Located in southeastern Oklahoma, Latimer County encompasses 729.12 square miles of total land and water area. Bordering counties are Le Flore on the east, Haskell on the north, Pittsburg on the west, and Pushmataha on the south. With a 1907 population of 9,340, the county was created at Oklahoma statehood and named for James L. Latimer, the Wilburton-area representative in the 1906 Constitutional Convention. Wilburton serves as county seat, and Red Oak is the only other incorporated town.
The countryside is hilly and forested, with the Sans Bois Mountains spanning the northern edge of the county and the western ridges of the Winding Stair Mountains extending into the southern region. Rich coal deposits have been an important economic resource. Fourche Maline, Brazil, and Sans Bois creeks drain the northern part of the county into the Poteau River; Buffalo and Gaines creeks drain the southern part into the Kiamichi River. In neighboring Pushmataha County, Jackfork Creek is dammed to create Sardis Lake, some of which extends into southwestern Latimer County.
Archaeologists have identified 124 prehistoric sites in Latimer County, three of which are of the Paleo-Indian era. Fifty-three are of the Archaic period, 6000 BC to AD 1. The McCutchan-McLaughlin Site (AD 400-AD 800), or Alford Mound, near Red Oak has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 72001071). Much of the prehistoric occupation of the area took place along Fourche Maline Creek from 300 BC to around AD 800.
From 1831 the region lay within the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaw used the area primarily for pasture land. Important Choctaw places included the county seat at Gaines Court House, in the vicinity of present Panola, and Red Oak, site of a council house. A Choctaw grist mill was located at Buffalo Valley. Approximately one-fourth of present Latimer County was allotted to Choctaw individuals, and the county now incorporates parts of Gaines and other counties of the former Choctaw Nation.
Transportation arteries linked this part of the Choctaw Nation with the outside world and profoundly affected the region's development. Whites began to know the area when the Butterfield Overland Mail route was established in 1858. Entering the present county from the northeast, the stages stopped at Edwards's Station near present Hughes, Holloway's Station near Red Oak, Riddle's Station near present Lutie, and Pusley's Station near Higgins.
As in most other Oklahoma counties, transportation routes provided access to outside markets. The opening of coal mines in the 1870s stimulated railroad development in the Indian nations. In 1889-90 the Choctaw Coal and Railway (later Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad and later a part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific line) built 67.4 miles of track across present Latimer County from Wister to McAlester. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway completed a branch line from North McAlester to Wilburton in 1904. In the later twentieth century state and federal road systems served the residents, with State Highways 2 and 82 running north-south and State Highway 1/63 and US 270 running east-west.
The county's early economy was based on coal mining. The principal coal-producing area lay in the northern mountains, in the Choctaw Segregated Coal Lands. By 1895 the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railway operated mines near Gowen, Lutie, and Wilburton. By 1905 mining operations included McAlester Coal Mining Company (from 1897), McAlester Coal and Mineral Company (from 1897), Eastern Coal and Mining Company (from 1899), Great Western Coal and Coke Company (from 1899), and Missouri, Kansas and Texas Coal Company (from 1904), all near Wilburton; Kali-Inla Coal Company (from 1904) near Gowen; Bache and Denman Coal Company (from 1905) near Red Oak; and Le Bosquit Coal and Mining Company (from 1902) and Turkey Creek Coal Company (from 1901), both near Hughes. By 1912 the county had twenty-seven mines working three thousand miners producing five thousand tons per day. In addition, various individuals operated small strip mines. Most of the miners were native-born whites, but an assortment of Europeans, primarily from the British Isles and Italy, Mexicans, and African-Americans also contributed their labor to mining industry.
Latimer County, like Oklahoma's other coal-producing counties, suffered the decline and collapse of the industry in the 1920s due to labor disputes, the rise of petroleum as a fuel, and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. By 1932 only one mine operated in the county, and the mining towns' populations had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent. The county's population was recorded at 11,321 in 1910, peaked at 13,866 in 1920, and fell to 11,184 in 1930. At one point during the Great Depression of the 1930s, 93.5 percent of Latimer County's people were on relief. Federal programs helped them through hard times by providing construction projects such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA)-built Wilburton Municipal Airport, Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built schools at Panola and other communities, and road-paving projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed a park project at the state game preserve, now part of Robbers Cave State Park.
An unusual depression-era venture found a home in Latimer County in 1933 when Spanish-American War veterans established Veterans Colony. This facility allowed former soldiers to build cabins, live there year-round, grow their own food, and socialize. In later years membership was opened to veterans of all wars. Veterans Colony still operated at beginning of twenty-first century.
Limited agriculture had always been practiced in Latimer County, with locally grown vegetables and other products sold to residents of the mining towns. Cotton and corn were also commercial crops, and cattle raising remained important. However, even by 1930, less than half the county's area was under cultivation, and farm tenancy was a problem. In 1930, of 1,386 farms, 869 were operated by tenants. After the coal industry played out, the economy slowly recovered, relying on cattle raising, with lumbering, coal mining (although limited), and oil and gas production supplementing local income. The census recorded 12,380 residents in 1940, 9,690 in 1950, and 7,738 in 1960.
Latimer County has been home to various medical, educational, and recreational facilities serving eastern Oklahoma. In 1920-21 the legislature created Eastern State Sanatorium, a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients; now operated as an Oklahoma Veterans Center, it is located two miles northwest of Talihina. Nearby, the Choctaw-Chickasaw Sanatorium for Indian tuberculosis patients was opened in 1917. Wilburton became the site of Latimer County's hospital in 1960. In 1909 state government created the Oklahoma School of Mines and Metallurgy at Wilburton, placed centrally within the southeastern Oklahoma mining district. In 2000, as Eastern Oklahoma State College, the school was a two-year, liberal-arts institution. Recreation opportunities in Latimer County include Robbers Cave State Park north of Wilburton, where camping and cabins are available. Lake Carlton, five miles north of Wilburton, offers fishing and swimming. The Lutie Coal Miners Museum, in Wilburton, commemorates the region's industrial history.
In the second half of the twentieth century the county's population rebounded, with the census recording 8,601 residents in 1980 and 10,333 in 1990. Of the 10, 692 recorded in 2000, 72.9 percent were white, 18.7 percent American Indian,1.9 percent Hispanic, 1.0 percent black, and 0.3 percent Asian. Among nineteen Latimer County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places are Pusley's Station (NR 72001068), Holloway's (NR 72001070), Riddle's (NR 720001072), and Edwards's Store (NR 72001069) stations on the Butterfield route, the Great Western Coal and Coke Company Mine Number Three (NR 80003269) and the Great Western Building (in Wilburton, NR 80003268), Cupco Church (near Yanush, NR 80003273), Veterans Colony Park Pavilion (NR 88001395), and Panola High School and Gymnasium (NR 88001397).
BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. C. Gideon, Indian Territory, Descriptive, Biographical and Genealogical (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1901). John P. Gilday and Mark H. Salt, eds., Oklahoma History South of the Canadian: Historical and Biographical (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1925). "Latimer County," Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, 5 October 1930. "Latimer County," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. Frederick L. Ryan, The Rehabilitation of Oklahoma Coal Mining Communities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935).
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