September 23, 2018
Bartlesville is the seat of Washington County in northeast Oklahoma. The county is a north-south strip that is only about 10 miles wide and 40 miles long. The smallest county in the state, it lies along the eastern border of Osage County, the state’s largest. Named after George Washington, the county was formed at statehood in 1907 on land that had once been controlled by the Caddo, served as buffalo-hunting grounds for the Osage from 1760-1825, and then was part of the new Cherokee Nation after their forced relocation from Georgia.
The first verified school in the county opened in 1874 at Silver Lake, one of the few natural lakes in Oklahoma, just south of modern-day Bartlesville, back when it was still Indian Territory. These days, the county is dominated by four school districts which serve 8,300 students. So how many one-room schools do you think operated in the county from 1874 through the closing of the last ones by the 1950s?
That was the first of a series of trivia questions I posed earlier this month when I was asked to share some history of the rural schools with the Washington County Retired Educators Association. Their request was prompted by my presentation to them a year earlier on the history of the Bartlesville schools.
School history can be a bit dull, even to an audience of retired educators! So my preparation including hunting for unusual things to highlight. The Bartlesville Area History Museum has a great book called Over a Century of Schools in Washington County: Gone But Not Forgotten. That was extremely helpful, but I also consulted the vertical files in the History Room at the Bartlesville Public Library.
Among the tales I accumulated were:
- In 1912 a district saw its expensive school, which was less than two years old, burn up with the fire department forlornly looking on, unable to spray a drop of water on it.
- The two largest oil tank farms in the world once enabled two county districts to build four rather fine school buildings, only one of which is still standing a century later. One of those districts had a fellow build the first school buses in the state, but they were all horse-drawn.
- A tornado flattened one school in the 1930s while its two teachers and 70 schoolchildren sheltered in a ditch across the road.
That spiced things up, and I threw in additional trivia questions designed to confound my audience. If I have successfully whetted your appetite, dig in with my Google Slides presentation:
You can find much more information on Washington County at my long-standing history site of BartlesvilleHistory.org.