By Homer S. Chambers1
Townsite promotion and town buiding was a fascinating, widespread, and often remunerative business in Oklahoma and Indian Territory thirty-five to forty years ago. Many firms and persons engaged in it; fortunes were made and lost by it, and scores of Oklahoma towns owe their origin to it.
Some of the earliest and most spectacular townsite promotion activities on the Oklahoma side of the future state were little more than rival townsite fights. Before the opening of the "Cherokee Strip" to settlement, the government had set aside and designated sites for county seats in the new counties to be erected therein. Among the places so designated were Newkirk and Perry on the Santa Fe Railroad and the present towns of Pond Creek and Enid on the Rock Island, the two railroads then crossing the tract to be opened. This action being unsatisfactory to the railroads for the reason that none of such sites were adjacent or near to previously established railroad stations, the railroads commenced booming rival towns adjacent to their established depots—Kildare near Newkirk, Wharton, near Perry, old Pond Creek (now Jefferson), and North Enid. These railroad-backed towns became at once formidable rivals of the government-designated towns. The railroads refused to recognize the new towns, rushing their trains through them at breakneck speed without so much as a whistle, for several months. This engendered bitterness which led eventually to violence and threatened tragedy, on the Rock Island particularly, trainmen being arrested and trains ditched by the enraged and slighted townspeople.
Cross, a Santa Fe promoted town in Kay county, became in the first year after the opening the biggest and most promising town in that county, but a group started a rival town less than a mile down the track at which the Santa Fe train did not even whistle for many months. Eventually this new town (now Ponca City) overshadowed every other town in the county, while Cross is now unknown except as a suburb of Ponca City.
Blackwell, started at the "opening" by a Winfield, Kansas, company of townsite boosters headed by Col. A. J. Blackwell of Claremore, Indian Territory, got off to a good start to become the second city of Kay County, but it early had a bad scare in the way of a rival. A wealthy Arkansas City man, Isaac Parker, organized a company, including some Western Kansas townsite promoters, acquired a site across the river a mile from Blackwell, and proceeded to make an amazing showing as a rival town (first
1The writer wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to the Tulsa World for permission to use a substantial part of this article printed in its issue of June 21, 1936.
called Parker, later Kay Center), erecting brick buildings, and even securing the promise of a railroad (Blackwell had none), with the roadbed practically completed and rails laid from Hunnewell, Kansas, to Braman ten miles north of Blackwell. Then Blackwell closed a contract to bring the Hutchinson & Southern Railroad in from Medford and the "Frisco" from Arkansas City. This "coup" halted construction of the Parker-bound road which was, after some negotiation, diverted from its original course and into Blackwell instead. Whereupon Parker faded from the picture.
The real townsite promotion business, however, was a coincident with the railroad building era which commenced with the turn of the present century. Townsite enterprises on a large scale were quite naturally first adopted by the promoters or builders of new railroads, either as a part of the method of helping finance the road's construction, or as an independent action of individuals connected with the road for personal gain. Such enterprises were operated by, or in connection with, practically every new railroad built in Oklahoma or the Indian Territory.
Originally conducted legitimately, and by the roads as a rule, the success of many such enterprises naturally drew into the business over-zealous and unscrupulous persons and firms, and it became, in such hands, but little more than a "racket." This class, by false or misleading representations in its eagerness to sell lots, brought more or less odium upon all townsite promotion enterprises, which led eventually to a closer scrutiny of such activities by United States and Territorial officials and the weeding out of these unscrupulous promoters.
One of two methods, with slight variations, was used by those engaging in the business. By one method the townsite company purchased a quarter, or half-section of land, as the location and need seemed to warrant, at the place designated by the railroad where it wanted a town. It then platted the land into lots, blocks, streets, etc., gave the place a name, and promoted the sale of the lots and the location of businesses in the new town. By the second method it took options on the land desired and sold the option and townsite rights to individual promoters. In some cases the townsite rights on the entire road or a considerable section of it were sold outright, and the promoter did the locating, purchasing, naming the town, selling the lots, etc.
To cite a concrete example of the working of the chief method employed, consider the Frisco Townsite Company, one of the earliest and largest of the railroad connected companies, and which promoted the townsites on the Blackwell, Enid & Southwestern (now "Frisco") from Arkansas City, Kansas, across Oklahoma to Vernon, Texas; the Denver, Enid & Gulf (now Santa Fe) from Guthrie to Belvidere, Kansas; and the St. Louis, El Reno & Western from Guthrie to El Reno.
