A Wonderful Place To Live

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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.

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.