New-Old `Wpa Guide' Freezes Oklahoma of 1930s / History, Legends, Folklore of Cities, Towns Collected in Tours of Old Highways

Article excerpt

Drive seven-and-a-half miles north of Int. Hwy. 40 on Dwight Mission Rd., near a town called Marble City, and you will find an old log cabin on what looks like a small college campus.

It's the old Dwight Presbyterian Mission, started in 1829 by Rev. Cephas Washburn, and it's now used as a conference center. The log cabin is a small museum with one of the first printing presses in Oklahoma.

In South Coffeyville, on U.S. 169, bootleggers used to move liquor out the back door and a few yards across the Kansas line when they saw U.S. marshals coming. Out in the Panhandle, near U.S. Hwy. 64, you can find a burial ground of dinosaurs and a prehistoric irrigation canal.

Mulhall, on U.S. 77, was named for Uncle Zack Mulhall, a showman who came to Oklahoma in 1889 as a livestock agent for the Santa Fe Railway. Out of Mulhall's rodeo came his own daughter Lucille, who started as the world's first "cowgirl," and another fellow.

You guessed him: Will Rogers.

These are just samples of an immense collection of history, legend and folklore of Oklahoma towns and cities in what must be called a new-old book, "The WPA Guide to 1930s Oklahoma," published by the University Press of Kansas. It has a new introduction by Anne Hodges Morgan, president of the Robert S. and Grayce B. Kerr Foundation Inc.

The tales and descriptions are included in a series of 16 tours, primarily across the U.S. Highways as they were in the 1930s, before the interstate highway system was planned, much less built.

It is Oklahoma frozen in time more than four decades ago.

Most of the book was first published in 1941 as part of the American Guide series. It was produced as a Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal project to combat unemployement. The title was "Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State."

It has been reproduced with a restored essay by Angie Debo on the history of Oklahoma, which was supposed to be part of the first publication. It was Morgan's idea to acquire that essay for the book.

Despite the major changes in Oklahoma since 1941, with people moving to the cities and some towns even disappearing, The WPA Guide remains a significant guide to those who want to rediscover Oklahoma. It is ideal for leaving the interstates and wondering down the old highways and roads to understand the flavor and culture of towns, hamlets and historic sites.

"This is a book about the tone and character and sense of place," said Hodges in her introduction. "It spoke initially to a generation who had grown up on the land, who treasured it, and who had ideas about man's relationship to the earth."

In addition to the 16 guides and Debo's history, it includes chapters and photos on general subjects, such as the cities, industry, labor, agriculture, recreation, education, literature, architecture, music and even folklore of Oklahoma as it was in 1941.

The folklore chapter is delightful, with a description of tall tale-telling as country diversion - a method of "codding" a naive younster or newcomer.

My favorite is about a "crowbar hole" used to test wind velocity. If a crowbar was thrust through the hole to the outside and it bent, it was safe to go out. If the bar was broken, it was better tostay inside.

The 1941 description of Oklahoma City would jog some memories.

It includes "two of the nation's finest hotels (the Skirvin and the Huckins or Biltmore?), a fabulously rich oil field with drill-rigs reaching up out of the back yards of many fine homes, scores of parks and parkways, an excellent medical school, a splendid new Civic Center, packing, manufacturing and wholesale districts..."

It also includes "wide ares of homes that, whatever their pretentiousness, are as Oklahoman as the rows of native elms that shade the streets."

However, it's the 16 tours of the state that really comprise the heart of the WPA Guide. …