Oklahoma History: April 2007 Archives

I learned some things I never knew about the causes of the great dust storms of the 1930s in George Will's latest column, a review of a recent book about the Dust Bowl:

Who knew that when the Turks closed the Dardanelles during World War I, it would contribute to stripping the topsoil off vast portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas? The closing cut Europe off from Russian grain. That increased demand for U.S. wheat. When America entered the conflict, Washington exhorted farmers to produce even more wheat, and guaranteed a price of $2 a bushel, more than double the 1910 price. A wheat bubble was born. It would burst with calamitous consequences recounted in Timothy Egan's astonishing and moving book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

After the war, the price plunged and farmers, increasingly equipped with tractors, responded by breaking up more prairie, plowing under ever more grassland in desperate attempts to compensate for falling wheat prices with increased volume. That, however, put additional downward pressure on the price, which was 40 cents a bushel by 1930.

The late 1920s had been wet years, and people assumed that the climate had changed permanently for the better. In that decade, another 5.2 million acres -- equivalent, Egan says, to the size of two Yellowstone Parks -- were added to the 20 million acres previously in cultivation. Before the rains stopped, 50,000 acres a day were being stripped of grasses that held the soil when the winds came sweeping down the plain.

In 1931, the national harvest was 250 million bushels, perhaps the greatest agricultural accomplishment in history. But Egan notes that it was accomplished by removing prairie grass, "a web of perennial species evolved over 20,000 years or more.'' Americans were about to see how an inch of topsoil produced over millennia could be blown away in an hour.

The article goes on to describe several of the great storms that occurred over the next five years: "Storms in March and April 1935 dumped 4.7 tons of dust per acre on western Kansas, denting the tops of cars." If that weren't bad enough, the storms brought clouds of ravenous grasshoppers in their wake.

We've read about government-induced or -abetted environmental disasters in places like the Soviet Union (see Aral Sea), but they've happened here too (see Mono Lake). Looks like the Dust Bowl is another example of a catastrophic unintended consequence of a well-intentioned government program.

Voting on Oklahoma's state quarter begins tomorrow. There are five finalists, which aren't yet displayed on the voting page, but you can see them here, cleaned up for coin production by the U. S. Mint. Voting ends at 5 p.m. on April 27. The coins will come out in early 2008. (Hat tip to recyclemichael for the link.)

I'm leaning toward the scissor-tailed flycatcher and Indian blanket, although the simplest of the pioneer woman designs (with the bigger state outline and calumet) isn't bad. What do you think?

MORE: Mike at Okiedoke has the vote totals from the first round and the recommendations of the experts.

RELATED: The QuarterDesigns.com website has the selected designs for each state and those early concepts that were passed over. If you wonder what designs Montanans rejected in order to pick a bison's skull (subliminal message: Californians, this is a dry, desert state where you will die of thirst -- please stop moving here), you can find out here.

Arizona's page has quite a few tongue-in-cheek proposals which were submitted to the Arizona Daily Star, including a bulldozer knocking over a saguaro, a border scene, and an assessment of the state's progress since statehood. The one with the Mission of San Xavier del Bac is actually quite nice, albeit astronomically impossible.

I like the simpler designs the best. My favorite is Texas (the quarter that looks most like the currency of a sovereign nation), followed by Rhode Island and West Virginia. The least attractive quarters resulted from states trying to cram an entire tourism brochure onto the coin.

Bronwyn at WFMU's Beware of the Blog loves the Montana quarter:

Here’s the new state motto: “Montana! Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!” The best thing is that you can put the Wisconsin quarter (2004) next to the Montana quarter, and it’s like a little before-and-after demonstration. Here’s Bossy, all fat and happy and emitting buckets of delicious milk in Wisconsin, and then she moves to Montana: Uh-oh!

In memory of Max Meyer and the natural stone tourist court he built on Route 66 north of Kellyville, an excerpt from Preposterous Papa by Lewis Meyer (pp. 99 - 102, 132-135):

Papa was a compulsive builder. he went on building binges the way an alcoholic goes on drinking sprees. When the urge to construct came over him he was powerless to resist. Appeals to reason were useless. The shortage of money didn't deter him. Nor did the nonessential nature of what he planned to build. When the building bee bit him he got a look in his eye, a tenseness in his body. He was a slave to this uncontrollable habit....

After the Big House and the original barn, Papa conceived the lake and the bathhouse and the silos. Then he dug a deep water well and installed a vast underground network of pipes wihch brought running water to most of the houses and buildings on the ranch. When the water didn't run, it walked. Often it stopped entirely when the electric pump broke down.

After the silos, Papa dreamed up the chicken houses (which covered half an acre) and the Dance Pavilion and the tourist camp. Then came service station No. 1 (with a two-story house attached) and the tavern (with a five-room apartment in the rear) and service station No. 2.

These were his major works, his symphonies. In between them, Papa kept himself tuned up by building houses. Along WPA Row, he built six tenant houses, each with a wood-burning fireplace and a native stone outhouse. (This row of houses got its name during Depression days when Papa had his own private WPA setup, inspired by and fashioned after the government's relief program.)...

Just as a musician has his favorite motif so did Papa have his. It was building with rock. Only he didn't call it "rock"; he called it "natural stone." All of his creations, beginning with the huge, two-story Big House and ending with the wall around the lake, were built with the rocks which were so abundant on the ranch. Papa often pointed to the hill across the highway and said, "There's enough natural stone there to build a dozen cities!" (He, of course, would be the builder of them all.) He had his own rock quarry where the stones were shaped, trimmed, and cut to size. Some of his walls were made from dark, moss-covered, unchiseled stone; others were faced with quarried rock of a light sandstone color. Papa called natural stone the perfect building medium. It never had to be painted and it stood the years perfectly....

