Saturday, 4 October 2014

McAlester: Capitol of Little Dixie

Old McAlester High School. Built 1919.
I grew up knowing only one thing about McAlester: it is the location of the State Prison. I'd no idea I had family members that had live in and around McAlester / Krebs / Alderson even though I'd eaten at fabulous Italian restaurants in Krebs on a number of occasions!

Though most of my family immigrants from Scotland were in Lehigh, Coal County - an apt location for coal miners - several ended up in McAlester, literally (in St. Joseph Cemetery, though we found no markers). 

The last time we visited Oklahoma I spent a few days in Lehigh; this time my goal was the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society. I'm hopeful that many of these societies can be found in locations of interest on my family tree! This particular one was housed in a donated building next to the courthouse. Staffed by helpful volunteers, there was a lot of useful information to dig through.

Coal is still a big industry in the US, though not in the UK.

After finding what I could there - and joining for a year to help support their efforts - we walked to the couple of blocks to the former location of two houses listed in the Census as where my family members lived. We walked, in spite of the heat - in the high 90s - and the fact that the man at the historical society suggested driving. After checking that it was 'safe', which he assured us it was, we ambled along, cameras at the ready. We were reminded that one doesn't walk in middle America when a very sweet young couple in a white pick up pulled over to ask if we were lost... 

Viewing McAlester more generally, I was reminded of my childhood love of l-o-n-g trains.  Also of household names like McAlester's favourite son, Carl Albert and the powerful and controversial Gene Stipe.

Of course I've learned loads more since:

Tom Joad, a character in The Grapes of Wrath, is released from McAlester prison in the early pages. If you never get to visit India or Africa to see poverty, reading this book will give you a taste of it. I think this is a healthy piece of knowledge if only to remind us how wealthy we really are.

Masonic Temple

That SE Oklahoma is called 'Little Dixie' (and McAlester is 'capital' of said area). Southerners settled here looking for a place to start over after the Civil War. Also known as Kiamichi Country, the culture is said to be more Southern here than in the rest of the state. This explains a lot to me about how my Grandmother and my Mom saw things.

Masonic Temple, McAlester, built 1907, remodeled 1950s? (side view)

There are some amazing historical buildings from the interwar period in small town America - far more than we see in Europe, Bill thought.

Old McAlester High School, built 1919.

Bill was amazed by the Masonic Rites Scottish Temple and the Old McAlester High School; also that there were German POWs in McAlester during WWII.   I'm thinking this may have been an 'alien internment camp', which is rather sad, but apparently felt to be necessary.

Plaque says "Built by German POWs in 1943. Donated by VFW Post 1098.

I found Oklahoma and American history mind-numbingly boring as a kid. I thirsted for something more exotic, less familiar. I still can't say I'm fascinated, other than by the bits that fit in with my own family history; so I guess I have to cop to being quite self-centred in this way! 

Thankfully, Bill is happy to accompany me to research my roots in Small Town America. Through his eyes I'm learning to love it almost as much as he does.

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