When you see an empty structure, it’s easy to say “There’s another abandoned building.”
But what makes a building “abandoned”? Is it orphaned, cast into a wilderness to gradually fall into disrepair, and eventual rubble? Not really. Even structures that have decayed to nothing more than dried wooden frames belong to someone. Someone owns them, knows their history, knows why they inhabit the landscape— and knows why they’re slowly vanishing.
The stories of most of these buildings are probably mundane. Opportunities lost, communities slowly (or sometimes quickly) dwindled.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, approximately 440,000 Oklahomans migrated west during the decade of the Great Depression, but that was not the beginning of the abandonment of rural Oklahoma. A 1919 song famously asked "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?”, referring to the reluctance of young rural men to take up farming following their experiences in the First World War.
Even before the war, rural Oklahoma had been periodically hit with hardships associated with crop failures, weather anomalies, and financial crises like the Panic of 1907— which was happening as Oklahoma entered statehood. All of these things caused folks to become discouraged, and seek new opportunities elsewhere.
With a history like this, it’s no surprise to see collapsing structures as you drive the back roads, or even small isolated downtown areas. The people who built them are departed, and who knows the hopes and dreams they represent?
Since no one knows how long they’ll remain before tumbling into the high weeds, we take pictures. We take pictures and wonder about the stories of all these places we’ll never know, moving through the business of our lives in our houses and towns, which we naively assume will have more permanence.
Audio is excerpted from an interview of Oklahoma migrant worker Tom Higginbotham, recorded at a Farm Security Administration camp near Yuba City, California August 18, 1940 by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin. The collection of their work, "Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941”, resides online at the Library of Congress website.