Between 2009 and 2011 (two children ago), we seemed to spend every free day roaming Oklahoma, looking for architectural reminders of the past. We estimated that we visited over two hundred towns during that time, winding through country roads and narrow streets. We chased ghosts mentioned briefly in railroad journals to “towns” like Hazel (one community building being taken back by the trees), and other towns still named on maps but with no trace of community left (Boudinot and Etowah, I'm looking at you). We learned how to pronounce names like Hotulke and Econtuchka, and why a town was called Colony and another Corn. We ate a lot of junk food.
In the decade or so since we shot most of these pictures, we've had opportunity to revisit some of our favorites, only to find many gone. Rotten wooden frames can only stand so long once the roof goes, and many structures were already roofless when we photographed them. Now you'd need a metal detector to find them in the weeds.
Other structures fall under the category “too expensive to save”. These are the old bank buildings or hotels you grew up seeing in your hometown, and when they're torn down, it makes you sad. But for one reason or another (expensive repairs, lack of rent, mold, asbestos, et cetera), someone decides they have to go. Then your small town gets another parking lot, or another steel building, and loses another piece of its brief history. The county historical society creates a display featuring pictures of what it once aspired to be.
Pictures like the ones we take.
During the days of film, we would have had to carefully choose what to shoot, and what to leave uncaptured. Fortunately, even eleven years ago, our SD cards had plenty of space. We shot to our hearts' content. We crisscrossed the Sooner State, took pictures, and pondered. What led to this town or that town being built...or abandoned? Many reasons presented themselves: the railroads, the Dust Bowl, oilfield boom/bust, farm foreclosure, war, or even just plain isolation and boredom. However, the most common answer always seemed to be “The Great Depression”. If not for that decade, what would Oklahoma be now? Who would be here? The descendants of Tom Joad?
Roy Turner, Hard Luck Okie. Visalia FSA Camp, 1941.
Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin migrant workers collection (AFC 1985/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress