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Notes on the Geography of Oklahoma: Norman 2: Before World War II

What was Norman like before Interstate 35 came through?

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The station opened in 1909, some 22 years after the first passenger train came through in 1887. They kept coming until 1979. There was a gap of 20 years before Amtrak began running a daily service from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth. Now, every morning at about nine Amtrak comes through; it returns about nine in the evening. Freight traffic is much denser with a couple of dozen trains daily. Some residents consider them a nuisance. What can you say? There's no accounting for people.

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During the interregnum without passenger service, a chain-link fence ran between the station and the track.

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Who would have thought that in 2015 Norman's track would carry trains of tank cars? Hadn't they gone the way of the dodo? Not quite. These cars were owned and leased by CIT Rail (you can decipher the "roadmark" CBTX by consulting railinc.com), which owns about 100,000 rail cars. The contents of the car are less obvious: crude oil from North Dakota?

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Main Street crossed (and crosses) the tracks perpendicularly a block north of the station, and it was platted with a width of 100 feet. For the next 50 years, commercial development hardly extended more than three blocks either side of the crossing, with the densest development on the east side. The downtown city blocks measured 300-by-400-feet, and they were cut into two ranks of 25-by-140-foot lots, separated by a 20-foot alley. Chicago had taught people to fear fires, and an ordinance dictated that Main Street buildings must have 13-inch masonry walls. The result was a line of massive, elongated, brick cells, logical for a time but a huge impediment to later developers who wanted clear spaces wider than 25 feet.

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An alley view of the same 200 block of East Main. The double-decking was only an office deep.

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The Norman Hotel, in the 100-block of West Main was (and is) one of the few three-story buildings on Main, and it stayed in business at least from 1926 until 1968.

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The cornice atop the now-defunct Carey Lombard Lumber Company was pretty fancy for a small town, but like its peers Norman had its pretensions.

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A block north of Main Street there was a lumber yard belonging to the same company whose initials we saw on that Main Street cornice a few images back. The building now is a foundry, part of a brave effort to make Main Street an arts center.

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What could this have been?

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It was the Long Bell Lumber Company. The name disappeared in 1956, when International Paper bought the company, but Long Bell had been a national operation, founded in Kansas but responsible for Longview, Washington. It survived here in Norman until about 1960; by 1963 the yard was operating as Sayre Builder's Supply. In 1971 the store closed and has been falling apart ever since.

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The office.

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Long Bell wasn't the only national account in town. Here at 212 East Main, F.W. Woolworth was in business by 1926, and the doors stayed open until 1960.

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The logo survives.

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The old Woolworth's building has been blandly renovated but remains empty (2017).

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129 West Main opened in 1942 as a Safeway.  It stayed in business here until 1957, when it moved a few blocks west to a larger site just west of the original townsite. Behind the streetlight there's still the concrete block and the base of the pipe on which the Safeway sign stood.

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Three blocks east of the track, Main Street crosses a road that since the 1920s has carried U.S. 77. A mile north of that intersection, there was a pioneer motel dating from 1947. It was called Norman Courts, later the Norman Park Hotel. It's gone now, but across the street from the site of the motel this old Phillips gas station has somehow survived.

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Most homes were very modest, like this shotgun a few blocks south of Main Street. The University of Oklahoma's Sarkeys Energy Center looms in the background.

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Another shotgun, this one too hugs the railroad track south of Main Street.

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Some homes were a big bigger, though still on the modest side. In this case, from the 1930s, it's the garden that's most striking, for Norman was pretty barren at first. Now an urban forest covers much of the town, and this owner seems to believe that you can't have too much of a good thing. Thanks to trees, the older parts of town are remarkably sheltered from Mr. Hammerstein's Oklahoma wind.

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A more tamed bungalow, one of many in the Craftsman Style, popular in Norman for many years.

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Cottages in the deep woods.

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More traditional bungalows.

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Back in the 1920s, this was the home of the dean of the graduate college. It's only a couple of blocks from the campus, which puts it in the no-go zone for today's deans.

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Other homes of the era: the one in the foreground is from 1930; the one behind, from 1937. Nice, but can you believe a one-car garage?

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A house from the same era (1937). It must have seemed alarmingly modern to the neighbors.

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Street trees planted in the days before air conditioning made them a debatable amenity.

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Not from Carnegie; instead, the public library was funded by a $25,000 bond issue approved in 1928. A 400-member Library Association was previously housed in rented space. The library moved to new quarters in 1966, and this building became a senior-citizen center.

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Keeping an eye on everything, the Cleveland County Courthouse was funded by the PWA in 1938 and put into service with its own jail two years later.


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