Two years ago, Oklahoman writers Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money put together a book about the rebirth of Oklahoma City and the undoing of the havoc wrought by the urban-renewal plan masterminded by I. M. Pei. It was called OKC: 2nd Time Around, and Doug Loudenback can tell you all about it here. If you saw that book and thought, “Yes, that’s all very well and good, but what about the first time?” you’ve arrived at the right review.
Larry Johnson, who has been maintaining the Oklahoma Collection at the Metropolitan Library System, has assembled a collection of nearly two hundred photographs from the city’s first seventy years, currently in print as Historic Photos of Oklahoma City (Nashville: Turner Publishing, 2007). One of the most compelling shots is from Day Three — the 24th of April, 1889, two days after the Land Run — showing rows of tents (there were no permanent structures yet) seemingly knocked out of position along the sides of the rudimentary street. This was a legal matter: two different townsite companies were platting the place, and their survey lines didn’t quite match. For decades thereafter, north-south streets downtown had a noticeable “jog” at Clarke Street, later Grand Avenue, now Sheridan Avenue.
More than thirty pages are devoted to that first decade of the city, including a scary shot of a May 1896 tornado, described by the Weather Bureau as “a twisting serpent-like cloud.” This particular funnel did no damage, though a sister storm took out a house and a barn near Britton, then a separate town.
The photos inevitably vary in quality, though their reproduction on contemporary paper is just fine, and Johnson’s chapter introductions and captions capture the spirit of the time. From page 137, here’s a sentence that could just as easily apply today:
Amazingly, the city led the nation with four years of economic gain during the Depression, and four new buildings over 18 stories (including the two tallest) were built during this time.
And it’s not just pictures of buildings, either. In the center of the book is a two-page spread showing Governor Charles B. Haskell and his staff, shortly after the stealthy relocation of the state seal from Guthrie to Oklahoma City in 1910. Construction of the actual Capitol being several years away, Haskell’s office is in the Huckins Hotel downtown. The first and last photos are dated 27 May 1961, and portray a downtown civil-rights march; in one of them you can see Charlton Heston being fitted with a sandwich board proclaiming ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.
This collection will of course be welcomed by history buffs, but it’s not intended just for them. Oklahoma City has always been a place that defied one’s expectations. Historic Photos of Oklahoma City presents the people who made it so and how they did it, in a language that speaks louder than mere words.
(Review copy furnished by Turner Publishing.)