A Wonderful Place To Live


When I drove through Shidler, Oklahoma (population today 650), while preparing “Lost Horizon” for last April’s travel issue, I had not gone to see the people; I wanted to see the seven-foot bluestem grass, whose growth in the summer of 1987 was more spectacular than it had been in thirty years. Shidler lies on the scenic side of a massive tract that has been proposed as a prairie preserve, and that was, accordingly, what had brought me there. Still, I wrote, “Shidler is a town that lives on oil, a town that seemed in the Sunday heat to be dying, drying up.” And later: “It is a town where the children will go elsewhere to have their children.” Then I drove on to Tulsa. I was through with Shidler.


Shortly after the article was published, I received a phone call at my university office. Busy reading papers, I assumed, as I scribbled a marginal note identifying a dangling participle and explaining why it was not a good idea to include one in a literature paper, that the woman speaking to me with an English accent was calling from another office on campus. But my caller patiently repeated herself; this British voice was, in fact, speaking on behalf of the Shidler, Oklahoma, Chamber of Commerce and was telling me that its members had read my article.

“You said Shidler was dying,” she said.

“I could be wrong,” I said. I had been warned about writing anything about anybody’s town.

Mollie Bivin, the owner of the English accent, is not a person easily deflected. She told me clearly and crisply that Shidler was not so easily left behind. When the article appeared, Joe and Carol Conner—both Ph.D.'s and both psychologists—had brought it to the Chamber meeting and read it aloud. The Chamber, rather than draft a letter of protest to a presumptuous writer living a state and a half away, spent the evening discussing its hopes for Shidler’s future. There was the predictable talk of attracting new businesses, of town beautification, of new recreation facilities, but mostly the Chamber members—individually and corporately—expressed their commitment to one another and to their community. They decided, before adjourning, to invite the rest of Shidler—even friends and former residents—into the conversation and for that purpose created the “Shidler’s Bright Future Contest.” The competition offered prizes in all age categories, from primary school to adult, to “everyone with a vision for the future of Shidler,” with participants to submit their ideas, complete with “written plans and drawings, pictures, or 3-dimensional models.” Mollie Bivin was calling to invite me to help with the judging and to stay for the fish fry and the award ceremonies. I accepted.

There is no motel in Shidler; I stayed with Ray and Mollie Bivin in a home that was part of the idiosyncrasy I had not seen on my previous visit, a house surrounded by six acres of flower beds, some lined with rocks Ray had shipped back from Ecuador (he handles foreign marketing of oil fields and pipeline equipment for Willbros Inc.), and backed by four aviaries containing peacocks and pheasants.

Friday evening, before Saturday’s judging and fish fry, the Bivins’ dining area was a fair representation of the unexpected complexity that is Shidler. First came Gene Morahan, Shidler’s mayor and also its banker, who dropped by to say hello before leaving town for the weekend. He endured the small-town jokes about bankers and mayors, confirming the grain of truth in these assertions by the good-natured way he let it all roll by him, offering no response beyond the weary shrug of one burdened with responsibility. Then came the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Rick Hammer, owner of the convenience store. He told, shyly at first and then excitedly, about his grandfather, who had, during the oil boom, started a store in the middle of an empty field.

Others followed until a dozen or more of us gathered around the table. When the 1988 Citizen of the Year, W. G. Ward, ninety-two, arrived, perfectly groomed and immaculately dressed—having driven his own car—the men sat up straighter, women stubbed out their cigarettes, and the offer of drinks made only moments before was promptly forgotten. Mr. Ward had served as school principal for even the oldest of those present, having come to Shidler in 1928 to oversee the education of its young for the next thirty-eight years. Even now Mr. Ward remains the town principal in matters of rectitude and behavior. He sat ramrod straight and gave a history of school consolidation, of the disappearance of the old wing schools and the high schools in surrounding towns; but he also spoke of the numbers and the enthusiasm of alumni who come back every fall for homecoming.

Later, after Mr. Ward had gone home and the liquor had come out of hiding, others picked up the storytelling, told about Mr. Ward, about their parents, and about their own childhoods. Joe Rash, owner of the television and appliance store where the contest entries were on display, recalled life at the old drilling locations—now ghost towns—and of his boyhood job, putting out grass fires the train started as it went through town. Paul Jones, a large, quiet man, spoke of growing up in the forties ashamed of his German heritage. Joe Conner, son of an Osage father and a white mother, told of the suspicion among Indians in the years following establishment of the roll for tribal rights and profit sharing that white women married Osage men for their wealth and poisoned them, of how his father used to annoy his mother by smelling the food before eating, checking it for foreign substances.