An incorporated community in eastern Carter County, Gene Autry is situated south of State Highway 53, seventeen miles northeast of Ardmore and ninety-five miles south of Oklahoma City. The town was originally called Lou, but its name was changed three times between 1883 and 1941. Its present designation honors cowboy film actor and singer Orvon Gene Autry, who bought a nearby ranch in 1941.
A store opened just east of present Gene Autry during the 1870s, in what was then the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory. A post office, designated Lou, was established inside the shop in July 1883. The mail room was moved four months later and renamed Dresden. When the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway bypassed Dresden in 1887, residents relocated to the track. They called their new townsite Berwyn. Berwyn developed as a farming community. Early businesses included a feed mill, a flour warehouse, two cotton gins, a grain elevator, various stores, and the Berwyn Light newspaper. The town's population rose from 276 in 1900 to 378 in 1910. That number peaked at 435 in 1920 and declined to 300 in 1930.
Gene Autry purchased the 1,200-acre Flying A Ranch west of Berwyn in November 1941 to serve as headquarters for his traveling rodeo. Berwyn was renamed "Gene Autry" in his honor. An estimated thirty-five thousand people attended the ceremony on November 16, 1941. Those present included Autry and Oklahoma's governor, Leon Phillips. After the outbreak of World War II Autry enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and subsequently sold his Flying A Ranch.
The Ardmore Air Force Base was constructed north of Gene Autry in 1942 and provided jobs. The town's population fell, however, from 227 in 1940 to 110 in 1960. By 1970 only a grocery store and the post office remained open. After increasing to 178 in 1980, the number of residents dropped to 97 in 1990. In 2000 Gene Autry had 99 citizens, at least two stores, and a post office. Most local children attended school in Springer. The old Berwyn school is now the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum. Annual events include the Gene Autry Oklahoma Film and Music Festival and the Gene Autry Oklahoma Jamboree. Ardmore and the Ardmore Industrial Airpark (the former Ardmore Air Force Base) offer employment.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Gene Autry," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 9, 12, 16, 17 November 1941. John W. Morris, Ghost Towns of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977). David Smith, "Gene Autry's Town," Orbit Magazine, Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City) 15 September 1963.
Jon D. May
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