May 1, 2014
The trek along Route 66 travels through the small towns of Oklahoma.
By Bill Langer
Today, we depart Quapaw, Okla., and continue our westbound journey along old Route 66. We drive by several mountainous piles of waste rock (referred to as chat) from the past mining activities; sad reminders of poor mining practices of days past when people did not know any better.
The landscape noticeably changes as we transition from the hilly Ozark Plateau to the Osage Plains of Oklahoma. The plains are relatively flat, but there is enough relief to allow for the occasional road cut, which helps break the monotony.
Along with the change in the landscape comes a change in geology. No longer are the local towns the products of lead zinc mining. Many of the Oklahoma towns west of here were shaped by another natural resource…oil.
Oil was discovered near Chelsea, Okla., in 1889, and that discovery shaped the entire state. During 1901, oil was discovered near Tulsa. Four years later an even larger oil discovery gave Tulsa its title as the “Oil Capital of the World.” In 1928, oil was discovered in Oklahoma City making that city the state’s newest boomtown.
But during the 1930s, Oklahoma was dealt a triple blow. The oil boom was dying down, and the loss of jobs greatly impacted the small towns. The Great Depression dealt a second punch. In previous depressions, farmers could feed themselves, but drought, horrendous dust storms, and failed crops of the Dust Bowl provided the third blow. During the 1930s, approximately 60,000 people, from city and countryside alike, left Oklahoma. Many headed west to California. Their stories were immortalized in John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath.
It is ironic that while farmers left the land, factories shut down, and businesses closed their doors along the Mother Road, there were people producing aggregate for the workers paving the road, and new tourist camps, cafes, and gas stations were opening up all along the improved highway. In Route 66 – The Highway and its People, author Susan Croce Kelly quotes Leon Little, who operated a service station and restaurant on Route 66 in western Oklahoma. “We thought mighty hard about [moving along with others], but we were eating regular, and we had a stoop over our head, and the people that worked for us…were about as well off as we were. We were all living, see?”
We have been dawdling, so we hop on I-44 to Oklahoma City. There we follow to I-40 where we bypass all the small Route 66 towns. As we wiz past those towns, we play a little trivia about famous people from Oklahoma towns along old Route 66. Commerce is the hometown of the legendary baseball player Mickey Mantle. Claremore is the hometown of humorist Will Rogers and singer Patti Page. In Chelsea, Will Rogers discovered Gene Autry. Yukon is home to Garth Brooks. And Erick was home to two Country music performers: Sheb Wooley, who recorded the “one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater,” and Roger Miller, Mr. “King of the Road” himself.
Just before we leave Oklahoma, we exit the interstate and drive through Texola, the westernmost town in the state. Texola is nearly a ghost town, but on its western edge an interesting old bar has a proclamation on the side of its building: “There’s no other place like this place anywhere near this place so this must be the place.”
Perhaps it was.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business.
He can be reached at Bill_Langer@hotmail.com