February 25, 2018
Faithful readers of this blog will know that my largest focus over the years has been on day hikes and related photography. But I also offer healthy if less popular dollops of technology, some home repairs (which are my most longest-lived popular posts), music, a smattering of school-related politics, and occasional embedded history. The last topic is my focus here, prompted by the rabbit-hole of web-based exploration I fell into this weekend.
My interest in local history is no doubt somewhat influenced by my father’s love of the subject. He was born in Dewey, just north of Bartlesville, but spent his teens up in Independence, Kansas and eventually worked for Cities Service Gas in Oklahoma City for about 30 years, so I was born and raised in OKC. Dad is 93 at this writing, and both he and my mother are avid readers, so I was destined to become one too. I love to buy books for both of my parents, who have never embraced the Kindle e-readers like I have.
Dad loves to read history, and I remember how he created a large timeline going back thousands of years on the back of old gas pipeline blueprints. I also was influenced by the love of history that Edgar Weston, my first cousin once removed, had for the Bartlesville and Dewey area. (I’m no genealogist, so I always have to look up how we were related to get the terminology right. To be specific, Edgar was my paternal grandmother’s brother’s son.)
I still have my old History of Bartlesville and Washington County website running at bartlesvillehistory.org, and one of my popular blog posts was my web research on the old micro-midget racetrack in Bartlesville. The Bartlesville Area History Museum had an exhibit on Bartlesville micro-midget racing program on display from February through June 2018. The museum is open Monday-Friday from 10-4 and admission is free, but donations are appreciated. I’m grateful for their sharing of history and curation of the fabulous Frank Griggs photo collection, so with my enhanced income as a new full-time school administrator I decided to send in this weekend a check to become a Patron in their Friends of the BAHM program.
Rita Thurman Barnes wrote a fun newspaper column for the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise for 16 years. She now writes for Bartlesville Monthly Magazine and has a fun Facebook group, currently called Once Upon a Time in Bartlesville. She shares remembrances and inquiries about things in Bartlesville that once were but are no more. Rita has to enforce some good rules to rein in some of the crankier participants and the nostalgia can get a bit thick, but I enjoy seeing and reading about what came before.
This week some photos of the old Hilltop Drive-In theater off Nowata Road were posted in the group. I had never seen it, although I had long known where it was because it was shown on old USGS maps of Bartlesville, and I knew the Examiner-Enterprise facility built in the 1990s was on the western half of the old drive-in’s lot. I suppose my interest was also perked because just a week earlier I had been sitting in a studio at the E-E, right about where the screen of the drive-in was once located, sharing with the public about Chromebooks. That geophysical connection perked my interest, and a dive down the rabbit hole.
Earlier, in a comment on a post on the old Penn theater, Kyle Baker had shared a link to Cinema Treasures, which documents current and past movie houses. So I used that site to see what the old Hilltop looked like and to learn that the screen tower was a pre-fab wooden construction that was erected in only five days. I’ve seen plenty of nostalgia about drive-ins in various movies over the years, but drive-ins were passé by the time I was driving age.
That could have been the end of that dive into history, but then someone now living out of town posted a photo of an old Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and Foodland grocery with the Hilltop Drive-In visible in the background. They asked if the Ben Franklin/Foodland building was still there. Folks speculated the Foodland was now Tumbleweeds Steakhouse and the Ben Franklin store was now a series of smaller stores, but were not certain if the building was actually the same.
I figured historic aerial photography could provide an answer. So I went web surfing and found a 1971 aerial photo showing the Hilltop Drive-In and the stores to the west. I paid a monthly subscription fee and an added photo fee to an online service to acquire a good shot to share with everyone. (The free aerial photo sources from the government are, as you might expect, quite diverse, somewhat awkward to use, and limited. As always, you get what you pay for in our capitalist society, and I was willing to pony up for a good shot.)
When I compared that to a modern-day aerial shot, I could confirm that the buildings are probably the same. When I moved to Bartlesville in 1989, they were the big and dusty Walls clearance store. Later it was subdivided and the front façade on the north was thoroughly remodeled.
I shared those photos in my comments on the post over on Facebook, and included a street view of the buildings, as they look now, for the out-of-towner.
So a tiny tidbit of local history was explored a bit more. But now I had paid for a month’s access to watermarked 1971 aerial photos, with an added fee to get individual shots I could actually share. No use letting that subscription go to waste, right?
So I looked up the quarter-acre that Meador Manor was built on back in 1981. I wanted to see how the area looked in 1971.
Well, it was a bit of the north end of a field. Wendy and I live in the sixth addition to Arrowhead Acres, and I was surprised to find that the original loop that was the start of the development was already complete by 1971. It was also fun to see how much smaller Tri County Tech, which is just east of Arrowhead Acres, was back then.
