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A Fascinating Glimpse Into Okmulgee, Oklahoma's History During the Great Depression: 1920–1929

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Street view of downtown Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Street view of downtown Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Okmulgee History: The Roaring '20s and a Slow Decline

The Roaring '20s hit Okmulgee much like it did in the rest of the country. Radio programs were popular, as television hadn't been invented yet. People sat around and listened to popular shows or music from great jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Towards the middle of the '20s, vaudeville theaters were slowly being replaced by movie theaters. It was a time of great prosperity. Many of Okmulgee's great architectural buildings were erected at this time, and most remain standing to this day.

The oil business had grown substantially as the fields continued to produce and new oil sands were discovered. Okmulgee was crowded with oilmen and geologists. Townspeople could always spot the geologists by their high-laced boots. Airplanes were being used for aerial reconnaissance to speed up the process of hunting for oil. Billy Burke and Fred Roberts were partners in the first airplane in Okmulgee; it was stored on the old Morris highway.

Okmulgee's days as a great, booming city were numbered. The great stock market crash of 1929 marked a turning point in Okmulgee's history. Many of the wealthy and powerful were reduced to poverty, and Okmulgee entered into a period of decline that lasted many years afterward.

The Hotel Okmulgee

The Hotel Okmulgee

Above: The Chrysler 6.  Below: Found in the Pittsburgh Press, June 4, 1925.  Compare the cost of purchasing a new car in 1925 with what it costs today.

Above: The Chrysler 6. Below: Found in the Pittsburgh Press, June 4, 1925. Compare the cost of purchasing a new car in 1925 with what it costs today.

Okmulgee Timeline: 1921–1929

March 8, 1921: Publication of two Okmulgee newspapers, The Times, a morning paper, and The Democrat, the evening paper, was suspended because of a strike by printers of their respective plants. It was over the failure of union officials and their owners to reach an agreement on new contracts for a wage scale for the year.

1921: Okmulgee's New Hotel Okmulgee, Oklahoma—a million-dollar hotel, planned and financed by the Chamber of Commerce, was under construction in Okmulgee and was planned for occupancy early in 1921. This was said to be the first hostelry of its class to be built in the state. The Hotel Okmulgee, as it is called, is eight stories high, occupies one-half a city block, and is constructed of brick and terra-cotta. There are 234 guest rooms, a ballroom, three large dining rooms, several private dining rooms, and a large lobby. The hotel contains every modern convenience, including servitors in the kitchen.

The money with which to build the hotel was raised by the Chamber of Commerce in a two-day drive in which the businessmen, oil and coal producers, and manufacturers of the city subscribed to $250,000 worth of the stock of the Creek Hotel Company organized to handle the project. The purchasers gave promissory notes payable in one year for the amounts of their subscriptions. These notes were deposited in the local banks, by which they are collected as they mature.

The Creek Hotel Company was able to borrow on them the balance required to complete the construction of the building, the entire cost of which, exclusive of the furnishings, was estimated to be about $600,000. When completed, the hotel was leased to the Oklahoma Hotel Company, which furnished, equipped and operated it. A contract was made with this company to furnish each guest room at a cost of not less than $1,200. The completed hotel will represent a total expenditure of about $1,000,000.

1922: Okmulgee Elks Lodge formed. It sat on a 7-acre site that was originally the Wilson Mansion.

June 26, 1923: State troops took charge of Okmulgee county tomorrow morning under the command of Brig. Gen. Alva Niles of Tulsa. Six National Guard units were ordered out for duty in the county, two of them Okmulgee companies.

Missouri-Kansas-Texas Seeks Purchase of Okmulgee coal road.

May 7, 1929: SALO WINS 60-MILE LAP.; Leads Foot Racers From Okmulgee to Holdenville, Oklahoma.

The Okmulgee Library - late 20's, early 30's.

The Okmulgee Library - late 20's, early 30's.

Okmulgee Newsstand 1928.

Okmulgee Newsstand 1928.

Stories of Okmulgee 1923–1926

Now let's see and read some actual dispatches from the time.

Make Council House Museum for Indian Relics at Okmulgee

May 4, 1923

A museum, which will be assembled a valuable collection of Indian relics, will be established here, according to plans of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Famous old Council House of the Creek Nation, which formerly was the scene of pow-wows between chiefs of the various tribes, is to be made fireproof and be made into the home for the museum. It is planned.