This company was one of three units having to do with the location, construction, industrialization, and operation of these roads. The other units were a construction company, charged with actual building operations, and the railroad company, to which passed ownership and operation after roadbed, trackage, and appurtenances were completed. All three companies were officered and managed by practically the same persons. The general officers of all were at Enid.
The townsite company at the peak of its experience had hundreds of employees, agents, and representatives. In the head office were a general manager, sales manager, advertising manager, and industrial department, each with a staff of assistants. (Accounting was handled in the railroad's auditing department.) There were local agents of the company in every town on the railroad line under construction, or to be constructed; sales headquarters were established in several large eastern and southern cities, and scores of sales representatives sought out prospective business men and town lot speculators in many sections of the country. Large quantities of advertising matter—newspapers, magazines, booklets, pictures, etc.,—were mailed out to prospects by the Enid office, or distributed by the sales representatives.
While this company sought industries, businesses, and residents for its towns, it did also emphasize the speculative lure. Its advertising matter and salesmen stressed to some extent the great profits that had at times previously been made on lots in Oklahoma and other towns, with names, dates, amounts, and the like, truthfully given. It also sought to give fair and accurate descriptions of its towns and the properties it offered therein. Mr. Ed L. Peckham, president of the company, as well as vice-president and general manager of the railroad company, would tolerate no deception if he knew it, and any complaint of that nature was promptly investigated and rectified. Every important booklet, or other piece of advertising matter was passed upon by the company's general attorney, Hon. A. G. C. Bierer, former Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice, and any sentence, word, or even comma, that might lend a deceptive twist, promptly received the blue pencil.
The company had thousands of lots to sell, and of course would sell to any one who wished to buy, but agents and salesmen were instructed to urge no one to buy who was not abundantly able to lose the purchase price if made for investment or speculative purposes. As a result of this policy, a large majority of their out-of-Oklahoma sales were made to people of above the average in wealth and influence, and if, as a result, any of these buyers later came on to make a home, or establish a business, it was better for the railroad, for the town, and for the future state.
A favorite method of sales adopted by this company brought hundreds of investors on sight-seeing trips to Oklahoma, some from as far away as the Atlantic seaboard. The company would offer
a certificate good for, say, five lots for $175, and give the purchaser in addition a free round-trip ticket on one of its excursion trains, usually from Birmingham, Alabama, to the particular town or towns to be opened. Besides the lot certificate and free trip to each purchaser, a business building or some other worthwhile property, would be given free to the certificate holders to do with as they pleased. The lots would also be turned over to the certificate holders to distribute among themselves in any manner they might elect. Usually, of course, the free property and all lots would be distributed by a drawing.
In June, 1905, at one of their towns handled under this method (Coldwater, now Hillsdale, on the Denver, Enid & Gulf, northwest of Enid), the 2,000 lots in the townsite were oversold, and some late purchasers, whose money was refunded, were considerably disgruntled, even though they got the free trip from Birmingham and back.
Among those attending this particular opening, were several newspaper men from Birmingham, Atlanta, and nearby cities. They were special guests of the advertising department and sent many columns about Oklahoma to their papers. Enid is in a practically level prairie country, and they made much of the fact that seven sizeable towns were visible from a point near there, and the windmills that could be counted from the top of a building were reported to be legion!
After the opening, the townsite company took as many of these excursionists as cared to go on a special train of "Pullmans" from Enid to Vernon, Texas, as an advertising stunt. This line of the "Frisco" passes through some of the Southwest's most picturesque country. Stops were made at Canton to see an Indian village; at Thomas to see the then-famous Bronson-Nichols collection of Indian and southwestern curios; at Mountain Park in the heart of the Wichita's; at Arapahoe to see the "grand canyons" of Oklahoma; and between Snyder and the Red river they passed over the longest tangent on the entire "Frisco" system—26.75 miles of railroad. One night was spent at Hobart, where they heard the marvelous story of a bare spot of prairie one day becoming a city of 5,000 by the close of another day.
When it is considered that the Frisco Townsite Company was but one among many such agencies spreading information about Oklahoma in those days, does this not account in large measure for much of its rapid urban development?