in hopes of claiming land and building a life.   Louisa Fair's journal  ( describes a cold, windy day when Michael helps Harvey dig a "dugout" somewhere on the prairie near the towns of Sentinel and Rocky.  This comment made me think about what it must have been like to make  a dugout a home. 

After traveling weeks or months, these pioneers arrived in the Territory by foot, by mule, by horseback, or by wagon.  There was little construction quality wood available on the western plains, so most people relied on alternatives to the wooden house they may have lived in before they came.  Some folks tried living in tents or converting their covered wagons to   instant housing, but  these were subject to frequent damage from wind and weather.   Most people in western Oklahoma chose to build a dugout or half dugout when they were first settling in.  

Look at a Picture of Oklahoma Dugout homes

My father  described his mother's move to Oklahoma Territory:

     "They moved to a farm about eight miles northwest of Cheyenne, Roger Mills County,    
     Oklahoma.  It was a farm consisting of about 160 acres of sandy loam and hilly pasture
     land, about half used for cultivation.  The time was about 1898.  No building supplies were 
     available and it was necessary for the family to live in a half dugout.  This consisted of a roof,
     three walls dug into a hill and a cover in order to conserve materials.  I'm not sure how long 
     they had to live in this crude home until they were able to build a house.  The well water was
     saturated with gypsum and quite foul to drink."

These "homes" were room-sized holes dug into the ground, usually into the side of hill slopes, so that three sides were earth.  The front wall was either wooden or made of sod or adobe "bricks".  Roofs were usually thatch or sod as well, and often had grasses growing on them to keep the soil in place.  Evidently, they were not at all water proof in a good rain.   These "underground" rooms were cool in summer and stayed warm in winter when the stove was heated.  Some tried to decorate or plaster the walls, but insects and vermin could burrow right in.  One account I read describes repeated troubles with snakes in their dugout home.  The floor was usually   "swept "  hardened earth. 

As a "dugout dweller", my grandmother remembered rolling down hills, riding horses, playing hopscotch, marbles and top spinning, and going to pie suppers and square dances in the neighbor's living room.  There is so much more I would like to learn about  her  now...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Border Crossing

I had not yet reached the age of two when my parents decided to leave the town of Sentinel.  I don't know what prompted them to leave.  It was, after all, where my older sister and brother and I were born.  I can only speculate:  perhaps they could sense the declining economy;   perhaps their friends and neighbors were also planning to leave the area at that time;   perhaps my dad had had a business dispute with his partner down at the Rexall store.  I will probably never know the true story.  What I do know is that my folks packed up the car and we set off on a journey out of the state.   We were apparently not alone, since census records now show that Washita County has lost more than 35% of its residents since the 50's.    There are currently only about 11,400 people living in the total of only ten towns remaining in the county.

Looking at a roadmap, we must have first driven east to the tiny community of Rocky.   This town, named by the Kiowa Indians for the rock constructed trading post, known as "Rocky Man Store",  would have been at that time about twice the size of its current population of 174.

Here is a section of a diary written by a woman living on a land claim somewhere between the towns of Sentinel and Rocky in 1901: 

From: Oklahoma Historical Society
The woman, Louisa Fair, describes cold weather, winds and even a sand storm during this week.  She also describes someone building a new home --  a sod "dugout"  -- out on the Oklahoma territory's plain.  These people were clearly what is known as "hardy"!

From the town of Rocky, my folks had a choice in our trek out of Washita County: they could either drive south on US 183 through small towns and farmlands, or they could make their way east through the more scenic Wichita Mountain and Fort Sill area before heading south to our new home in:

 the Lone Star State  !

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Diversion to Space

This really has nothing to do with my blog, but  I thought this was an incredible photo issued by NASA today.  It is a picture of one of the last Space Shuttle flights, Endeavor, docked with the International Space Station.  Who took the picture?

Apparently there were astronauts leaving the station on the Soyuz right after the Shuttle docked.  They were able to take this one of a kind photo on their way home.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Beauty Queen and Auf Wiedesehen!

Since I lived in Oklahoma only about a year - the first year of my life - I've decided it is now time to leave the place behind and move on to my next home.  Before I do, however, I wanted to explore a few more memories.

First, why was I living in the small town Sentinel, Oklahoma in the first place?   Well, my dad was born and raised in a nearby county, Roger Mills, Oklahoma.  He met my mother in Washington D.C., however,  during WWII.  My mom, who was from South Dakota, was working for the F.B.I. in D.C., and my father, who had finished college as a pharmacist, had joined the Navy and was stationed nearby.  In short, they met, fell in love, married and then moved to Oklahoma after the war to start a family.   My dad partnered with an old pharmacy classmate to run a drug store in town.  

This is a picture of him in "downtown" Sentinel at the time:

And, this is picture of my older sister and I somewhere in town: 
(I don't know why they had so many wheels stacked against the wall.) 

Sentinel's Miss America!         

My mother used to tell us that a neighbor, and friend of my sister's, became a Miss America beauty queen.    The story was true!   Our neighbor, Jane Jayroe, was awarded the Miss America title in 1967.  

It appears to me it was a well deserved title.    I think she is very pretty in this picture when she was crowned.

There is, undoubtedly, much more for me to learn about my hometown of Sentinel and rural Washita County.   Maybe someday I will actually visit the community again to further explore its places, people and stories.  

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Oklahoma Octoberfest?

I was surprised to learn that by 1910,  just three years after gaining statehood, almost 37% of Oklahoma's people were  Germans or were Germans from Russia.   In Washita County many Germans settled near the communities of Korn and Bessie, but because of the randomness imposed by the territory's land rushes and lotteries, they did not consolidate into dense ethnic communities as they did in other states.  To maintain a connection with their culture, they built German language churches, German language schools,  German language newspapers (16) and German social clubs.  In addition to the hardy red wheat crops from the old country they also brought the Mennonite religion and their pacifist objections to war and violence.

Then came World War I.   There was an undercurrent of pacifism among many of the immigrants due to their German heritage.  The Mennonite farmers, as conscientious objectors, also strongly objected to the war and rufused to sell their wheat out of fear it would support the war effort.  In response to the National Defense Act of 1916, the state of Oklahoma established the Council of Defense to promote domestic war efforts.  In addition to general patriotic propaganda, they promoted support for the Red Cross and the sale of Liberty Bonds.  The state then established the Oklahoma Loyalty Bureau whose purpose was to identify and imprison those in the state who refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to the government.  Vigilante groups formed and the German settlers who were not openly supporting the war were harrassed.  The state banned spoken German language and the German newspapers were shut down.

The  people of "Korn" thus changed the name of their town to "Corn" to prove loyalty to our nation's war efforts.