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Socialism in Oklahoma: The Story of Milton

Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.

Milton post office

Milton post office

Origins of the Town of Milton

Milton, a small town, started out just as any other Oklahoma town. Around 1870, settlers started arriving and cultivating the area. Soon, a small general mercantile store opened that served the needs of the area residents. Or tried to. So frequently was the store out of supplies that the town quickly became known as "Needmore".

The town started to boom around 1885. That year, a second store was added that helped keep the town in the supply of basic items. Just a few years later, in 1901, the Ft. Smith and Western Railroad laid tracks through Milton. Coal had been discovered nearby and mines were opening up, which drove more traffic into town. In addition to the coal mining industry, a thriving logging industry was also established. Within a few years, the small town of Milton quickly became a thriving shipping center.

In 1910, Milton was known as a "nice little town". Several mercantile stores had opened up, along with a gristmill, a cotton gin, and two decent-sized hotels. Churches were being built and the community had organized schools. Located around 11 miles west of Panama, the town was a hive of activity.

Establishment of a Socialist Colony

All of this activity attracted the eye of a Muskogee philanthropist. Dr. S. T. Peet purchased land around the town in 1912 and established "Milton Colony. His ideas revolved around securing the industrial welfare and social well-being of the working class.

According to the colony's incorporation documents, the socialist colony was established to provide a “co-operative industrial colony of actual workers, where each worker could own his own job and participate in the various earnings of the colony.”

The colony consisted of 168 acres, including the town of Milton, as well as another 80 acres. The extra 80 acres would be used solely for farming and agriculture. Along with purchasing the land, Peet also obtained a 25-year mineral lease that included the land where the coal mine and sawmill were located. Peet knew that the success of the colony largely depended on the nearby coal mines and sawmills. In planning, he set a priority on those two industries.

With plans laid, Peet made a few developments to the land before beginning a campaign to draw people in.

A Dream of Prosperity

Peet began advertising the socialist colony of Milton all across the United States. Advertising that included such phrases as "Not much money needed", "Get a home for your family", and "Chance to invest in town property, a farm, a coal mine, a saw mill, and drill for oil in a virgin field" helped draw people in from all over, from the "sophisticated New Yorker's" to a family that "came from Arkansas in a covered wagon drawn by oxen."

These were people from all religions and backgrounds. You could find Christians working alongside Atheists. Some who came had worked in the fields all of their lives, while others ran general stores and shops.

“The only bond the people had was their belief in socialism.”

Saw mill near the mines; part of the Milton Coal Company

Saw mill near the mines; part of the Milton Coal Company

The Promise Unkept

Life in the colony was not quite what was advertised. People worked together well, even calling one another "comrade", but the work was rough and the reward small.

Peet envisioned the Milton Colony as a colony without status or rank. A small number of the new residents built small frame houses but the majority lived in crude tents. Meanwhile, Peet reaped the rewards of their hard labor, having built himself a "mansion" of a home nearby.

In a twist of fate for Peet, he passed shortly after the formation of the Milton Colony. This led to even more chaos as a group of businessmen from Guthrie took over the town. This began the demise of Milton as a socialist colony. At worst, Peet's successors pocketed the profits from the colony. At best, they were simply incompetent at running a colony of this size.

The industries that the town most relied on were almost non-existent. The sawmill rarely functioned as those who were required to run it were untrained and the equipment ill maintained. Those working the coal mine made some progress and generated some profits, however, it was shut down due to poor working conditions. The remaining laborers worked on the farm, but there were problems there as well. Machinery would break down, workers simply wouldn't show up, and fields remained untended.

To make matters worse, residents were paid in company money, or scrip, which could only be used at the company commissary.

The promise of a "chance to invest in town property, a farm, a coal mine, a saw mill, and drill for oil in a virgin field" vanished as conditions continued to degrade. While some were able to leave, others simply didn't have the money to begin again and felt "trapped" in a failed socialist society.

Campaign poster for Eugene V. Debs and Ben Hanford, the Socialist Party's candidates in 1912

Campaign poster for Eugene V. Debs and Ben Hanford, the Socialist Party's candidates in 1912

The Demise of the Socialist Dream in Milton

By the time the first World War began, the town was in steep decline. For most, the war was a frightening thing, but for the citizens of Milton, it was a way out. As war efforts ramped up, this created more jobs nearby. Disillusioned and seeking a better life, the majority of the remaining colonists left for greener pastures.

With the mass exodus, the Milton Colony vanished. By 1916, little trace of the former socialist society existed. The town floundered on until the early 1950s. Today, very little physical evidence of the town's former "glory" still exists.

© 2017 Eric Standridge


Lynn Puhrmann Donaho on July 01, 2020:

My mom was raised at in Rosedale her maiden name was Lovell.

Jessica dill on September 15, 2017:

Who was your mother Donna?

donna on September 14, 2017:

my mother was born in Milton in 1914