Next I targeted the house I lived in back in Oklahoma City from 6th-12th grade. I knew that the Windsor Hills neighborhood had developed in the 1960s on what had been a golf course. The aerial imagery for OKC I could access went back farther than it did for Bartlesville, so I was able to figure out that the house sits on the eastern half of what was once the fairway to the northwesternmost hole of the course.
On down the rabbit hole I went. I searched for golf course references in OKC and figured out that was the Meridian Golf Club, which golf pro Floyd Farley had designed as his first golf course back in 1941. He built the course on land he leased from the Classen Fruit Farm. (You can see the remains of what Dad recalls as a pear orchard on the western edge of the course.) Of the course he said, “Everybody liked it; it was a natural. I hardly moved any dirt to build it, and the bulldozer bill was only $2,000. It was just a natural piece of ground, but everybody liked it so well and thought I was responsible for it that people started hiring me to build them a golf course. So that’s how I got started.”
Farley was drafted into army during World War II. After his discharge he returned to golf, turning from being a golf pro to designing courses full-time. He subleased the Meridian course, which he owned until 1961 and it became the Windsor Hills neighborhood. Floyd Farley passed away in 2005, having designed over 40 golf courses over six decades, with almost 20 of them in the Oklahoma City area.
Hmmm…the Classen Fruit Farm? That led me even farther down this historical rabbit hole. Surely that was a reference to Anton H. Classen, the land speculator who bought up farmland around Oklahoma City in its early days and developed many housing projects, whose name lives on in the form of Classen Boulevard and Northwest Classen High School.
I knew that Classen had built up streetcar lines to help his developments, and that one line had extended from downtown to almost 23rd and Meridian, at the southeast corner of Windsor Hills. I’ve had fun driving the boulevards winding from my old neighborhood to downtown. If you pay attention to the street layout and the wider boulevards and curves, you can follow the streets quite easily along the old streetcar route, even though no visible remains are present.
Oklahoma City is spending a lot of dough to revive a small rail streetcar system downtown. This amuses me, given how there was once a major streetcar system throughout the city, with interurban lines linking it all the way to Guthrie, El Reno, and Norman. What goes around comes around!
I found a neat online map of the old lines on the web with an article on the old streetcar lines.
The streetcar lines were often used by housing developers to offer easy commuting to jobs downtown, with amusement parks planted at the end of some lines to drum up business on weekends. Belle Isle Lake was built in north central OKC by Classen and John Shartel with a powerplant to power the streetcar and interurban system. Eventually an amusement park was built there, but it was long gone before I was born. Maybe some of you have shopped in that area, which is now home to Penn Square Mall and Belle Isle Station.
This particular rabbit hole thus circles back, in my mind, to Bartlesville. A few weeks back a former teacher asked me about the interurban in Bartlesville. I sent her to my Bartlesville history website, where I had briefly noted:
In 1908 the Bartlesville Interurban Railway opened, expanding by 1915 to operate two loops with 10.1 miles of trolley track connecting the zinc smelters with the rest of Bartlesville and Dewey. Stops included Dewey, Tuxedo, National Zinc Co., Bartlesville Zinc Co., Star Smelting Co., and Interurban Park. A round trip cost about 20 cents and took 45 minutes on the north loop, with half-hour service on the south loop. The terminal, brick power house, and car barn were at Fourth and Comanche. The line, like so many others, was wiped out by auto interests and closed in 1920. Visible remains include the angled Interurban Drive in the Tuxedo area of Bartlesville, with the old line route extending across modern-day Robinwood Park and leading to some old bridge pilings on the Caney River nearby.
I also shared with her that Phillips Petroleum was once part of a conspiracy to kill off the old interurbans and bus lines nationwide in order to boost automobiles and thus petroleum sales. Phillips was one of the companies convicted in 1949 of conspiring with General Motors, Goodyear, Firestone, Standard Oil, and Mack Trucks to monopolize bus sales and related products. The fines were minimal, and it is arguable if the various streetcars and interurbans would have survived anyway given that their owners often did not capitalize them sufficiently nor invest enough in their upkeep. Plus the much greater convenience and enthusiasm for the automobile was a major reason only a few old streetcar lines remained intact over the decades, such as the famous cable cars in hilly San Francisco and the old streetcars of New Orleans, including a streetcar line named Desire.
And so we dig our way up out of this hole, re-emerging into present day Bartlesville. I’ll close this ping-pong history exploration with a shot of the old interurban pilings on the Caney River south of the bridge on Frank Phillips Boulevard and the old interurban foundations found near the Pathfinder Parkway.
I hope you enjoyed this dig to explore what came before. Maybe you have some digging of your own that will interest you. When people ask me what era I wish I were living in, I always say TODAY. That maximizes the history there is to explore and, with the world wide web, makes armchair exploration of it incredibly easy and rewarding. Happy digging!