Thursday, 28 July 2011

Coal County, Oklahoma - Day One

Bill adores Small Town America.  Rather than drive the Interstate, he'd far rather meander through every small town along the way.  I normally hate this, time and money being limited and having Things to Do.  This trip, post retirement, was a bit different.  There were financial limitations, sure, but not so much time constraint, having scheduled for said meandering.

In this case, I was the one wanting to visit Small Town America:  Lehigh, Oklahoma, where my Mom was born.  It's in the aptly-named Coal County, with Coalgate as the county seat.  I'd been to Lehigh once briefly but had no time to wander and no plan about what to find.  This time I had a plan. 

We stayed at a Best Western in town about 10 miles south of Lehigh, called Atoka.   That was the only place to stay that Bill could find on the internet; turns out there were many other choices but they haven't all discovered the web yet. 

We obviously were in a good neighbourhood out there on highway 75:  look at our neighbours.

Here I will put in a plug for the Coal County Genealogical Society  (CCGS), not that you need to know about them specifically.  

There is a limit to what can be found on, impressive as it is.  At some point local knowledge is needed and that's where your county historical or genealogical society is at their best.  For $15 a year, CCGS send me a fat newsletter several times a year.  For a donation they'll look up various pieces of information they have on hand, such as the school census records (1918-1968), naturalisation records, baptismal records, and the like. 

Now, Lehigh is practically - but not quite - a ghost town.  In the Census of 2000, the population of this 1.6 square mile town was only 315; back in 1910 there were over 3,000 people there.  The railroads and the coal mining were active back then, with coal production at its peak around 1915. 

So, what did we find to do?   First we (obviously) visited the CCGS, housed in the Coalgate library.  There I found adverts placed in the 1918 Coalgate High School yearbook by my great-grand uncle Charles, originally from Dalry in Scotland near Glasgow.  I found out that he and his brother-in-law, my great-grandfather Patrick, had a hardware store together there in Coalgate. 

Bill reckons this red and white brick building is likely that old hardward store.

Also that Patrick was listed in the Oklahoma Mining Board's Registry; he was a Pit Boss (foreman). 

Great-grandfather Patrick and his crew.

He took his license at age 60 in 1915.  The photograph above was given to me a couple of years ago when we visited another branch of this family in Michigan.

Another grand-uncle on the other side, Atmer, was a Hoisting Engineer (licensed 1920, age 24). 

We also looked through the naturalisation register to see where various ancestors had legally changed their alligiance in the early 1890's.  Queen Victoria's loss, eh?  I bought two heavy volumes of Coal County history which listed some information about my family members who immigrated to Oklahoma from Scotland in the 1880's as well as loads of other information about the county in general.

One of the Coal County history books mentioned that Patrick started the first brickworks in the area, so I took notice of a newspaper article that talked about the town's first brick building (no longer there) and - as Bill pointed it out - the brick road in Coalgate.

Sadly the Coal Miners' museum was not open (museums in small towns often are only open if you can find someone with a key, or call ahead). Vernell, from CCGS, had a key and offered to let us in, but we only had a few hours and the County Courthouse was a higher priority. I hope to go back to the museum one day. Oh yes, Lehigh / Coalgate is going to be visited almost as many times as we've been to Barcelona, Prague or Paris.  We'll have to get some bumper stickers along these lines:

Anyhow, we went over to the County Courthouse and were shown the ledgers of land purchases.  What we found amazed us:  beginning in the early 1900's through the 1940's virtually every page had a listing for one or other of my paternal grandparent's family.  Not that I was in line to inherit.  It was just exciting to see how well my great-uncle John and others prospered.  A very rough estimate suggests he bought around 670 acres, but we've not double checked that. 

You haven't lived until you've had someone read out the details of a piece of land:  the SE quarter of the SW quarter of the NW [giggle] quarter and the East half of the NW quarter [more giggles] of the SW quarter of Section 23, Township 1S, Range 9E.  (I didn't make that up; Bill found those descriptions very amusing.)  Think of an Excel spreadsheet with the townships instead of columns and the ranges instead of rows; each (township) square has 36 sections and each section is a square mile, or 640 acres. 

We were there til the Courthouse closed. It was the highlight of the Coal County trip for me, those land records. It meant that moving all the way from Ireland to Scotland to Oklahoma, leaving behind family, friends and homeland, had paid off for them. 

I just love stories with a happy ending.  Don't you?


Jo said...

In my first job in OK I had to learn about the location of plots of land and file the information in such a way that it could be retreived. Which amounted to keeping the information in section and range. Great fun!

Rick Stone said...

Sometime, before I was born, my Uncle Delmer lived in Coalgate. I'm not sure but that may be where my cousin Jack, who recently passed away, was born. Even years later Uncle Delmer talked about Coalgate.

Also, another cousin and his wife moved to Moyers, in Atoka County. She served many years are the Atoka County Assessor, doing the tax assessments on those houses you posted pictures of.

Anonymous said...

You take this geneaology far more seriously than I ever have. I have driven through Atoka somewhat recently!

Shelley said...

Terry - In the absence of having a job, I find I need to take something seriously! I guess that's my blog and my genealogy, but both are really just for fun. That's what I decided my retirement would be about: fun.

Jo - The ledgers showing purchases (where we spent our time) and sales were straight-forward enough. What blew me away was trying to understand the ledgers that tell who owns what bits now. The girls at Coal County Courthouse seemed to know their way around but I never could get my head around it. At the end of the day, I know my name isn't in those land registers, so it doesn't really matter. I hope something in that county is computerised, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Rick - As unusual as the name Durwood is, I didn't find it in, not in Oklahoma. Maybe they came to Oklahoma after 1930, the last census that is available. There were a few in KS (CA, MN, NY... maybe it's the Delmer that's unusual instead.)

Rick Stone said...

Actually, my uncle was Delmer Dee Stone. He named his first son Delmer Durwood Stone but then for the rest of his life called him Jack. Most folks did not even know Jack's real name until he died.

BTW, Bill has the right idea about getting off the Interstate and using the backroads. You can't see much of this great country from the Interstate at highway speed. Plus you save on fuel cost by driving slower. We've been on the Interstate so far but that ends tomorrow as we meander up through the rest of Iowa and through Wisconsin.