A few yards from the Dance Pavilion, situated on a quiet little dirt road leading to the highway, was Papa's tourist court. Built long before the word "motel" was coined, these cottages of Papa's caught the eye of the tourist. Ernie Cooper had built them from his loveliest quarried sandstone. Their gabled roofs were covered with bright green shingles. Each cabin contained two bedrooms, a kitchenette, a bath, and a back porch. True, the bath wasn't tiled, the kitchenette wasn't equipped, and the beds sagged. Still, Papa could proudly proclaim (and he did): "There's not another tourist court in the whole U.S.A. with a wood-burnin' fireplace in every unit!"

The tourist court surprised everybody, including Papa, by turning out to be a good investment. During World War II all six houses were rented by the month to workers of the Douglas plant in Tulsa. Papa preferred "family people" to overnight trade. He lacked the temperament of an innkeeper. He worried too much about people's morals, motives, and emotions. "I can't stop thinkin' about what's goin' on in each one of 'em," he admitted.

The tourist court was not rented during one of my summer vacations from college. I wante dto run it to make some money. My brother was defying the Depression with his operation of the tavern on a snob basis. Up and down the road in both directions he placed signs saying: Welcome Harvard, Welcome Yale, Welcome Dartmouth, and Welcome Princeton. He figured that if anyone in America had any money left to spend, it would be an alumnus of one of these Eastern schools who was driving through Oklahoma. He was right. Ivy Leaguers saw the signs and stopped for food. He even extended his sign campaign to include Welcome Williams, Welcome Notre Dame, and Welcome Big Ten.

The snob approach worked in the tavern, but it wouldn't work in the tourist court. You couldn't expect a snob to pay his money to sleep on one of those dreadful mattresses. So I decided to charge bargain rates and settle for the common people.

Papa was opposed to my running the tourist court. He tried every way he could to discourage me.

"I know the score, Papa," I assured him. "I'm in college, remember?"

Papa wasn't sold on the idea yet. "I know you can do it, Sonny, but I ain't so sure I want you to do it. U'see, many people who want to stay in the tourist cour aren't really tourists. I mean -- well, you've gotta take the bitter with the sweet, and --" He could see that being delicate was getting him nowhere. He decided to lay the cards on the table.

"Pull up a chair and sit down!"

I pulled up a chair and sat down.

"Now, Son, I'm gonna let you run the tourist court this summer because your brother has the tavern and you can use some money, too. But somebody's gotta tell you what you have to know, so it might as well be your old Dad. Rule One: Always have plenty of hot water."

"But Papa! When it's a hundred degrees outside, a person doesn't --"

"In college, huh? Do as I say. Always have hot water. You'll lose half your customers if you don't have it."

Now that he was launched, Papa threw himself wholeheartedly into his indoctrination course. "Rule Two: Some people get tired drivin' and want to rent a cabin for maybe just an hour or two to get a little rest. Don't look at 'em like you don't believe 'em. Keep still and mind your own business."

"Rule Three: Some of the people who look the tiredest from drivin' will have license plates from our own county. If they pay in advance, you've gotta believe 'em when they say they're tired!

"Rule Four: When ten couples in a row register as 'Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,' don't make any wisecracks. It's a very common name.

"Rule Five: Nobody ever got into trouble by keepin' his mouth shut."

He took a deep breath.

"Sonny boy, it's a degradin' kind abusiness. Bein' exposed to it can make you tough if you're not strong. But I know my son! You're gonna see what's wrong and you're gonna know what's right and you're not gonna let the wrong kinda people influence your life!"

That was as close as Papa ever came to telling me the Facts of Life. I soon found that with a tourist court I didn't need any further instruction.

With the cabins gone, I wonder if anything remains of Max Meyer's natural stone empire. Are there any photos of the ranch in all its glory? (This link will show you a Google satellite image centered on the site of the cabins.)

First, Doug Loudenback has a story and lots of vintage photos about a place that's been gone a quarter of a century: Springlake Amusement Park in Oklahoma City, which had its origins as a spring-fed swimming lake in 1918. In addition to a big wooden roller coaster and other rides, there was a swimming pool and a ballroom.

A sad and recent loss: Ron of Route 66 News reports the demolition of a local literary landmark, the native stone tourist cabins north of Kellyville, just southwest of the OK 33 junction. The cabins were built by Max Meyer and described in his son Lewis Meyer's bestselling and hilarious bio of Max, Preposterous Papa. I'll try to post an excerpt from the book later tonight.

(Here's a link to a different excerpt, about the time that some of Max's friends came to ask him to join the Klan.)

UPDATE: Please read Doug Loudenback's update in the comments. He makes some worthy points about the way a newspaper owner's business interests and personal animosities may affect the paper's coverage of a story, as it appears to have done in the Oklahoman's coverage of racial strife at Springlake Park. (Also, he mentions that he has some more photos up in his Springlake story.)

Also, on the way back from OKC on Wednesday, I drove past the old Max Meyer spread. There is one other natural stone building still standing -- part of the dairy barn? -- as well as two of his three impractically tall silos. But there were backhoes and other heavy equipment busy in the vicinity, and I expect that they will fall as well. The other natural stone building is on the south side of a metal building back from the road. You probably wouldn't notice it if you're headed westbound on 66; I spotted it (for the first time ever) driving eastbound.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Oklahoma History category from April 2007.

Oklahoma History: March 2007 is the previous archive.

Oklahoma History: August 2007 is the next archive.

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