A Wonderful Place To Live

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The talk went on until 3:00 A.M., personal anecdotes giving way to talk of the troubled Osage prairie project with all its complicated financial and cultural implications. There was a growing resignation, a sense that the tallgrass park will never be realized, its defeat the result of local suspicion, held by white and red alike, of the federal government as well as a general contempt for the idea that anyone will come just to watch grass grow.

There were not as many entries in the “Shidler’s Bright Future Contest” as the sponsors had hoped. Still, Carol Conner’s presentation at the school had brought several thoughtful offerings from children, nearly all proposing a mixture of recreational facilities for the young and residential institutions for the old. “Youth is the answer to repopulation,” one contestant wrote. “If you let youth move into bigger cities, you won’t have hardly anyone left.” Another young entrant wrote: “Shidler needs a nursing home. People who were born in Shidler would like to die in Shidler.”

For some the bright future required an airport or rail center—a sharp contrast with Shidler’s abandoned depot, the surrounding miles of old right-of-way stripped of rails and ties, and the pasture with a wind sock that now serves as the airport. Above one such transportation layout, a contestant had written: “This is what I would like Shidler to have. We could travel. Send out oil and cattle. This would bring new jobs and people to our town.”

 

A junior high student had written a detailed “Citizen’s Guide to a Better Town,” offering a list of challenges for property improvement and civic activities and concluding with the appeal "I love Shidler and I would rather live here than anywhere else. It’s a nice and wonderful place to live and I want everyone to feel the same way.”

The most elaborate and sophisticated entry—the eventual grand-prize winner—was a precisely developed plan to “enhance, beautify, and preserve [Shidler’s] identity” as a “Gateway to the Prairie.” Based on hope for the eventual success of a National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and excitement over the special beauty of a prairie landscape, this proposal emphasized Shidler’s heritage both as a ranching center and as part of the oil boom, making its location—the spaces that so many of the young dreamers would like to fill with shopping malls—a unique advantage. It argued for a bed-and-breakfast lodge to serve traveling prairie enthusiasts and for a restoration of the empty Main Street stores so that they might be used for historical displays, including an exhibit of vintage automobiles in the town’s abandoned car dealership.

Saturday afternoon, after the judging—a responsibility I shared with Louise Abercrombie, a reporter from the Ponca City newspaper, and Larry Ferguson, the local representative in the Oklahoma legislature—Rick Hammer drove Joe Rash, Larry, and me through the surrounding countryside. Joe served as historian as we bounced past the foundations of long-missing buildings, past sidewalks that ended at no place in particular; an oil location named Carter 9, which once was home to the workers at the now-abandoned Skelly plant; Whizbang, a tough roustabout town in boom days, now nothing but a few scrub trees and mysterious concrete foundations; the remains of Let, the town where during World War II the country’s largest oil production plant was located and where now only a modest Phillips office testifies to past grandeur; Webb City, where there was once a school building identical to the one over which Mr. Ward presided, but now a pile of rubble, and a town most notable these days for a rodeo act in which dogs, unassisted by humans, herd cattle onto trucks; Foraker, which boasts of being the prairie chicken capital, the hometown of Patti Page, and the town nearest the ranch where the cowboy actor Ben Johnson’s father once served as foreman.

Saturday evening, after the judging, more than ninety people filed into the Senior Citizens’ Center for fried fish and corn bread and baked beans and iced tea. The fish, pulled from local ponds and creeks and frozen over the preceding weeks, had been contributed by local residents. We sat surrounded by afghan-covered sofas and the neatly hung certificates for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. The program was simple. The president of the Chamber of Commerce offered greetings and then thanked those who had made the occasion possible. Carol Conner explained how the contest came about. The state representative gave a short speech. I said a few words, clumsily, aware of the presumption that had gotten me there.

The author said this Oklahoma town was dying; the people who lived there thought otherwise.

Then they made the awards. The youngest children came up shyly, heads bowed, while their parents smiled and nodded. The teenagers accepted more confidently, proudly. The winner of the grand prize, a daughter of Mr. Ward, lives in Tulsa, and her sister accepted the award. Finally there was a call for volunteers for the “adopt a highway” cleanup program, then the announcement of an ad to be run in the Tulsa paper’s “Over 55” section, proclaiming Shidler a place to retire to, and, finally, a drawing for door prizes.

In the course of the evening I learned that at least two of my former students had relatives among the audience. I also learned how much Shidler resembles the small towns of my childhood—and yet how different it is.