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Notes on the Geography of Oklahoma: Oklahoma's Small Towns

Many and maybe most of Oklahoma's small towns are in desperately poor shape. In some cases, the residents aren't as poor as their town suggests, mainly because they work and shop an hour's drive away. Still, the places they call home are probably in terminal decline.

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All told, Oklahoma has about 3.8 million people (2012). It surpassed 3 million in 1980, so growth has been slow. Very slow, you might say, because as early as 1910 the state had 1.8 million. That's a century to double. In that same period, Texas has sextupled--er, grown by 600 percent. (Mustn't offend anybody.) About 1.3 million live in greater Oklahoma City, and Metro Tulsa adds almost another million, which leaves about 1.5 million Oklahomans scattered in smaller places over a state of 70,000 square miles. (That's bigger than Java or Luzon or, for that matter, Bangladesh.) Here's a main-street building in Tecumseh, population 6,500 (Pottawatomie County). An opera house? Says something about the aspirations of the state's founders--and of how property owners can scramble to find alternative uses for buildings that might otherwise be abandoned.

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Here's a sign that's going to wind up on "Antiques Roadshow" one of these days. It's overkill here in Coyle, population 300 (Logan County), north of Oklahoma City.

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Proximity to an Interstate is good; remoteness from one is bad.  Here's proof: a domino parlor in Ringling (Jefferson County), on the Texas border. Population 1,000.

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Ringling's broad and deserted main street, on a hot August afternoon.

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Two counties west of Ringling is a major agricultural county: Tillman County, population 8,000 and falling. Here's a building on the main street of the county seat, Frederick. The swinging doors are a nice reminder of the cotton crop once so important here. Farming doesn't take many people nowadays.

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Not a lot of demand (Frederick).

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North a bit: an abandoned hotel in Comanche, population 1,600. The town is southeast of Lawton on U.S. 81, a major north-south arterial before Interstate 35.

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Not far from the same abandoned hotel.

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The main residential avenue of Waurika (Jefferson County), population 2,000. The Union Pacific Railway comes through, and this avenue runs perpendicular to the track, but there's no passenger service, and folks shop at the Wal-Mart in Ardmore, population 25,000 and one county to the east, over on Interstate 35.

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Another oversized street, this one farther north in Medford (Grant County). This is prime wheat country, just south of Kansas, but there are only a thousand people in this county seat--and only 4,500 in the whole county.

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Mainstreet Waukomis, population 1,300. The town is only a few miles south of Enid (Garfield County), which puts it close to the center of this country's winter-wheat area. Big deal: being a contender in primary production doesn't do much to build population.

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West of Enid a few miles: Ringwood, population 400.

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Cleo Springs, (Major County) west of Enid.  The town has 330 people. Nice name, though.

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A century of hard knocks doesn't seem to have done much to dent the local faith in growth, perhaps because a few of these towns actually are still growing. Geronimo, population 1,200, had only 103 people in 1960. It's close to Lawton, however, and to Fort Sill with its retirees.

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West of Oklahoma City, U.S. 66 and Interstate 40 run through Weatherford, population 11,000. Thanks to the highway and Southwest Oklahoma State University, the town is hanging on, even if bank buildings become second-hand clothing stores.

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The main street of Clinton, 20 miles farther west along the interstate.

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The once-upon-a-time center of Clinton, population 9,300. The action has shifted toward the freeway.

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Clinton used to have a big old hotel, closed for many years. In 2000, it was brought down.

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The last wall.

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The Katy Station in Elk City. It became a steakhouse, mighty convenient if you were hungry between Amarillo and Oklahoma City. That failed, however, though other people have tried their hand.

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It wasn't always the Katy. It started out as the Wichita Falls and Northwest Railway.

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Nearby: downtown Butler, population 320. Butler was settled during the great land runs of a century ago. A lot of the folks who settled here at that time moved on after a few years; it was tough then, as now, to make a living here.

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Still farther west: Erick, last stop in Oklahoma. This is the main intersection in town.

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Close-up of the First Natnl Bank.

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Down the street a block: an antique store in the old butcher shop.

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Before you know it, you're in Shamrock, Texas. Too good to miss.

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It's the U Drop Inn Cafe, part of the Tower Building, built in 1936 by a businessman from nearby Pampa.

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Nice '48 Plymouth--or was that just my imagination?

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Back in Oklahoma and old U.S. 66.  Ready for the movie?


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