After the building is thoroughly remodeled, an effort will be made to bring under the one roof many private collections of invaluable Indian relics.

Included in these private collections are the collection of Quanah Parker Bonnets and costumes that have several times been refused by the Smithsonian Institute at Washington, the collection of former Congresswoman Alice Robertson, and the collection of Alex Posey.

Okmulgee, Capital of Oklahoma?

Judge A. L. Beckett, a pioneer of Indian Territory days, was an authority on Creek Indian affairs with emphasis on the political angles. He wrote an article that was published in the Times-Democrat on September 26, 1926. It called attention to a little known or little remembered stage of development of the Indian country politically.

Judge Beckett, former Okmulgeean, was the first county judge of Haskell County after statehood. He later practiced law in Oklahoma City after he had served as secretary of the state school land commission under Gov. W.H. (Alfaalfa Bill) Murray, whose gubernatorial campaign he launched with a constitutional convention reunion in Okmulgee.

There were two namesakes for Judge Beckett. His grandson, Walter Beckett "Becky" Steph grew up in Okmulgee and is now an insurance agent in Oklahoma City. Walter's grandson, who would be the judge's great-great-grandson, is Jeffrey Beckett Humphrey, son of Judge Charles M. and Nancy (Steph) Humphrey of Okmulgee.

The following begins the article written by the judge:

"It is surprising how many Okmulgee people have forgotten, or never have known, that for seven years, beginning December 20, 1870, Okmulgee was the seat of government of all the state of Oklahoma except Beaver, Texas, and Cimarron counties, and that but for the unexplainable indifference of congress out the city would, in all human probability, now have been the capital of Oklahoma.

"Little things done or left undone have decided the fate of more than one city in Oklahoma. Had Wagoner only visioned the importance of the work to be done by the Dawes Commission at the time of its creation and made provision for quarters in which the commission might transact its business, Muskogee would not have been the center of Indian activities and departmental business and one of the dominant towns on the east side. Wagoner then was the larger of the two. It had two railroads and every apparent advantage.

"However, Wagoner would not provide a suitable place in which the commission might do its work, Muskogee grasped the opportunity and the result is known to all."

Okmulgee Street Cars

On April 12th, after a long political battle, beginning with the first submission in 1907, the Okmulgee streetcar began running. The cars between downtown ran and the Frisco depot. On July 4th, the cars carried over 4000 passengers, at a nickel a ride—to Lambert's amusement park (Lake Park) at the south end of Ohio Street.

An Okmulgee Streetcar traveling down Morton.

An Okmulgee Streetcar traveling down Morton.

The complete route that the Okmulgee Street cars ran daily.

The complete route that the Okmulgee Street cars ran daily.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Eric Standridge


Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on January 03, 2020:

The only one that I can recall was the Creek Orphanage that was just outside of Okmulgee. While it was not specifically all black, it had a mix of native and black. You might reach out to the Okmulgee Historical Society or the Genealogical Society. There is also an excellent book titled "A History of Black Public Education in Oklahoma" that has some information as well. Good luck with your search - if you find anything, please let us know!

Kim Smith on January 03, 2020:

I have been trying to find the name of the old nunnery orphanage school that housef black children after the war in the late 1800s early 1900s and it was later turned into a school, it was out by Wildcat Junction Grayson area, do you have any information on that place ?!!

Urbane Chaos on December 03, 2014:

Brian, great information!! I didn't know they were there that early! There are some old Sanborn maps from the early days and I would bet that one of those would show the original location of Okmulgee's Elks lodge. It would be interesting to find out!

Brian Sibert on December 03, 2014:

If I may add a correction. You show 1922 as the Elks formed and is now located at the Wilson Mansion. As a member of the Elks, I would like to correct some of this. The original Elks lodge of Okmulgee formed in 1908 and was number 1139. We do not have a lot of history on where they were located in town, and only a few of their members names. We know they lost their original charter in 1940. In 1950 a group of their former members were successful in gaining a new charter, now number 1822. One of the charter members is Dick Bailey. The Elks purchased the Wilson Mansion and property and moved there in 1962. Prior to that, Lodge 1822 was located on the 2nd floor of the Cloon Bldg at 5th and Grand.

We have had a few visits from Wilson's relatives, who have given us a lot of insight into the house and grounds.

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on December 19, 2010:

My kind of Hub - thanks.

RunAbstract from USA on June 20, 2010:

Interesting historical tidbit!